The achievements of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (“Steinsaltz,” 1937-2020) are well known. A towering scholar, author, philosopher and social critic, Steinsaltz was honored with many prestigious awards and academic appointments in recognition of his life’s work, including his revolutionary modern commentary on the entire Babylonian Talmud. He completed a nine-volume commentary on the classic Chabad work, Tanya; a 17-volume edition of the entire Tanach; an eight-volume edition of Maimonides’ Code of Law. His dozens of monographs—published in multiple editions and in eight languages—dazzlingly illuminate the living kaleidoscope of Jewish thought and practice.

To mark the first anniversary of his passing, 17 Menachem Av, corresponding this year to Monday, July 26, Chabad.org presents an in-depth exploration of the intellectual and spiritual journey of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz.)

Some elements of his biography are familiar. He was born in Jerusalem. His parents were Marxists. On the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he changed his family’s name to Even-Israel. But how did young Adin, a rebellious teenager adrift in Jerusalem, morph into an internationally acclaimed rabbi, scholar and educator?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, still from a video taken in the mid 1960s. Much later, in 1989, Steinsaltz was advised by the Rebbe to take a Hebrew surname, and he chose the name Evan-Israel.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, still from a video taken in the mid 1960s. Much later, in 1989, Steinsaltz was advised by the Rebbe to take a Hebrew surname, and he chose the name Evan-Israel.

It all began with a true aversion to ignorance.

Not an elitist aversion to ignorance perceived in others; rather, an aversion to ignorance commensurate with a voracious appetite for knowledge, for immersion in the activity of learning and for the ultimate satisfaction of enabling others to become independent learners themselves.

Though young Adin’s parents had adopted an avowedly secular worldview—an aspirational mix of Marxism and Zionism—they never cut themselves off entirely from their Jewish heritage. His grandmother lived with them in their Jerusalem home and lit Shabbat candles each Friday before sundown. But her daughter, Adin’s mother, never joined her. At the age of 10, he began to study Talmud with a tutor hired by his father, Avraham. “You can be a heretic,” his father said, “but you won’t be an ignoramus.”1

In his early teens, Steinsaltz was enrolled in “Maaleh,” Jerusalem’s elite religious-Zionist high school, where his rare academic aptitude was offset by his inability to conform.2 The modern-day state of Israel had only just been established, and he would later quip that the educational ideal of his parents’ generation was to forge a cross between Maimonides and Spartacus.3

By all accounts, his embrace of religion was entirely spontaneous, catalysed only by a sort of mischievous skepticism that would somehow remain an integral component of his axiomatic faith. As he explained to an interviewer in the last decade of his life:

I was a non-believer. I didn’t accept the non-belief of my family, my parents, my environment … [I was] a deep non-believer, not a simple one … 4

He wasn’t content to doubt the truth of the Torah—as he has been taught—but instead determined that the secular status quo must be subjected to doubt in equal measure. One day, when he was 14 years old, he decided to put on tefillin for the first time in his life. At the age of 15, he dropped out of high school and arrived at the Chabad yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch, in Lod.5

Searching for a Path in Life

At the yeshivah in Lod, the voracious teenager quickly absorbed the tenets of the Chassidic ethos and the deep sense of obligation that comes with living in the presence of G‑d. Until the very end of his life, Steinsaltz would recall the deep impression made on him in Lod by Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman (“Reb Shlomo Chaim,” 1893-1971), who was charged with the spiritual mentorship of the students there.

One anecdote, repeated by Steinsaltz in various forms over the years, may well have been autobiographical:

This occurred during a farbrengen, a Chassidic gathering where participants share words of inspiration, sing searingly soul-searching melodies, and toast each other l’chaim!—“to life!” Life is spirit, but when spirit is imbibed too quickly, it can go to one’s head. Mildly inebriated, one of the students began to weep over the depth of his spiritual malaise, proclaiming himself “worse than all three degrees of impurity described by the Kabbalah.” Reb Shlomo Chaim looked at the student and dryly dismissed his performance; it may have been sincere, but insobriety can sometimes reveal sincerity to be unserious, skin deep: “It is the spirit that is weeping,” he said, “it is the spirit that is crying.”6

Steinsaltz would often cite these words as exemplifying Reb Shlomo Chaim’s ability to distinguish between spiritual truth and spiritual hubris, and his capacity to communicate truth simply, straightforwardly and compellingly.

One of Steinsaltz’s fellow students recalled that his nature was “exactly like his name”—adin, a word that might be translated as gentle, refined or sensitive. “He studied both Talmud and Chassidic literature, prayed contemplatively and at length, and when he would imbibe l’chaim he would weep … Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, our spiritual mentor, was very attentive to him.”7

Though the spirit of the yeshivah would never leave him, the young student remained in Lod for only a few weeks before returning to his parents’ home in Jerusalem. As he turned 16, Adin was adrift. It was 1953, long before anyone was catering to so-called “returnees” to Torah and observant Jewish life (baalei teshuvah). An anomaly within the halls of the yeshivah, he was equally an anomaly on the secular street. His parents weren’t thrilled with his religious turn either. Where was he to go? What was he to do?

Then a letter arrived from across the ocean, from Brooklyn, N.Y. It was addressed to Rabbi Nochum Shmaryahu Sossonkin (1889-1975), one of the leaders of the Chabad community in Jerusalem. It was signed by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1994), of righteous memory—who had assumed the worldwide leadership of Chabad just three years earlier.

