Reflections on an association with a talmudic scholar
by Howard Selznick, Correspondent
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the Rashi of our time. He is the greatest talmudic scholar of our generation, if not the last 1,000 years. Arthur Kurzweil's latest collaboration with Rabbi Steinsaltz certainly makes that seem so.
Kurzweil also compiled many of the Steinsaltz's articles and essays in several books for which Kurzweil also wrote the introduction ("The Strife of the Spirit," "On Being Free" and "We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?" to name a few).
A long-time devotee of the rabbi, Kurzweil has written a rambling account of conversations while traveling with the rabbi during his visits to the United States, often to promote his Talmud translation and commentary. Steinsaltz travels extensively around the world, lecturing on a variety of Jewish topics. When he is in New York, he becomes the rabbi's chauffeur and likens that job to driving a rock star around town to his various gigs. The book is also a rambling account of Kurzweil's own travels as an author, editor and teacher.
If there were a rabbi Steinsaltz fan club, Kurzweil would be its president. He is always grateful and blessed to be able to talk with the rabbi, and rejoices that he has at last found a Teacher (with a capital "T").
The book is loosely organized around five topics: how Kurzweil got his job as the rabbi's driver, Talmud, Kabbalah, teaching and learning and continuing to find your Judaism. Those topics are arranged in approximately chronological order from when Kurzweil first encountered the rabbi's work (early 1980s) to last year. Early on, he was captivated by Steinsaltz's best-known book, "The Thirteen Petalled Rose," and quotes from it extensively.
There are numerous digressions and midrashic stories on a variety of topics such as:
• Smoking. Steinsaltz is a pipe-smoker and quits every Pesach.
• Childrearing and education. Teach children things that don't need to be unlearned, such as God is an old man with a white beard who sits in the sky.
• Studying Talmud. "Let my people know" is the motto of his Talmud commentaries. He wants people to encounter the Talmud, not just read it.
• Kabbalah. "Kabbalah is the official theology of the Jewish people," Steinsaltz says in his efforts to rescue Kabbalah from obscurity.
• Spirituality. Today's lack of spirituality may be a relic of 19th century rationality, when spirituality was taboo and confined to charity.
It should not concern the reader that these topics seem randomly scattered throughout the book; after all, that's the way the Torah and Talmud are organized. Steinsaltz compares the Talmud to a vast sea that has no beginning or end; you just jump in anywhere. Of course, he doesn't say that if you don't have a good teacher or navigator, you may float aimlessly forever. Kurzweil's chronicle makes a case for having Steinsaltz as that teacher.
The book is not a biography, but offers snippets of the rabbi's life; for example how he hated elementary school and high school so much that he left at age 15. There are also a few snippets of Kurzweil's life, including his transformation from an almost completely alienated and assimilated Jew to one trying to get in touch with his faith, primarily through genealogy and magic.
This work provides an excellent introduction to Steinstaltz's work and writings. For those curious about the large volumes of Talmud in their synagogue's library (they may be the Steinsaltz editions), this book is a good place to start satisfying that curiosity.
Reviewer: Edward Hoffman, Ph.D. ON THE ROAD WITH RABBI STEINSALTZ By Arthur Kurzweil San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006, 278 pp., $24.95
Israel’s Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is justifiably famous as a leading Jewish thinker today. Best known for his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, he has written more than a dozen acclaimed books on such topics as Jewish prayer, Biblical figures, and especially Hasidic theology and mysticism. Rather than a popularizer, he has eruditely presented Judaism’s classic texts to those today typically lacking the yeshiva background and training to grapple with them effectively on their own.
Among those whom Rabbi Steinsaltz has personally inspired is Arthur Kurzweil, a highly-respected figure in American-Jewish publishing for the past generation. A Long Island baby-boomer raised in a non-religious home, he initially sought wisdom from such counter-cultural icons as Richard (“Ram Dass”) Alpert before encountering Rabbi Steinsaltz’s mystical treatise, The Thirteen Petalled Rose. The rest, as they say, is history.
That particular book, and others that flowed from Rabbi Steinsalt’z incisive mind, convinced journalist Kurzweil in the early 1980s to devote himself professionally and spiritually to Orthodox Judaism–and to become a volunteer-assistant to Rabbi Steinsaltz on his frequent lecture-tours throughout the United States.
Brimming with lively anecdotes, On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz chronicles their twenty-five friendship. Writing with enthusiasm and wit, Kurzweil not only provides a vivid portrait of Rabbi Steinsaltz the man, but offers an exciting narrative of what it means to be on a quest for authentic Jewish spirituality today.
