Renowned Jewish scholar Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel Steinsaltz visited Oxford University’s Chabad Society this week to deliver a lecture in honor of Sir Isaiah Berlin, considered by many to be one of the most prominent liberal thinkers of the 20th century.

Not just content with simply presenting a lecture, though, the Israeli rabbi joined a group of students to tour Jewish sites of interest in the city, including the presumed location where Haggai of Oxford, a 13th century convert to Judaism, was executed by edict of the non-Jewish religious authorities. They held an afternoon prayer service at the site.

Steinsaltz also visited the university’s Bodleian Library, which is usually closed members of the general public, to peruse its collection of Jewish manuscripts, including the oldest known copy of MaimonidesMishneh Torah.

But it was the lecture itself, held at Chabad-Lubavitch of Oxford’s David Slager Jewish Centre, that proved the main draw. Approximately 90 students, academics and community members turned out to hear Steinsaltz’s views on Berlin, with whom he corresponded over the years.

Among some of the more-interesting facts Steinsaltz shared with the audience concerned Berlin’s lineage: The late philosopher was descended from the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Speaking about how he admired Berlin for his “clarity of mind and expression,” Steinsaltz described him as “perhaps one of the last intellectuals in England.”

“I’m not saying that after Berlin, there ceased to be a professional intelligentsia,” he reassured the largely academic audience with his trademark laugh and smile. “An intellectual is a person with boundless curiosity. He doesn’t have to be a professor in a university; he could be a shoemaker.”

Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel Steinsaltz delivers the Sir Isaiah Berlin memorial lecture at Oxford’s Chabad Society.
Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel Steinsaltz delivers the Sir Isaiah Berlin memorial lecture at Oxford’s Chabad Society.

Contemporary Critique

Steinsaltz, though, went beyond Berlin and shifted to a critique of contemporary culture. With the proliferation of technology, he bemoaned, has come a decline of faith and religion. The resulting void, he asserted, has been filled by the idols of the past, albeit in different guises.

The rabbi identified western society’s lust for money and power as the modern-day Baal, while banks and trading houses are the temples in which the ancient god is worshiped.

Steinsaltz then provided as a counterpoint Judaism, which he identified as “progressive” and quintessentially opposed to the new paganism.

“Jews have embraced progress and innovation from very early on in their history,” he explained. “It is central to our belief that humanity was created as a partnership with G‑d … to make things better.”

From this point of view, “we’re standing in the same place as our father Abraham,” who rejected the idols and culture of his own surroundings.

He concluded by referring to a disagreement between two 18th century European intellectuals.

“Leibniz said that our world is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire, being his contemporary, thought the opposite, that this is the worst of all possible worlds,” said Steinsaltz. “I say that this is the worst possible world, but there is still hope!”

Audience members were mixed on some of Steinsaltz’s points, but appreciated the rabbi’s push to, in the words of one attendee, “challenge the prevailing status quo.”

“He’s a timeless and reassuring Jewish archetype,” said Erica Steinhaur, a local Oxford resident and alumna of the University. “He clarified a lot of very pressing issues relevant to the world in which we live.”

Chabad House co-director Rabbi Eli Brackman anticipated that the lecture would serve as a model for future Berlin memorial addresses.

“We want to dedicate a series of lectures in celebration of Jewish life and history in Oxford,” explained Brackman. “It isn’t about Berlin’s philosophy, per se. Rather, it marks the fact that Berlin was and still is a figurehead for Jewish intellectual life in Oxford.”