The letter reads as follows:

Enclosed is a copy of my letter to the young man, Adin Steinsaltz (Katamon 100, Jerusalem). It is apparent from the letter I received from him that he is sixteen years old and confused about his path in life. Likewise the environment in his home is not all that conducive to the path of Torah. It would be proper that you shall seek an opportunity to meet with him, whether directly or through others who are appropriate for the task, and to extricate him from the confusion and atmosphere in which he is found … I shall await good news.8

In a 1953 letter to Rabbi Nochum Shmaryahu Sossonkin (1889-1975), one of the leaders of the Chabad community in Jerusalem, the Rebbe asked him to seek out a teenager named Adin Steinstaltz, and “extricate him from the confusion and atmosphere in which he is found.”
In a 1953 letter to Rabbi Nochum Shmaryahu Sossonkin (1889-1975), one of the leaders of the Chabad community in Jerusalem, the Rebbe asked him to seek out a teenager named Adin Steinstaltz, and “extricate him from the confusion and atmosphere in which he is found.”

From this document, we learn that the young Steinsaltz had written to the Rebbe in search of direction, and that the Rebbe responded to him in writing as well. Unfortunately, that correspondence has yet to be located and published. In later life, when asked about his first interactions with the Rebbe, Rabbi Steinsaltz was evasive. It seems that these details were too deeply personal to be disclosed.

So we don’t know what Steinsaltz wrote to the Rebbe, nor what advice the Rebbe gave him. What we do know is that from this point onward, he would spend many long hours in Rabbi Sossonkin’s home, which was quite a walk from his own.

Together, they studied Torah Or and Likutei Torah, the two canonical compendia of discourses by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. These are dense and difficult texts that draw on the entire spectrum of rabbinic and kabbalistic literature to saturate the living practice of Jewish life, day by day and week by week, with rich cosmic significance. Above all, these teachings are characterized by the integration of the most highly abstract mystical and spiritual ideas (known in Chabad parlance as haskalah) with the supreme goal of transforming one’s embodied self and the physical world into fitting receptacles for divine illumination.

One witness to these study sessions was Rabbi Sossonkin’s grandson, Avraham, who was only slightly younger than Steinsaltz. On one occasion, Avraham met a friend, Shimon Lazaroff (today Chabad’s head representative to Texas), at the Chabad synagogue in Katamon, and he pointed to a youth sitting alone with a Likutei Torah, entirely absorbed in study. “Do you see this youngster? My grandfather says that he is literally a genius.”9

Later in life, Steinsaltz would dedicate his book, Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew, to “Rabbis Nahum Shmaryahu Sassonkin, Shlomo Hayim Kesselman, and Dov Eliezrov, who many years ago lavished love, time, and patience on one particular boy.”

A New Voice

Over the course of the next few years, while still in his teens, Steinsaltz took courses in physics and mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while simultaneously spending time at two other Jerusalem institutions of higher learning: Chabad’s Yeshivat Torat Emet and the Lithuanian Yeshivat Mir.

At some point quite early on, he began to share his learning with others. Around him a youthful renaissance began to blossom, bridging the cultural gap between the yeshivah, the university and the Israeli street. A group of students from a variety of backgrounds began to meet with him to study Chassidic teachings, including Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Tanya and Likutei Moharan by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Two of the group’s earliest participants, Moshe Shapiro and Rivkah Shinor, would later marry and become renowned educators themselves.10

The group, known as “Shalhevet-Kah,”also began publishing Reshafim, an avant-garde periodical with a sparse aesthetic, which soon caught the attention of Hugo Bergmann (1883-1975), a renowned professor who taught philosophy at Hebrew University. In a 1956 newspaper article, Bergmann described this anonymous publication as heralding an exciting new cultural phenomenon:

No name appears on these pages … and the form of the publication … testifies that the organization is small and has scant resources, without access to the communal funds that aid so many worthless publications. Yet, out of these unimpressive looking pages, a new voice is speaking to us, a new spirit of religiosity in Israel, and it would be well that we should listen.11

A 1956 article by Professor Hugo Bergmann (1883-1975), a well known philosopher who saw Steinsaltz as the voice of a new spiritual and cultural renaissance that deserved to be noted and supported.
A 1956 article by Professor Hugo Bergmann (1883-1975), a well known philosopher who saw Steinsaltz as the voice of a new spiritual and cultural renaissance that deserved to be noted and supported.

On Bergmann’s account, this new voice—which was, of course, the voice of the young Adin Steinsaltz—delivered a withering critique of the dichotomy emerging in Israeli society:

On the one hand, it argued, the secular youth had been educated to believe that the achievement of statehood “will answer all our problems.” Now that this goal had already been achieved, they were left without purpose, culturally and ideologically inert; “a youth may know how to die, but he does not know how to live.”

On the other hand, the argument in Reshafim continued, since the establishment of the state religious life had somehow become separated both from spirituality and from cultural life in the broader sense. “The feeling of life made whole via true service of G‑d—which must fill the entire being of a Jew, without leaving any protruding remnant—has been lost. … The spiritual imperatives of Judaism have turned into a form of vague nostalgia for bygone days, and into hollow cliches that lack any significance … .”