For example, Kurzweil as a baal teshuvah recounts his soulful decision to wear a kippah in public all the time, and his successful effort to transcend the vexing shallowness of American Judaism by finding inner nourishment in the Talmud and other sacred texts. In so doing, he became a tireless speaker, writer, and editor of Judaica still active today. Kurzweil aptly quotes Rabbi Steinsaltz’s key lament that, “For many Jews, being Jewish is something like a hereditary malady. They just have it. Some are slightly embarrassed about it, and some are actually ashamed. For others, it is a perplexing experience. here are very few for whom being Jewish is a source of pride.” Clearly, Arthur Kurzweil is one of these few–who has actualized his friendship with Rabbi Steinsaltz into a dynamic spiritual force that resonates in this book.
More than just a portrait of a renowned rabbinic scholar and educator, On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz is a joyful affirmation of Jewishness in today’s world—-and a refreshingly honest and warm-spirited account. There is no sarcasm, bitterness, back-biting, hyperbole, or self-aggrandizing here: rather, a wonderful true story of spiritual learning, bonding, devotion, and growth. All American Jews can benefit by reading this disarming book.
Jennie Cohen, Editor & Publisher (The Jewish Post & Opinion)
I rarely find time to read a book from cover to cover. I usually start to read a book and get distracted by other reading for the P-O, which has more pressing deadlines. First I read our regular columnists and then I spend my time reading for news and other interesting articles to include in the paper.
That changed this week. An uncorrected proof copy of a new book by Arthur Kurzweil arrived. It will be published by Jossey-Bass in September. The book was so fascinating that once I read the title and first few pages, I couldn’t put it down. It is called On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom.
The book is a compendium of stories, many of which begin with Kurzweil greeting Rabbi Steinsaltz as he comes out of customs at the JFK airport in New York. The stories contain questions that Kurzweil asks Steinsaltz as he chauffeurs him to and from speaking engagements as well as the responses to those questions. Sometimes Kurzweil gets to sit in on the meetings and appointments with scholars, rabbis, and other well-known Jewish leaders.
It is exciting to read this partly because Kurzweil describes those meetings so well, one feels as if he or she is sitting there, too. Besides many new stories, also included in the book are several stories that have been handed down for generations in the Jewish tradition of teaching life’s lessons through storytelling. It is good to hear them again with slightly different wording. Interwoven between the stories are excerpts from different books by Steinsaltz that not only relate to the subject at hand but also add additional information to it. Many of the excerpts are from The Thirteen Petalled Rose, which Kurzweil says he has read about 50 times.
In the book, Kurzweil shares advice from Steinsaltz on a wide spectrum of topics not only about Jewish law and theology but also subjects such as how to talk to one’s children, when it is time for a couple to divorce, and how to pray. Kurzweil does an amazing job of taking complicated teachings from the Talmud and spelling them out in easy-to-understand language. Steinsaltz teaches partly by living his teaching in how he treats people.
Kurzweil describes a variety of situations in which the two find themselves together. Whether dealing with a waiter while at dinner or talking to a famous Jewish author, Steinsaltz seems to have an infinite amount of patience to meet people on their level and relate to them. It doesn’t matter if they are young students, well-established senior rabbis, male or female, rich or poor, Reform or Orthodox.
In between the lines, another beautiful dynamics besides the author’s devotion to Steinsaltz and deep love of God comes across. It is Kurzweil’s love of Judaism, which he does with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might. At the end of the book Steinsaltz acknowledges Kurzweil’s growth since they first met. Even though this book is about Steinsaltz, and the author may be comparing himself to this great teacher, I don’t think Kurzweil gives himself as much credit as he deserves for the great teacher and writer that he is. In one story titled, “Sometimes Small Things Are Big,” Steinsaltz was asked to speak at a university. The talk was not publicized, the location for it was a good distance from the center of campus in a remote building, and it was scheduled on the first day of classes. Only three students showed up. Twelve years later a religious man approached Steinsaltz on the street in Chicago and asks him if he remembers the time he lectured to only three college students? The man goes on to say he was one of the three and that evening changed his life.
It’s too early to tell if this book will have so profound an effect on me, but it did make my life a whole lot sweeter. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a book this much and it will probably a long time until another classic like this is published.
'On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz' By Rabbi Jack Riemer
Published: Thu,June 22,2006 12:25PM EDT
"On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with A Man of Wisdom," by Arthur Kurzweil, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2006, 278 pages, $24.95
We live in a cynical age. Many of our leaders have turned out to have clay feet, and so we have learned to trust no one.
