Adin Steinsaltz was a key protagonist in a millenia-long debate
within Judaism: Should access to its core texts be confined to an
elite or to the masses? Is Judaism about conservation or
innovation? What makes a rabbi ‘great’?
by Anshel Pfeffer
Since the death in Jerusalem of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz last Friday at the age of
83, a debate has been raging in a corner of Jewish social media over who was
bigger, Steinsaltz or Rabbi Elazar Shach, who predeceased him by 19 years.
A bit of background for the less initiated. Both rabbis were Talmudic scholars
and educators. Shach, who died in 2001 at the age of 102, was born in
Lithuania and had studied and taught at the fabled pre-war yeshivas there
before emigrating to Palestine during World War Two. Over the next half a
century, Shach became the central figure in the rebuilding of the “Lithuanian”
(non-Hassidic) yeshivas, widely (though not universally) considered the elite
of ultra-Orthodox scholarship, and, through his position as co-chairman of
the Council of Torah Sages, the most powerful leader in Haredi politics.
Steinsaltz, in contrast, was born into a secular Israeli family in Jerusalem.
The son of a Communist volunteer with the International Brigades in the
Spanish Civil War, he drifted towards Orthodoxy in his teens, studying Torah
in Chabad yeshivas, but also sciences at the Hebrew University.
While Chabad, as they do, have been eager to pronounce him one of their
own, as he was close to the movement and wore Chabad-style suits and
squashed fedoras (though unlike most Chabadniks, he usually wore a blue,
instead of a white shirt) he operated independently and the students in the
schools and yeshivas he founded tend to come from a more mainstream
modern Orthodox or national-religious background, attracted by Steinsaltz’s
unique blend of worldliness, scholarship and neo-Hasidism.
The two rabbis were of different generations and lived and worked in almost
totally different spheres. Their paths would never have crossed (in fact, I’m
almost certain they never actually met) if it wasn’t for Steinsaltz’s life’s work,
the reason he was so celebrated in life and death, including a New York Times
obituary: his translation/commentary on the Talmud.
In 1965, Steinsaltz embarked on a vastly to render the
1,500 year-old jumble of unpunctuated Aramaic and Hebrew covering 2,711
double-sided pages accessible to less experienced scholars by translating it
into modern Hebrew, and then into English and other languages. He
completed it in 2010.
The reception to the Steinsaltz Talmud was mixed. While it was wildly
popular among students and many rabbis from diverse sections of Orthodoxy
praised it, the hardcore of the “Lithuanian” elite shunned it. The most
vociferous among its critics was Shach, who wrote in 1989 that “by its study,
all spark of holiness and faith is removed.” He recommended its volumes be
consigned to the geniza, the repository for worn-out religious texts, and that
it be prohibited from study and even from being physically allowed in
Shach’s vehement opposition was probably based on a number of factors. The
“Lithuanian” system of Talmud learning sanctifies the hard labor of
deciphering every word, its subsequent permutations and sequences, and
idealizes a lifetime spent in study. It’s an elitist form of scholarship, that seeks
to keep those not who are not cognoscenti out. But it’s also a very natural
instinct, because the study of sacred texts often invites exclusivity, and
because the rigorous study routine sifts out unsuitable and inadequate
Then there were Steinsaltz’s modern flourishes, the little footnotes on matters
of language and nature, added on the margins of his volumes. And then of
course there was politics.
Someone had told Shach that Steinsaltz was a Chabadnik. And while his style
of commentary was uniquely his, a fusion of many Jewish and even nonJewish traditions, even the whiff of Chabad was enough to raise Shach’s hackles. He saw the Brooklyn-based Hassidic movement, with some justification, as a dangerous messianic cult. To Chabadniks who indeed
claimed the last Rebbe was the Messiah, Shach famously responded: “Total heresy. Those who say so will burn in hell.”
His demand to censor any mention of Chabad and its leader, the Lubavitcher
Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson from the pages of Israel’s official organ
of Haredi Jewry, the daily Hamodia newspaper, brought about a schism in
the 1980s within the Agudat Yisrael party, which had represented the
interests of ultra-Orthodoxy from before Israel’s foundation. Shach’s demand split the Hassidic rabbis, who refused to ostracize Chabad, and their Lithuanian counterparts, who left and formed their own newspaper and political party.
The schism would be short-lived; by 1992 they would once again run in the
same Knesset slate as United Torah Judaism, but officially they remain
separate parties and the controversy still rankles, especially among the
Chabadniks, who continue to resent the way Shach tried to cut them off.
Steinsaltz, who through his life was resolutely apolitical, had nothing to do
with any of this. He thought Shach’s criticism of his work was fueled by his
anti-Chabad animus, but it’s very possible that even without it, the
Lithuanians would have opposed him. Nevertheless, this week, when he was
widely eulogized, it was Chabadnik wags who tweeted, asking which series of
books had more readers, Steinsaltz’s Talmud, or Avi Ezri, Shach’s
dissertations on Maimonides’ Mishne Torah.
It was a silly provocation. A bit like trying to gauge the influence of Albert
Einstein and J. K. Rowling by comparing their book sale figures. Steinsaltz’s
work was intended to popularize and democratize Talmud study, while Shach
was only ever interested in writing for a small group of elite scholars in
Lithuanian yeshivas. And besides, his literary output was not his main
Shach was no innovator. In fact, innovation was antithetical to his ideology.
He was devoted to rebuilding, reinforcing and preserving the insular world of
the Lithuanian yeshivas, gate-keeping them against modernity and secular
enlightenment. After their destruction by the twin forces of Nazism and
Communism, it seemed a forlorn hope.
In the new Jewish state, there were only a handful of yeshivas who kept the
ethos and a few hundred students. Founding prime minister David BenGurion was so certain they were destined to soon die out that he agreed to
exempt the students from military service.
But Shach and his colleagues proved Ben-Gurion wrong. Shach was to
become the most influential in the small group of rabbis who built what today
is not only the largest fraternity of Torah scholarship in history, but also the
ideological vanguards of an independent and politically powerful Haredi
autonomy in Israel, as well as similar autonomous communities in the United
States and Britain.
Who was bigger, Shach or Steinsaltz? That depends on your yardstick for
greatness. Steinsaltz single-handedly opened up the Talmud to popular study.
Shach was pivotal in causing a seismic change in Israeli and Jewish society.
Both men’s work will have implications for generations, perhaps centuries, to
The Shach-Steinsaltz controversy is not really about Chabad, it’s not even
about the older conflict between Hassidim and the more cerebral mitnagdim
(opposers) of the Lithuanian tradition, which stretches back two and a half
It is the oldest dispute in Jewish history, echoing back as early as the Bible,
between those who insisted that the ancient tradition could only be protected
by isolating it from the world and its influences, entrusting it to priestly and
scholarly castes, and those who believed it would only flourish out in the open
where as many students as possible could enjoy it. For all their comparative
greatness, Shach and Steinsaltz were just two more avatars in a never-ending
As taken from, http://www.haaretz.com