The solution to both of these problems, Reshafim declared, was “to completely break open the institutional confines of the synagogue and to imbue every space with holiness … society, the workplace, the bus. … A new movement must rise up that will unite all our being. Torah shall shine in the world and transform the world into Torah. Torah shall shine in the world and transform the world into divinity. This shall be a new Chassidic movement.”12

From the very outset, Steinsaltz understood that the crisis of Jewish culture was fundamentally rooted in a spiritual and educational deficit. His path began with an aversion for ignorance. But it was gradually expanding into something even more ambitious: a vision for the dissemination of canonical Torah knowledge, together with the dynamism of Chassidic teachings, as the basis for an all-encompassing cultural and spiritual revival. 13

A letter from the Rebbe’s secretariat dated March 19, 1957, recently found in Steinsaltz’s archive, acknowledges the Rebbe’s receipt of five issues of this no-frills publication and extends a request for missing back issues and all future installments, which Steinsaltz promptly sent. The copies sent to the Rebbe, held by the Central Chabad Library in New York, feature the Rebbe's address in Steinsaltz's handwriting. Browsing them it becomes clear that Reshafim was a platform for intellectual and literary experimentation, a sort of laboratory in which Steinsaltz was beginning to try out new ways of thinking about the tensions between religion and science, tradition and modernity, and new way of overcoming those tensions or constructively engaging them, especially through the prism of Chabad thought.

A copy of Reshafim with the Rebbe's address in Steinsaltz's handwriting, postmarked October 27, 1957, held by the Central Chabad Library in New York.
A copy of Reshafim with the Rebbe's address in Steinsaltz's handwriting, postmarked October 27, 1957, held by the Central Chabad Library in New York.

Accessibility as a Vocation

On the day following Rosh Hashanah 1959, Steinsaltz wrote a brief report on his activities to the Rebbe, perhaps as part of a spiritual reckoning at the start of the new Jewish Year. Three days later, the Rebbe penned a response requesting more details, especially concerning “the group of young men and women,” evidently referring to the Shalhevet Kah student group.

At this point, Steinsaltz and his young friends had begun spending time in the Negev, hoping to start a new sort of religious commune. For a time, he also taught mathematics at schools in the region, even serving briefly as the youngest school principal in Israel. The tone of the Rebbe’s letter suggests that Steinsaltz was underestimating his own potential, and that his aspirations were both too vague and too narrow.

Extending his blessing that the coming year would be stamped and sealed for “apparent and revealed good,” the Rebbe went on to emphasize three core axioms that would define the addressee’s mission in the coming years: 1) “True good is that which is in accord with the directives of our Torah.” 2) “Divine providence has gifted you with the capacity to influence those around you.” 3) “There is nothing that can stand in the way of will; all that is required is effort to the point of exertion.”14

A 1969 profile in the newspaper Davar suggests that it was on receiving this letter that Steinsaltz fully embraced the path that the Rebbe had set him on. “He now decided to grow a beard, once and for all to wear a head covering, and dedicated himself to the rabbinate and to writing about matters of religion.” Steinsaltz himself is quoted as saying, “I actually began to draw close to religion after the age of fourteen, but it took years.”15 What began with an aversion for ignorance now morphed from youthful rebellion and voracious spiritual exploration and crystalized into a concrete commitment.

After abandoning his plans to settle in the Negev, Steinsaltz returned to Jerusalem for good, but continued to visit friends he had made in various agricultural communes (kibbutzim). Among both the grassroots and the leadership of Israel’s kibbutz movement, he would become increasingly popular as a partner in ideological debate and dialogue, and as an icon of religious relevance and authenticity.

Most notable among his admirers in this sector was Kadish Luz, the union leader who served as Speaker of the Knesset from 1959 to 1969, and who also introduced Steinsaltz to the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol. Within a few years, they would help launch the project that eventually turned him into an international figure—one that was truly colossal in scope and aspiration.

By this point, Steinsaltz had begun to imagine how he could make accessible to others the experience that stood at the heart of his own religious awakening: a transformative personal engagement with two fundamental, but very different bodies of text. One was the Talmud, a vast and complex compendium of Jewish legal debate and lore redacted in the rabbinic academies of fifth-century Babylonia. The other was the Tanya, a book of Jewish mystical thought authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in 18th-century Russia, whose penetrating psychological twist provides a guide to the existential challenge of being an embodied soul.

For different reasons, both were equally inaccessible to the uninitiated. But for Steinsaltz, they were also equally integral to the construction of a meaningful Jewish culture in the modern era. The obstacles to access would need to be overcome. But how?

In 1961, he wrote to the Rebbe with a proposal to rewrite the Tanya from scratch, “in contemporary language, in Modern Hebrew.” Attached were some pilot samples of text and commentary. Four days later, the Rebbe penned a sharply worded response, emphasizing that the original text must be preserved intact: “While there is allowance for the translation of Tanya into another language … there is no allowance at all to rewrite the Tanya anew.” Instead, the original text should be presented and contextualized with “discussion, questions and answers … brief, or even extensive commentary … written, as you put it, in contemporary language.”16

Though the first volume of the Steinsaltz commentary on the Tanya did not appear till 1989, the project can be traced all the way back to 1961, when the Rebbe affirmed the need for “brief, or even extensive commentary … written, as you put it, in contemporary language.” The final volume was published in 2013.
Though the first volume of the Steinsaltz commentary on the Tanya did not appear till 1989, the project can be traced all the way back to 1961, when the Rebbe affirmed the need for “brief, or even extensive commentary … written, as you put it, in contemporary language.” The final volume was published in 2013.