And so this book is unusual. It is written by someone who is not embarrassed to call himself a disciple. Arthur Kurzweil is the disciple and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is his hero. And this book is his account of his experiences, serving as the rabbi's gopher and 'baalagoleh' (driver).
The title: "On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz" is a takeoff on Charles Kuralt's book, and like that book, it tells us much about the narrator, as well as about the subject. For some 25 years now, Arthur Kurzweil has been serving as an assistant to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He started out as his driver, picking him up at the airport at five in the morning each time that the rabbi arrived from Israel. And over time, he has graduated from being his driver to being his publisher, his interpreter to students, and his friend. And in this book, he tells some of the things that he has learned along the way, while chalking up thousands of miles taking his teacher to lectures, to meetings, and on all kinds of highways and byways.
Having a guru can be dangerous, as we all know. Gurus have the power to take over your life and to control it. And yet that has never happened in this relationship. Rabbi Steinsaltz has remained a friend, one who is concerned with his student's welfare, who is available to offer advice when asked, but who respects his autonomy and seeks no power.
Early on in this book, Arthur Kurzweil quotes a statement by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi that explains why. Reb Zalman says: "A Rebbe is not someone who stands between the Hasid and God. The Rebbe is not the person who makes the connection between the individual and the Almighty. The Rebbe is the one who goes underneath the student and pushes him up." I like that definition. To be a Rebbe is not to stand aloof and not to be the sole conduit to God, but to be willing to get underneath the student in order to push him up towards God. The student still has to do the reaching, but the Rebbe is there, to give him a lift and help him get to the heights he wants to reach. This is a description of the Rebbe-chasid relationship that shows respect to the autonomy of both.
This book makes clear that his relationship with Rabbi Steinsaltz has transformed the life of the author. At a time when most of the Jewish teachers that he sought out only spoke to his mind, he found in him someone who spoke to his soul. While others gave him books that were collections of facts or explanations that felt trivial, Rabbi Steinsaltz has given him answers, and questions too, that helped him understand why this Jewish thing was so important that people were willing to give their lives for it down through the centuries.
Rabbi Steinsaltz's ideas spoke to the questions that were central to his life: "Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is my life all about?" He learned from him how to see himself, not as a body that has a soul, but as a soul that has a body. Arthur Kurzweil writes without embarrassment about how his teacher has changed his life; "He has helped me understand the purpose of religious observance, and changed me from thinking that there were too many commandments to knowing that every commandment is really an opportunity to connect with God. He has helped me understand how to develop a personal relationship with a God I can't conceive of. He has shown me how to deal lovingly with Jews of all backgrounds and all levels or religious observance. He has helped me see how to live a religious life without having to isolate myself and how it is possible to be religious and yet live fully in the world. He has taught me that one does not have to abandon one's intelligence in order to believe in God. As he says: 'I never saw it written anywhere in the Torah that to be religious one has to have a lobotomy'. And he has shown me that one can be religious and still have a sense of humor." That's quite a list, isn't it?
In this book, Arthur Kurzweil tries to document how he learned each of these things during his years as the Rabbi's baalegoloh, and tells us some of the other bits of wisdom that he picked up along the way.
I came away from this book with two insights. One is that, in an age where there is so much cynicism and opportunism, in an age in which people flit from cause to cause, and in which "what are you into this year?" is frequently heard, it is heartening to read the story of a person who has stayed loyal to the same teacher for more than two decades.
Of course there are dangers to being a disciple. Having just one teacher can be constricting, confining, narrowing. But there are blessings to having just one teacher too, —provided you have the right one. And Arthur Kurzweil seems to have found the one who is right for him, the one who has shown him how to open the gate to wisdom that is meant for him.
The second insight I derived from this book is the need for all of us to develop the sense for the sacred. What does it mean to be religious? Without being oversimple, I think that it means to have a sense for the mysterious that lies within the obvious. And what is the opposite of religion? It is the delusion that all that we can experience, all that we can know and feel and touch and see, and all that we are, can be reduced to simple, definable terms.
What, for example, is the difference between pornography and love? Pornography focuses on the external; love is a response to the internal. And that makes all the difference. I can understand the reluctance of some readers to study with someone who is so unabashedly in love with his subject as Arthur Kurzweil admits he is in this book. But, if you can suspend your unbelief for just a while, join him, come along for the ride, and see what happens. This book just might-no guarantees but it just might-point the way to the gate of wisdom that is meant for you.
Rabbi Jack Riemer lives in Boca Raton, Fla.
On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom.
In this book-length love letter from a disciple to his mentor, author and editor Kurzweil traces his discovery of a "Teacher with a capital T" in Jerusalem-based Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, probably best known for his commentary on the Talmud.
Fascinated and enlightened by Steinsaltz's masterpiece of Jewish theology, The Thirteen Petalled Rose—he knows it almost by heart—Kurzweil once called the rabbi's U.S. office, volunteering to pick him up at the airport and chauffeur him around during his lecture tours. Thus began a two-decades-long journey of conversations about reincarnation, suffering, Talmud, kabbalah, marijuana, parenting and much more.
Part spiritual memoir, Kurzweil interpolates his own story with Steinsaltz's, from his secular upbringing, experimentation with Eastern religions, immersion in magic, and ultimate rediscovery of Judaism. Kurzweil faithfully transcribes the rabbi's encounters with Ted Koppel and the Lubavitcher Rebbe as well as his poignant conversations with Kurzweil's own daughters about role models, love and divorce. All these interactions show the rabbi's non-judgmental depth and wisdom.
Steinsaltz's gifts as a scientist, mathematician, skeptic and man of God results in a "wholeness of vision" that helps Kurzweil transform his life and motivates him to encourage readers to mine Steinsaltz's genius for themselves. (Sept. 17)
On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom.
Kurzweil, Arthur (author).
REVIEW. First published August, 2006 (Booklist).
Rabbi Steinsaltz has been head of the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, the YeshivahMakor Hayim, and the Shefa Institute of Advanced Studies in Judaism. He is the author of The Thirteen Petalled Rose (1985), The Essential Talmud (1994), and other books and has translated many volumes of the Babylonian Talmud into modern Hebrew.
Kurzweil, a Jewish scholar and author, has been Steinsaltz’s companion and personal driver for 25 years, picking him up at New York’s Kennedy Airport when the rabbi flies in from Israel three times a year. Kurzweil discusses such topics (and Steinsaltz’s understanding of them) as genealogy, Hasidism, the Torah and Talmud, kabbalah, Jews in today’s society, and praying.
The book is highly relevant and unflinching in its approach to these profound subjects. — George Cohen, BOOKLIST/American Library Association
By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Arthur Kurzweil is a writer and teacher and serves as publisher at Parabola magazine. For 17 years, he was editorial director of the Jewish Book Club and editor in chief at Jason Aronson Publishers, where he acquired and published more than 650 books of Jewish interest.
For the past 25 years, Kurzweil has been a disciple of and designated chauffeur in the United States of Adin Steinsaltz, one of the most prolific and scholarly rabbis of our time. While taking him to universities, synagogues, think tanks, and meetings with politicians, journalists, artists, and other public figures, Kurzweil has had a chance to talk with him up-close and personal.
The author has gathered stories, anecdotes, and extensive quotations from this learned Orthodox rabbi whose motto is "Let My People Know." Kurzweil's enthusiasm for Steinsaltz's wisdom has resulted in this edifying and inspiring volume. In a well-known Hasidic tale, Leib Saras returned from a visit with his rebbe, and his students and family asked him what word of Torah the wise one had taught him. Leib Saras said, "I did not go to my teacher to hear his words of Torah; I went to see how he ties his shoelaces." The way a sage does everyday tasks has much to teach us about spirituality.
Kurzweil notes the way Steinsaltz deals with Jews, his pipe-smoking habit, the hereditary disease he carries, non-kosher food, and all manner of other details. The author has read Steinsaltz's book on Jewish spiritual belief called The Thirteen Petalled Rose more than 100 times and makes it quite clear that it is a classic.
To give you a sample of what this book contains, here are two quotations:
• "Most souls are not new; they are not in the world for the first time. Almost every person bears the legacy of previous existences. Therefore the destiny of a person is connected not only with those things he himself creates and does, but also what happens to the soul in previous incarnations."
• "He whose search has reached a certain level feels that he is in the palace of the King. He goes from room to room, from hall to hall, seeking Him out. However, the king's palace is an endless series of worlds, and as a man proceeds in his search from room to room, he holds only the end of the string. It is, nevertheless, a continuous going, a going after God, a going to God, day after day, year after year."
Two more samples of this wise man's views. These are from an interview in Parabola.
• "Whether a Jew is knowledgeable about his tradition or not, there comes a time when he has to re-meet and re-understand his tradition in a way that will be applicable to him and will say something to him as he is. You see, every person has to, at some time, re-create Sinai for himself."
• "We believe that the Law has at least 600,000 different paths within it for individuals to enter. There is what is called 'the private gate' for each of us. And we each have to find our own gate."