A personal encounter with such challenging texts as these, the Rebbe pointed out, cannot be attained if the original text is erased in the name of making it accessible. Indeed, such an approach is counterproductive and patronizing; ultimately, it reinforces the assumption that the original text can only be encountered by a privileged elite. It also denies the eternal holiness that such texts inscribe.

The Rebbe went on to explain a further educational rationale that underpinned his guidance: Torah cannot be discovered without exertion. As the sages say, “If someone says, ‘I did not try but I did succeed,’ do not believe it” (Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 6b). The role of an educator is not to ease the learning process to the point that no effort is required on the student’s part. It is rather to provide the kind of tools that will enable the student to exert effort to maximum efficiency, thereby achieving the richest result in the accretion of quantitative knowledge and qualitative wisdom.

This correspondence provided the foundation for Steinsaltz’s commentary on the Tanya, which eventually grew to nine volumes in its original Hebrew edition. The English version is currently being remastered and republished, with Koren Publishers releasing volume three in 2021.

In just a few paragraphs, the Rebbe had provided Steinsaltz with a set of parameters and principles that would define his vocation for the rest of his life. Throughout his career, Steinsaltz would insist that his contribution was not to relieve people of the obligation “to toil in it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). On the contrary, he was enabling many more people to penetrate beyond the surface of these sacred texts and to apply even more effort to plumb ever deeper depths.

The Chein Circle

To understand the next stage in Steinsaltz’s journey from adrift teenager to “modern-day Rashi” we need to return to his infancy. At his circumcision ceremony, back in 1937, little Adin was cradled by Rabbi Avraham Chein (1878-1957), a family friend and Katamon neighbor who was also one of the preeminent Chabad figures in Jerusalem at the time. Among other distinctions, his sister had married the Rebbe’s uncle, Rabbi Shalom Shlomo Schneerson (d. 1926).

In both his writings and in his own person, Rabbi Chein gave powerful and idiosyncratic expression to Chabad’s intellectual and literary legacy. Following the establishment of the state, Rabbi Chein headed the Department for Torah Culture in Israel’s Ministry of Religious Services. Against emerging processes of civic, political and religious compartmentalization, he sought to ensure that Torah would remain a unifying cultural force in Israel specifically and in the post-Holocust world more generally. Daily meetings for Torah study, he argued, were the best means to ensure that the Torah would remain the beating heart of Jewish life, “close to us, to our mouths, and to our hearts.”17

In a 1955 profile, the journalist Avraham Elhanani described the Chein home as a meeting place for “a colorful crowd:”

not only rabbinic sages and elders, chassidim and young rabbis, but also yeshivah students, academics, judges, writers, and professors … a home that stands out for its ability to concentrate the Jewish soul … to strive for a ray of light, for redemption from doubt, for certainty on the wings of the absolute—the infinite.18

One participant in Rabbi Chein’s “salons” was the socialist writer, historian and statesman Zalman Shazar (1889-1974), who would be elected president of Israel in 1963. Shazar was born into a Chabad family from the Minsk region in the Russian Empire, and by his early 20s was deeply engaged with the intertwined existential and political questions of the Jewish past and the Jewish future. Though a confirmed Zionist, the intellectual and cultural milieu of Chabad remained formative, and beginning in the 1940s, he cultivated a deep relationship with the Rebbe, corresponding with him often. When he came to the United States on state business, he made a point of trekking to Brooklyn to see the Rebbe, ignoring those who argued that it would be more fitting for the Rebbe to pay a visit to the president.19 He was also a strong supporter of Chabad institutions and activities in the Holy Land and especially committed to the publication of Chabad texts that remained in manuscript. Shazar’s relationship with Rabbi Chein forms another crucial element in the Steinsaltz backstory.

Steinsaltz was only 20 years old when Rabbi Chein passed away, and it isn’t clear how well he got to know him, yet he would later recall him as an individual who “stamped his impression upon me,” and to whom “I felt a special affection.”20 Perhaps it was Rabbi Chein who first advised him to write to the Rebbe, during his tumultuous teenage years. In any event, the path later trodden by Rabbi Steinsaltz should properly be understood as a direct extension of the “Torah Culture” project pioneered by Rabbi Chein.21

In 1957, on the Shabbat following Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Chein suddenly took ill. A few days later, on the morning of Yom Kippur, he passed away.22 In a eulogy published at the time, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1888-1978)—a significant Chabad scholar in his own right who is best known as the founding editor of the Encyclopedia Talmudit—invoked the classical image of the rose:

Its perfume is eden, and its essential being is beauty; a beauty that does not unsettle nor overwhelm, but which is desirous, quiet and peaceful, a beauty that draws the soul and which satisfies the soul … But now “my beloved has descended into his garden to gather roses” (Song of Songs 6:2). The Midrash comments, “my beloved refers to the Holy One, blessed be He; his garden refers to the world; to gather roses means to withdraw the righteous.”