On the Road wth Rabbi Steinsaltz will appeal to all those who are interested in Jewish teachings. Kurzweil has deep respect for the wholeness, the wisdom, and the spiritual practice of this Jewish teacher and after reading this book, you will be able join him in this admiration.
JEWISH BOOK WORLD
As Rabbi Steinsaltz’s most fervent disciple in this country, Arthur Kurzweil distills the wisdom and inspiring personality of this charismatic guru through stories, anecdotes, and quotations of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s teachings, as well as by descriptions of encounters with public figures and celebrities such as Woody Allen, Yitzhak Perlman, Ted Koppel, Jerry Stiller, Joe Lieberman and many more.
Many people consider Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz the greatest transmitter of Talmud in the modern era. He is the man who has been most responsible for opening the world of Talmud to this generation via his translation of the ancient Talmud into English and his translation and commentary of the Talmud into modern Hebrew.
Rabbi Steinsaltz is a man in demand. People want to hear him speak, to listen to him think. He spends a huge amount of time traveling from place to place to place to deliver lectures to the masses of people eager to be in his presence. This book consists of conversations with the great Rabbi during his down time, travel time.
Arthur Kurzweil is no chauffer. He is a great teacher in his own right, a prolific writer and a publisher. He has dedicated himself to raising the bar of Jewish literacy through the works he has published. And for 25 years he had the privilege of shuttling Adin Steinsaltz from lecture to lecture.
On The Road With Rabbi Steinsaltz is an intimate insight into a private dialogue. Kurzweil recalls slivers of the many conversations that he and his passenger had confronting issues from Kabbalah to family life to medicine to Jewish leadership to the need for levity in life. He recalls the lectures that the great rabbi gave to audiences and the advice he imparted— like the time he told a group of teachers that the most important thing they can give to their students is their “enthusiasm.”
REVIEWED BY JEFF ZALESKI
There are several strong reasons to read this remarkable book by PARABOLA publisher Arthur Kurzweil. The primary one is given at the end of the book’s subtitle: “a Man of Wisdom.” The man of wisdom is Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the world’s leading Talmudic scholar.
That Steinsaltz is a wise man has been demonstrated beyond doubt by his profound writings, from formal works such as his classic Kabbalah commentary THE THIRTEEN PETALLED ROSE to his more informal presentations, including his regular columns in PARABOLA, “What Does Rabbi Steinsaltz Say?”
But common sense dictates that a man of wisdom will express his wisdom not only through the published word but also in conversation and, more subtly, through his manifestations as a human being—how he goes about his day, how he relates to others. ON THE ROAD WITH RABBI STEINSALTZ gives readers a memorable close-up portrait of a man of wisdom doing just that—sitting in a car, standing on a street, eating meals, delivering lectures, visiting a gravesite, and, most importantly, exchanging ideas with those around him, particularly with Kurzweil.
It is the closest most of us will get to Rabbi Steinsaltz the man, and through this proximity to the rabbi, a warm, intimate, and rare wisdom flows from him toward the reader. The channel for this wisdom is Kurzweil, who, judging from this work, knows books like Julia Child knew eggs—he served for seventeen years as editor-in-chief of the Jewish Book Club before coming to Parabola.
Kurzweil brings us close to Steinsaltz by placing his book’s narrative in the grand literary tradition of Watson/Holmes or Castenada/Don Juan: that of an eager apprentice, full of questions, relating his encounters with a master. “I’ll do anything for him. Give me the crummiest job you have,” pleads Kurzweil early in the book when, in 1985, he makes a fateful call to the rabbi’s office in Manhattan. And having devoured Steinsaltz’s writings for the seven previous years—readings that inspired him to move toward observant Judaism—Kurzweil is thrilled to gain the regular task of picking up the rabbi from JFK Airport (where Steinsaltz flies in from Jerusalem) at 5:00 A.M. to drive him to appointments.
What follows is much more than a standard account of Kurzweil’s subsequent time with Steinsaltz. Because Kurzweil is an eager apprentice, his memoir offers not only astonishing access to the rabbi but also a vivid depiction of the growth of Kurzweil’s own wisdom, as Steinsaltz advises him with authority and much good humor on matters ranging from the mundane (overwork; a divorce; the use of tobacco) to the religious (synagogue behavior; Kurzweil’s proper Hebrew name) to the spiritual (a right way to pray; the meaning of good and evil). And, over the course of the book, Kurzweil’s spiritual growth becomes, by example, an inspiration for the reader’s own.
Moreover, because it is Steinsaltz, a Jew and a Kabbalist, who is guiding Kurzweil, this book serves as well as an unusual, smart, and deeply informed introduction to Judaism and Kabbalah. For all these reasons, this book is worth reading—as it is for its readerfriendly presentation, divided as it is into short chapters interspersed with boxed asides and brief but chewy “Notes from the Road.” Ultimately, though, it is forits vivid and moving portrait of Adin Steinsaltz, smoking his pipe, smiling, questioning, deeply and then more deeply still, a true Man of Wisdom, that anyone interested in the spiritual life should read this exceptional book—and more than once.
Jeff Zaleski is editor of PARABOLA.
Adin Steinsaltz and his Faithful, Driving Boswell
By JAY MICHAELSON
One of my favorite moments in Arthur Kurzweil’s memoir-cum-hagiography-cum-popularization of the teachings of his hero, the prolific genius Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, comes right at the beginning. Kurzweil is describing his own path to Jewish observance, and relates how, as he was beginning to take on Jewish practice more openly, he fretted over whether or not to wear a yarmulke to a breakfast date with a friend. He decides at the last minute not to do so, stuffing it in his pocket. And then, at the breakfast, his friend says, “I have something to tell you, Arthur. I’m a lesbian.” Then Kurzweil writes, “she was brave enough to come out of her closet, but I was still a Marrano, a hidden Jew.”
I think that in this simple anecdote lies much of what is appealing about On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz. First, there is Kurzweil’s own voice—someone (maybe Kurzweil himself, or maybe his editor) made the very smart decision not to make the book all about Rabbi Steinsaltz and His Wisdom. Everyone who’s learned with Arthur Kurzweil knows he’s a funny, engaging guy, and that comes through in the book, making it less a puff piece about Steinsaltz and more a first-person account of one scholar’s admiration for another. Without Boswell, after all, Samuel Johnson would be insufferable.
Second, there is, in that simple story, a glimpse of what Kurzweil and others seem to admire about Rabbi Steinsaltz: he’s open, driven, and clearly “out” as a Hasidic Orthodox Jew. There are, today, plenty of market-driven celebrity teachers who give catchily-titled lectures for $15,000 a weekend. Some are Orthodox, some Reform, some conservative, some liberal—but the main thing is that they see themselves either as products or as salesmen.
Not Steinsaltz. For all his many efforts to popularize and render accessible the Jewish tradition, he never gives the impression of hucksterism. He means what he says, and he’s got the intellectual and spiritual credibility to back it up. No shame here, and no shamelessness, either.
And finally, there is, right in that early anecdote, the almost rambling quality of memoir that makes On the Road an enjoyable read. There were times at which it felt more like Kurzweil’s story than Steinsaltz’s, and frankly, I didn’t care. In fact, I’m not sure I prefer Steinsaltz’s almost saintly demeanor (at least as presented in the book) to Kurzweil’s messy imperfection. As presented by his adoring student, Steinsaltz is a paragon of virtue and brilliance—Israel Prize winner, family man, tireless promoter of all things Jewish. Kurzweil, in contrast, gets divorced, has crises of faith, and gets upset in traffic jams. I think I like him more. His story resonates more with my own and, I think, with the Jewish tradition of conveying moral teachings not through perfect moral exemplars but in the real stories of imperfect heroes.
On the Road is loosely structured around a series of encounters between Kurzweil and Steinsaltz, starting around 1986, when the young Kurzweil offered to be the older scholar’s chauffeur when he visited the United States from Israel. You couldn’t ask for a better framing device: teacher and student trapped in a car, sharing over 20 years of scholarship and life together. Curiously, the book is at its weakest when Kurzweil drops out and presents Steinsaltz’s teachings to the reader. Maybe it’s because Kurzweil oversells—he credits Steinsaltz with changing his life, calls him the preeminent scholar of our generation, and basically sets us up to expect life-changing pearls of wisdom from the man, who dispenses, by and large, fairly standard Jewish teachings on ethics, mysticism, and the like. As this reviewer has noted on this site before, Steinsaltz is a brilliant thinker, but also, in some ways, a conservative one. There’s not as much newness in what Steinsaltz says as Kurzweil leads us to expect.
More interesting, to Kurzweil and the reader, is how Steinsaltz’s traditional outlook meets the modern world. In their first meeting, Steinsaltz agrees with Kurzweil that many Jewish teachings accord with those of “the East,” saying, “How could it be otherwise?” He admits that Jews do many of the same things as members of other religious traditions, saying only that “Jews do it in a Jewish way.” And he has surprisingly insightful things to say about marijuana, consumerism, and the counterculture. Much of this worldliness no doubt springs from Steinsaltz’s secular upbringing in pre-state Jerusalem. “I read Marx and Lenin before I read the Bible” he tells Kurzweil at one point. “I disliked those Orthodox Jews. I used to throw rocks at them.”