The great tragedy is that we are unable to comfort ourselves by saying “the sun sets and the sun rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:5). Where is the atmosphere in which such gardens and such roses can grow? Who will bring to us his alternative, who will bring us one to replace him?23

Following Rabbi Chein’s passing, his admirers continued to meet in his home and study classical Chabad texts on a weekly basis. In a letter written at the time to the widow, Mrs. Leah Chein, the Rebbe expressed his gratification on hearing that the home would continue to sustain the spiritual environment that her husband cultivated during his lifetime.24

For the duration of the first year, Rabbi Zevin led these study sessions. Subsequently, the role was briefly held by the head of Yeshivat Torat Emet, Rabbi Moshe Leib Shapiro (1889-1972), before being handed over to a certain young scholar who had recently reappeared in Jerusalem. From this moment on, Steinsaltz would increasingly be recognized for his ability to explain complex and esoteric ideas in an idiom that was both clear and current. He would teach this class—known as “the Chein circle for the study of Chassidus”—for the next five decades.

Shazar, who was then serving as Minister of Education, was the de facto convener of the Chein Circle and frequently consulted the Rebbe regarding what topics and texts should be studied.25 In internal correspondence with Chabad figures such as Rabbi Zevin, the Rebbe would often refer to Shazar simply as “our friend.” Though I haven’t found direct evidence of this, it is hard to imagine that Steinsaltz would have been selected to teach the circle’s weekly classes without the Rebbe’s explicit recommendation. Thus, an avant-garde seeker and scholar, in his very early 20s and still unmarried, was suddenly an informal mentor to some of the most senior cultural and political figures in the country.

On one of his many visits to the Rebbe, Israel’s President Zalman Shazar participates in a farbrengen and raises his glass to the Rebbe. Shazar was a participant in the “Chein Circle” class taught by Steinsaltz from circa 1960 onward, and would become a key supporter of his project to make the Talmud accessible to all.
On one of his many visits to the Rebbe, Israel’s President Zalman Shazar participates in a farbrengen and raises his glass to the Rebbe. Shazar was a participant in the “Chein Circle” class taught by Steinsaltz from circa 1960 onward, and would become a key supporter of his project to make the Talmud accessible to all.

The poet Zelda, who was both the Rebbe’s first cousin and Rabbi Chein’s niece,26 registered her entrancement with Steinsaltz’s classes on Tanya in a note thanking a friend for sending her some flowers:

the gold of the flowers brought festivity into the room, and beauty into the home, and a kind of movement like butterfly wings into the air

— what bounty, what wealth, what freshness —

the young man from whose mouth I hear [a class] on “the Tanya” has a golden beard, like a curly and ethereal chrysanthemum

always, in the presence of beauty is the desire to shed all the externalities, all the crust that has gathered and stuck to the body over the years, and to return to the root, and to return to the essential

for this life is fearfully short, even if it extends for ninety years, and it is beautiful and dangerous, and depressing and joyful 27

Unsurprisingly, Zelda’s prose reads like poetry. These lines also explicate the degree to which her own literary life was enfolded within—and an expression of—the spiritual world of Chabad. For both Zelda and Shazar, and for many others as well, Steinsaltz was uniquely able to form a resonant bridge of meaning that closed the gap between religious and familial heritage on the one hand, and the development of a new Israeli culture on the other.

A letter by the poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky, the Rebbe’s first cousin and a participant in the “Chein Circle” classes, in which she likens Steinsaltz’s “golden beard” to “a curly and ethereal chrysanthemum.” (Hasafranim.)
A letter by the poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky, the Rebbe’s first cousin and a participant in the “Chein Circle” classes, in which she likens Steinsaltz’s “golden beard” to “a curly and ethereal chrysanthemum.” (Hasafranim.)

After Shazar’s election to the presidency, he would sometimes host the Chein Circle in his official residence and always arranged his schedule to ensure he would be in attendance. The following account was included in a 1964 report sent to the Rebbe by Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanov of Tel Aviv:

On Thursday, the 14th of Kislev, Mr. Shazar personally telephoned and invited me to attend the weekly class that would be held on that very day … I arrived, and before my eyes was a scene that I am not at all accustomed to: Around a large table in the salon are seated about twenty well known academicians, including Professor Hugo Bergmann and others. Volumes of Chabad teachings are open before them (the recently published Sefer Maamarei Admor Hazaken) and Mr. Adin Steinsaltz is seated at the head of the table teaching a deep discourse concerning [the kabbalistic doctrine of] the breaking of the vessels etc. Mr. Shazar is seated next to him at the head of the table, and all present are listening intently and also debating with the presenter. It is apparent that they already have some knowledge of Chabad ideas. The young man, Mr. Adin Steinsaltz, adorned with a full beard and sidelocks, has a mouth that issues pearls, explaining the concepts with good reason and logical intelligence … Many of the attendees are taking notes for themselves … as one might at a lecture etc … On a few occasions Mr. Shazar got involved in some of the debates regarding how the concepts are best to be understood …

Several years later, the aforementioned Avraham Elhanani published a newspaper article describing a very similar scene, this time at the home of the deceased Rabbi Chein. After noting the presence of Shazar, Bergmann and others, the writer described their teacher:

A young rabbi with a thin figure and a fine featured face, upon which an expression of youthful naivety glows … he speaks with a humility that borders on bashfulness … Through his thoughtful prism, ancient concepts become vested with the cloak of life … .28

Here, Elhanani has captured the paradoxical quality that would make Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz so compelling to audiences in Israel, and later in Russia, the United States and throughout the world: In his person, in his teaching and in his writings, he combined an unapologetic claim to truth with a cheerful humility that was real and not merely perfunctory. He combined sincerity and seriousness with sarcasm and self-deprecation. In his youth, he was already sagacious, and in sagacity, he retained the playfulness of a youth.