Unfortunately, Kurzweil glosses over Steinsaltz’s transition from a “nonbelieving teenager” to a follower of Chabad Hasidism. We see Steinsaltz rub shoulders with senators and celebrities, but we don’t get much in the way of his own personal evolution. Unlike Kurzweil, whose religious journey is one of the primary narratives of the book, Steinsaltz appears as more or less a static character, rising in the world but essentially unchanging in his wisdom. Too bad. The enthusiasm Kurzweil has for Talmud study and for Kabbalah leaps off the page. It would have been interesting to learn more about how Steinsaltz sees the relationship between the two: that is, between the hyper-rational Talmud on the one hand, and the non-rational Kabbalah on the other.
There are a few hints here and there. For example, when Steinsaltz does start talking about spirituality and rationalism—over dinner at My Most Favorite Dessert Company in Midtown Manhattan, yet another appealing setting for an informal discourse on the meaning of life—he is a perceptive critic both of the “well-dried” historicism of the Conservative and Reform movements in America and of the “very crazy” weirdness of the American New Age. And, while avoiding the usual clichés of off-the-shelf spirituality, he does have some remarkably Buddhist-sounding moments like this one: Look at a sparrow. And then look at the sparrow without trying to think of its being a sparrow… This is what is called, what they used to call, ‘the eye of a poet.’ In a different way, it is the eye of the scientist. And in a different way, it is the eye of the lover. This is an eye that is not searching for abstractions. If I look at somebody that I love, it doesn’t mean that instead of seeing a nose I see something completely different. But somehow I see the nose and it appears to be a very different and very unique nose, not like anything else.
I was reminded, reading this passage, of the words of neglected writer Donald Windham, who said, “It is ordinary to love the marvelous. It is marvelous to love the ordinary.” Perhaps here is the link between Steinsaltz the translator of the Talmud and Steinsaltz the sometimes recondite mystic: this bringing together of the revealed and the concealed, a refusal to deny either the facticity of ordinary reality or its deeper, unknowable Essence. That, after all, is one of the deepest teachings of Chabad Hasidism: not the flight from the world to God, but the integration of the two together. This is why Judaism is a religion of the body more than of the “spirit,” because in the body, heaven and earth meet.
And perhaps it is why Steinsaltz has been able to speak to such diverse audiences, and why his books are on the shelves of people who surely do not agree with his views of Jewish identity, the divinity of the Law, or a host of other issues: because he has never lost his appreciation of idiosyncrasy, difference, and individuality.
There would, of course, have been an Adin Steinsaltz even had their been no Arthur Kurzweil. Yet it is through Kurzweil’s own journeys that Steinsaltz’s teachings are illuminated. Abstracted from human life, they are occasionally interesting, and sometimes rather pat. But when applied, when presented not to a faceless general audience but to an individual student with his own strengths and weaknesses, they take on a more profound cast. Kurzweil depicts his teacher as almost superhuman, but it is in their encounter with messy humanity that Steinsaltz’s ideas gain vitality. As the rabbi tells Kurzweil at the end of the book, “I was once worried about you… You used to put me so high. I see that you’ve grown up a little.”
Jay Michaelson (www.metatronics.net) is the author of "God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice" (Jewish Lights).
Needle in the Bookstacks
What the librarians are reading, thinking, or dreaming up for the HUC-JIR libraries. In the Library – Too Good to Miss Contrary to popular belief or mythology, neither do I read every book that arrives at the Library nor do I know every book in the Library. But every now and again a book passes over my desk that makes me sit up and take notice. In that case I might skim it. If the skimming grabs my attention then I might read it. And if I am deeply impressed by it, I will go out of my way to bend every ear possible, to alert everyone to check this book out, for it is too good to miss.
This past weekend I read On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: Twenty-Five Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom, by Arthur Kurzweil (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2006).
From the outset I must say that Arthur Kurzweil and I have known each other for over twenty-five years, and he is a gentleman (in every sense of the word), a sharp mind, a Jew of impeccable piety, and a “sweet soul” (a zisse neshomeh), whom I hold in the highest regard (if you cannot already tell).
Rabbi Steinsaltz is easily one of the greatest, if not the greatest rabbi of the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st. The book itself is not large, only eight and one-half inches high and 287 pages in length (with pictures), but it has many layers and wonderful depth on every page. Kurzweil chronicles how he, a fellow from a non-observant background, came to Jewish tradition and “Orthodoxy” via the writings of Rabbi Steinsaltz, how he came to be Rabbi Steinsaltz’s driver in the Tri-State area, and what Rabbi Steinsaltz means to him.