“Portrait of a Sabra as a Young Rabbi,” as published in Davar September 12, 1969.
“Portrait of a Sabra as a Young Rabbi,” as published in Davar September 12, 1969.

By the mid 1960s, word was spreading: The young rabbi with the red beard, transparent smile and bright eyes was a master teacher and a captivating speaker. He frequently appeared on radio programs to discuss culture, religion and Torah literature, and was described by one journalist as “perhaps the most unusual rabbi I’ve ever seen; he speaks in the language of ordinary folk, his mundane conversation is saturated with the most up-to-date sabra slang, and he dresses like a person of culture. Nevertheless, it’s a fact—he is a rabbi.”29

In another early profile, the veteran journalist K. Shabtai (also known as Shabse Klugman or Shabtai Keshev) predicted that “more are destined to write, and to return and write again, about this young rabbi.” One contributing factor to the increasing fascination with Steinsaltz was the fact that he was not raised religious. Another was his apparently seamless synthesis of sacred and secular disciplines, of science and spirituality. As Shabtai put it:

He is well versed in linguistics and archaeology, in botany and history, Talmud and mysticism, Jewish law and the laws of physics, and in kabbalistic wisdom … but his soul yearns especially for Torah, for a page of Talmud with the commentary of the Tosafists and others. One day he … became a faithful Jew in every respect—in awe before heaven and afraid of sin … .30

Opening the Talmud’s Gates

In December 1965, the Lemarhav newspaper, an organ of the left-wing Ahdut Ha’avodah party, reported that a 28-year-old rabbi was soon to publish the first volume of a completely new edition of the Talmud.31 The goal was to bring the Talmud out of the specialized enclaves of the religious yeshivahs and the secular universities, and to transform it into a communal asset, accessible and meaningful to anyone who could read a newspaper.

For the first time ever, this famously cryptic text would be vowelized and punctuated. No longer would the reader need to toil ponderously simply to make syntactic sense of the words on the page. Moreover, parallel to the running commentary by the medieval sage Rashi (1040-1105), and the more challenging glosses of the Tosafists (dating from the 12th and 13th centuries), the page would also be graced with a completely new set of commentaries and study aids addressed to an ordinary Modern Hebrew speaker with no schooling in the study of Torah.

The Talmud would not be in any way abridged, nor would any of its complexities and challenges be circumvented. Instead, all the manifold assumptions and idiosyncrasies that the Talmud leaves unstated would now be explicated and clarified. The new edition was designed to make the original text accessible to the uninitiated.

Despite the youthfulness of the project’s leader, Lemarhav noted that:

Among those actively working to bring it to realization are President Shazar, Prime Minister L. Eshkol, and Speaker of the Knesset K. Luz. The Prime Minister serves as chair of the project’s society, and the Speaker of the Knesset as deputy … According to estimates, the publication of the entire Talmud will take approximately eleven years.32

In actuality, 45 years would pass before the final volume was completed.

1967: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz presents a new volume of his revolutionary edition of the Talmud to President Zalman Shazar, with Knesset Speaker Kadish Luz (seated, center) looking on. In the background is Mr. Avraham Steinsaltz, who had by then taken an administrative role in the Isreali Institute for Talmudic Publications.
1967: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz presents a new volume of his revolutionary edition of the Talmud to President Zalman Shazar, with Knesset Speaker Kadish Luz (seated, center) looking on. In the background is Mr. Avraham Steinsaltz, who had by then taken an administrative role in the Isreali Institute for Talmudic Publications.

Hatzofeh, the religious-Zionist paper, greeted this landmark endeavor with even greater excitement than Lemarhav. A full-page spread provided a detailed overview of all the innovations and advantages of what would quickly become known as The Steinsaltz Talmud. Two illustrations were included: 1) the first page of the first volume of the new Talmud; and 2) a photograph with a descriptive caption, “the author, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in the shadow of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s picture.”33

This detail is not incidental. Correspondence with the Rebbe relating to the Talmud project dates from at least 1962 and possibly even earlier. A letter dating from that year was addressed to Steinsaltz by the jurist Benjamin Halevi, who would be appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel one year later. Halevi pronounced Steinsaltz’s commentary “excellent … opening wide the gates to anyone who wants to study alone, and placing first rate tools into the hand of the teacher.”34 Steinsaltz evidently forwarded this letter to the Rebbe, and it is now held by the Agudas Chasidei Chabad Library in New York.

In 1964, Steinsaltz consulted the Rebbe regarding the design challenges he was encountering. As he later explained:

I had a problem, because the pages were too long. … If I wanted to keep the traditional Vilna pagination, I would have had to make the page so big. … It was the Rebbe who gave me this advice, to keep the pagination but to cut each page in two. I never blamed it on him, but that was his advice. It was very helpful, because you have an answer and you have an authority behind it, so I didn’t care anymore [about] the fact that some people don’t like it … I could say, “ok, the Rebbe supported this, and this is what I have been doing.” I could have. But … my idea was that the Rebbe has enough trouble of his own. I shouldn't put anything on him that I can save him from … .35

It transpired that the design challenge was only the tip of the iceberg. The Steinsaltz Talmud would elicit sharp and unrelenting criticism from two major figureheads of Jewish scholarship, one an American academic, the other a prominent faculty member of the Ponevezh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak.

The former argued that “the intellectual vitality of Judaism is at issue, if Steinsaltz prevails Judaism will lose access to its most valuable resource.”36 While his 253-page critique had absolutely no impact, it does serve to highlight a profound difference between two very prolific scholars; one confused elitist polemics with a defense of accessibility, the other eschewed such politics and successfully opened the vast canon of Jewish learning and debate to all who wish to participate in it.

The criticism emanating from Bnei Brak took a different tack, making its elitism explicit and claiming it as a virtue. Accessibility, it was claimed, would make the sacred profane. This criticism was embellished with accusations of heresy. It was also enmeshed in a much wider effort to sow intercommunal division and to attack those who most trenchantly refused to recognize such division. Though Rabbi Steinsaltz always maintained his independence, he did not make his affiliation with Chabad a secret, and his prominence made him a fitting proxy for the villainization of the movement as a whole.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this affair, which came to a head in the late 1980s, was that the rabbis of Jerusalem’s most authoritative bastion of religious zealotry, the Edah HaChareidis, ultimately refused to join the heresy hunters.

As recounted by Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, former secretary of the Edah, at a meeting convened to consider the accusations against Steinsaltz, the venerable Rabbi Binyomin Rabinovitch (1912-2002) rose to defend him and assert the Edah’s independence. Describing the remarkable trajectory of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s life, and his extraordinary achievements as a disseminator of Torah, Rabbi Rabinovitch declared that such an individual deserved respect and legitimation. He also gathered testimonials of the profundity with which Rabbi Steinsaltz prayed, especially on Shabbat, when he would customarily pray for many hours with the contemplative fervor that is particular to Chabad.

“We have a tradition,” said Rabbi Rabinovitch, “that it is indeed possible for great Torah scholarship to be achieved by someone whose heart is foreign and who only pays lip-service … . But greatness in the arena of prayer, pouring one’s heart out before the Master of the world, cannot find its way into a foreign heart.”37

‘Chabad in the Doctrine of Chabad’

In the same note in which the Rebbe advised Steinsaltz regarding the new Talmud’s design, he also responded to a request regarding a different publishing project. A year or two earlier, Shazar had floated the idea of publishing a collection of articles on the life and work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, to mark 150 years since his passing at the start of 1813. The Rebbe had voiced his encouragement, and the task had inevitably fallan to Steinsaltz to realize.

Though this effort was beset by various delays, with the Rebbe pointedly asking Steinsaltz when it would finally be completed, in 1969, it resulted in a fascinating volume, titled Sefer Haken. Its contributions range across the genres of bibliography, psychology, metaphysics, history, literature, graphology and memoir. Among the more surprising contributors were the Israeli writer and poet Miriam Yalan-Shteklis (memoir) and the Israeli-American academic Amos Funkenstein (metaphysics). Funkenstein was actually a lifelong friend of Steinsaltz, and they would later co-author a book titled The Sociology of Ignorance.

Sefer Haken, edited by Steinsaltz and published by the Chein Circle in 1969, this collection of articles on the life and work of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady ranged across the genres of bibliography, psychology, metaphysics, history, literature, graphology, and memoir.
Sefer Haken, edited by Steinsaltz and published by the Chein Circle in 1969, this collection of articles on the life and work of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady ranged across the genres of bibliography, psychology, metaphysics, history, literature, graphology, and memoir.

Two contributions from the pen of Steinsaltz himself demonstrate his own immersion in the mystical teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, and attest to his preoccupation with their spiritual, psychological and literary significance, along with his ability to articulate that significance in contemporary terms. Rather than probing specific formulations found in particular texts, he is instead a master synthesizer, assimilating a vast array of sources and presenting a systematic account of the picture that emerges from all of them.

Cleverly titled “Chabad in the Doctrine of Chabad,” the first of these articles provides a synthetic overview of the particular understanding of the cognitive faculties of the human psyche that emerges from Chabad teachings; Chabad being an acronym for chochmah, binah and daat—usually translated as wisdom, understanding and knowledge.

The second article is essentially a review essay focusing on two volumes of R. Schneur Zalman’s discourses that had recently been published from manuscript. But it encompasses a comprehensive discussion of the various genres in which his Chassidic teachings were transmitted and preserved, and also includes a broad survey of various topics that the new publications bring into focus. Particular attention is given to the problem of evil and its emergence from the divine, as well as to the use of parables as a means to simultaneously speak and be silent.