But the book also contains a “tamtsit,” the quintessence, of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s teachings. Rabbi Steinsaltz is indeed a Hasid. One classic definition of “Hasid” is a person obsessed with the proper pursuit of only one Mitzvah; in the case of Rabbi Steinsaltz it is Ahavat Yisrael.
Now, this is also held to be the underlying motivation and philosophy of Habad, and it is true that Rabbi Steinsaltz was a close friend of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, that his wife comes from a Lubavitcher background and that his sons were educated in Lubavitch yeshivot. But Rabbi Steinsaltz is his own man, a teacher’s teacher, a rabbi’s rabbi.
Yet for all my admiration of him, I cannot count myself among Rabbi Steinsaltz’s disciples. I know how and why I am not an Orthodox Jew, or perhaps better stated, I know what “flavor” of Judaism I am. (Rabbi Steinsaltz does not deal in “denominations.” For him Judaism goes beyond a label. Seeing it through his eyes, I might liken Judaism to coffee. There are many varieties, strengths and flavors to the beverage commonly called “coffee.”)
I would encourage any student and every student at the College-Institute who aspires to be a religious leader or teacher to read this book because I believe it will help them to define who they are, what “flavor” they are, but more importantly why they are. Many books pass over my desk, and while I admit I do not read them all, I think this book qualifies as the Number One best Jewish book of 2006.
Dr. Philip E Miller, Director, Klau Library, Hebrew Union College
Reflections on an Association with a Talmudic Scholar by howard selznick correspondent
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the Rashi of our time. He is the greatest talmudic scholar of our generation, if not the last 1,000 years. Arthur Kurzweil’s latest collaboration with Rabbi Steinsaltz certainly makes that seem so. Kurzweil also compiled many of the Steinsaltz’s articles and essays in several books for which Kurzweil also wrote the introduction (“The Strife of the Spirit,” “On Being Free” and “We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?” to name a few).
A long-time devotee of the rabbi, Kurzweil has written a rambling account of conversations while traveling with the rabbi during his visits to the United States, often to promote his Talmud translation and commentary. Steinsaltz travels extensively around the world, lecturing on a variety of Jewish topics. When he is in New York, he becomes the rabbi’s chauffeur and likens that job to driving a rock star around town to his various gigs.
The book is also a rambling account of Kurzweil’s own travels as an author, editor and teacher. If there were a rabbi Steinsaltz fan club, Kurzweil would be its president. He is always grateful and blessed to be able to talk with the rabbi, and rejoices that he has at last found a Teacher (with a capital “T”).
The book is loosely organized around five topics: how Kurzweil got his job as the rabbi’s driver, Talmud, Kabbalah, teaching and learning and continuing to find your Judaism. Those topics are arranged in approximately chronological order from when Kurzweil first encountered the rabbi’s work (early 1980s) to last year.
Early on, he was captivated by Steinsaltz’s best-known book, “The Thirteen Petalled Rose,” and quotes from it extensively. There are numerous digressions and midrashic stories on a variety of topics such as:
* Smoking. Steinsaltz is a pipe-smoker and quits every Pesach.
* Childrearing and education. Teach children things that don’t need to be unlearned, such as God is an old man with a white beard who sits in the sky.
* Studying Talmud. “Let my people know” is the motto of his Talmud commentaries. He wants people to encounter the Talmud, not just read it.
* Kabbalah. “Kabbalah is the official theology of the Jewish people,” Steinsaltz says in his efforts to rescue Kabbalah from obscurity.
* Spirituality. Today’s lack of spirituality may be a relic of 19th century rationality, when spirituality was taboo and confined to charity.
It should not concern the reader that these topics seem randomly scattered throughout the book; after all, that’s the way the Torah and Talmud are organized. Steinsaltz compares the Talmud to a vast sea that has no beginning or end; you just jump in anywhere. Of course, he doesn’t say that if you don’t have a good teacher or navigator, you may float aimlessly forever.
Kurzweil’s chronicle makes a case for having Steinsaltz as that teacher. The book is not a biography, but offers snippets of the rabbi’s life; for example how he hated elementary school and high school so much that he left at age 15. There are also a few snippets of Kurzweil’s life, including his transformation from an almost completely alienated and assimilated Jew to one trying to get in touch with his faith, primarily through genealogy and magic.
This work provides an excellent introduction to Steinstaltz’s work and writings. For those curious about the large volumes of Talmud in their synagogue’s library (they may be the Steinsaltz editions), this book is a good place to start satisfying that curiosity.