All this is to say that the young Rabbi Steinsaltz was a prolific multitasker. He was deeply engaged in two very different scholarly enterprises that encompassed whole fields of knowledge, and at the same time was giving weekly classes in person and on the radio that successfully engaged the broader Israeli public. While profiles and interviews with Steinsaltz often appeared in the press, he was also publishing articles in scholarly journals, such as Tarbiz and Iyyun. He took up thorny research questions concerning obscure elements of rabbininc literature in the former and explored elements of Chabad’s theorization of consciousness and affect in the latter.38

As a Being Marked by Fire

Back in 1959, Steinsaltz was still contemplating a career as a math teacher and school principal in the Negev Desert. But things changed very rapidly. At every stage, a single individual had guided his path, sometimes directly, sometimes through intermediaries, but always with a clear eyed vision of the immense contribution that this young man could uniquely make. In an explicitly autobiographical comment, Steinsaltz later remarked that in the 40 years of the Rebbe’s leadership:

He created people, he forged people, something that is in a way unbelievable … [for example] I knew something about the Rebbe from a very young age … .39

Steinsaltz would also characterize his relationship with the Rebbe as “perhaps a very complex one.” He would speak of the Rebbe as a teacher, father and king, emphasizing that such a combination creates the paradox of understanding and mystery, closeness and distance, love and awe:

I was always trying to understand him. I watched him for years, not only talking with him but also watching him and thinking about him.40

As 1969 came to a close, this relationship had been developing for at least 17 years—more than half of Steinsaltz’s lifetime—and yet he had never met the Rebbe in person. The Rebbe had never visited the Land of Israel, and Steinsaltz had never gone to New York.

The 10th of Shevat, 5730 (1970), was approaching. The date would mark the 20th anniversary of the passing of the Sixth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950), and the completion of the Rebbe’s 20th year of leadership. For Jews all over the world, this major milestone would be an opportunity to take stock and celebrate the Rebbe’s achievements, expand on those achievements, and share the celebration and the inspiration with others.

Among the many features and reports that appeared in the Israeli press to mark the anniversary celebration were two substantial articles penned by Steinsaltz, appearing simultaneously in Haaretz and Maariv. Here, I will quote just one passage from the latter, which perhaps best encapsulates the revolution that Steinsaltz himself had been so much a part of:

Twenty years is practically the lifespan of a generation. In the span of these twenty years a new generation has been born and raised, and the world in its entirety, and especially the Jewish world has undergone immense upheavals. And in the twenty years of his leadership the Rebbe of Lubavitch has successfully given a new weight and new ring to the name “Chabad.” Chabad Chassidism is no longer a subject found in history textbooks, it is now a living movement that pours out new life in all places where Jews are found … Throughout the Jewish world are scattered thousands of individuals whose bond with the Rebbe of Lubavitch is for them the gateway to spiritual rejuvenation … Certainly, this fact has been realized through his many chassidim … But the ultimate foundation of this phenomenon rests on two pillars: On the great spiritual edifice of Chabad Chassidism—its literature, melodies and ideas—on the one hand, and on the shoulders of the son of the rabbi of Ekaterinoslav [i.e. the Rebbe]. One who became an electrical engineer in France, one who was a closeted Talmudic genius for many years, is the Lubavitcher Rebbe of our time.41

Remarkably, Steinsaltz penned this tribute—which goes on to describe every facet of the Rebbe’s activities and teachings in sweeping yet exemplary detail—without having once been in the Rebbe’s presence.

But that was about to change. From Jerusalem, President Shazar dispatched Steinsaltz as his personal emissary to communicate his congratulations to the Rebbe. Steinsaltz insisted on traveling to New York by ship, saying he needed the time to prepare for this momentous and long awaited encounter. The Rebbe honored him publicly in his role as Shazar’s representative, and also received him for a private meeting (yechidus). Following the festivities in New York, the Rebbe addressed a letter to Shazar:

Special thanks for the great pleasure, satisfaction, and honor that you afforded me through sending your personal emissary here, that is, Rabbi Adin—in addition to thereby having the opportunity to get to know him personally.

And then the Rebbe wrote the few words that Steinsaltz later chose as his epitaph:

I found in him qualities that are even greater than what was told to me and written to me.42

Steinsaltz opened his book My Rebbe with the following reflection:

The first time I met the Rebbe, I felt his intense personality—and his almost complete otherness. It seemed he was attuned to a higher outlook: his intensity was exceptional and created the same burning passion within me that it had with thousands of others. Many who stood in the Rebbe’s presence came away feeling that they had been branded, as a being that is marked by fire and set aside; so it was with me.43

* * *

In Shvat 5730, January 1970, Adin Steinsaltz made his first visit to New York as President Zalman Shazar’s personal representative to the Rebbe. Here Steinsaltz, right, approaches the Rebbe to receive a small bottle of vodka. He also was received in a private audience by the Rebbe, who subsequently wrote of him “I found in him qualities that are even greater than what was told to me and written to me.”
In Shvat 5730, January 1970, Adin Steinsaltz made his first visit to New York as President Zalman Shazar’s personal representative to the Rebbe. Here Steinsaltz, right, approaches the Rebbe to receive a small bottle of vodka. He also was received in a private audience by the Rebbe, who subsequently wrote of him “I found in him qualities that are even greater than what was told to me and written to me.”

Leaping across the five-decade interval between that face-to-face meeting and the present, the pioneering mission to “let my people know” has blossomed and flowered. But it is far from complete. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) left behind a vast library of resources, opening the gates to the garden of Torah to all who wish to enter. But the fecundity of his pen and his spirit was always too exuberant and ambitious to be exhausted in a single lifetime. And so his work continues, with the Steinsaltz Center planning on releasing many unpublished works in the coming years.