Let My People Know

"We Cannot Reach God"

In 2005 Rabbi Steinsaltz was invited to Rome to give a series of lectures both to the Jewish community as well as at the Vatican. Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, was Rabbi Steinsaltz’s host.

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Di Segni, who was born in 1949, is a medical doctor specialising in diagnostic radiology. He is descended from three generations of rabbis, completed his rabbinical studies in 1973, and was elected as chief rabbi of Rome in November 1991.

Among his many lectures on that trip, Rabbi Stensaltz spoke on “Infinity in Faith and Science” at the Pontifical Lateran University which is under the direct authority of the Pope in Vatican City. The Italian newspaper Il Foglio reported on the event.

Here is a translation of the article, originally written by Marina Valensise, a journalist, for Il Foglio:

Adin Steinsaltz, the Rabbi who lectures on infinity to Roman Catholics
Rome. Adin Steinsaltz is a witty man. As soon as he starts to speak in the Pio IX classroom of the Pontifical Lateran University, it is evident that he has captured the audience.

Standing behind the dais, the rabbi speaks off the cuff, talking about infinity in science and theology, as required by the STOQ (Science, Technology and Ontological Quest) Project Conference, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. He opens by quoting Voltaire: “Whoever does not believe in infinity, should simply consider human foolishness to change his mind.”

And on he goes for an hour with a “superb lecture on theology” as his Roman hosts enthusiastically say. “Science,” says Steinsaltz, “is concerned only with the measurable, be it the infinitely small, like the photon, or the infinitely large, such as the universe; it is always tied to the concepts of limits and finiteness.

Mathematics, on the other hand, is an utterly different matter: there, everything is the invention of human beings – except for the natural numbers, which are a gift from G-d. In fact, it is the only science that contemplates the concept of infinity. Even the Greeks knew it, for it was the Pythagoreans who discovered the irrational numbers, as well as a transcendental number such as the pi, whose value can be decomposed to infinity. And mathematical infinity is indeed composed of an infinite series of individual, finite points.

However, is it possible to talk of an infinity unrelated to any kind of discrete or distinct parts? It is indeed. The Torah does so when it speaks of One God. Kabbalistic literature does that, too, when, it speaks of the seventy or thousand names of God, yet defines Him as the source, the One, or that which is beyond numbers, the infinite and blessed being. This is the essence of divinity: neither material nor spiritual, but divine. It therefore follows that we cannot reach God, since we are finite beings, whereas God can reach us because, unlike the Cartesian cogito, He thinks before existing…”

The Rabbi continues his dialogue without the shortest abstract; only the sheer play of mental associations held together by the most rigorous logic. “People come to hear me speak live, not to hear me read a written text”, the rabbi explained the day before, in front of a dish of fried artichokes in the kosher restaurant of Cianci Square. This remark was the starting point for ruthless criticism of the universities which have not yet internalized Guttenberg’s invention and insist on sending professors to stand in front of the students -just as they did in the Middle Ages, when information was precious goods, to be distilled ex cathedra…

Besides being witty, Adin Steinsaltz is also a highly critical person. But if one does not know that he is the greatest living Talmudist, who has translated the Babylonian Talmud from Aramaic – a monumental task which has, within 40 years, reached the 37th tome out of 42, revitalizing a thousand-year old tradition for millions of people, so much so that today, the Steinsaltz Talmud can be found in every home in Israel – one would only see a short man with a long white beard down to his chest and the blue eyes of a good-natured gnome from an Isaac Singer story.
However, this inspired genius, advisor to Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s interlocutor before he became Pope, tells of the Jew who arrived in Rome to find many well-known names: “Simon of Caifa, alias Peter, who received that enormous structure, Jesus of Nazareth, Saul of Tarsus… they all came from our People, and they, too, started, as usual, to quarrel with God”.

A Jew in the Lateran, Rabbi Steinsaltz speaks, characteristically, as heretic. The novelty, though, is that he does so without having to defend himself before a court, without fear of being sent to the stake for his passion for a forbidden book, as was the case in times past, according to his own words in his excellent book, now translated into Italian (The Essential Talmud, Cos’é il Talmud, Giuntina, Florence). Rather, he speaks as the guest of honor of Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University, and of Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council of Culture. This is a sign of our times.

“Anti-Semitism,” says Steinsaltz, “has always existed, even where there were no Jews; but in the past, it was not nice to admit it.” He tells about the Japanese writer who – out of ignorance – brought Begin as a gift the “Protocols of the Elders Zion”, considering it a compliment. He talks about the Islamic and fundamentalist threat, yet Ahmadinejad’s words do not upset him all that much. “I do not lose sleep at night. Attacking Israel would only make the Jewish cause more popular”.

Even if, when asked about the future of the Jewish State, he is the first to ask himself what is so Jewish in a state that, in the course of a few years is about to have more Arabs in it than Jews, Rabbi Steinsaltz has the backing of too many thousands of years to take this threat too seriously. “The history of the Jewish people is a mystery”, he says, quoting Kant, who saw Jewish history as evidence for God’s existence.

But for him, anti-Semitism too remains a mystery. Some years ago, in Russia, he was asked what is the true reason of anti-Semitism: “There are at least two,” Steinsaltz answered. “The first is that Jews believe that they are the Chosen People. The second is that anti-Semites suspect this to be true. The French, too, consider themselves the most clever people in the world, but nobody seems to take them seriously…”

Finally, though, when asked by a Catholic from Rome whether or not it is true that the Jews are indeed the Chosen People, the Rabbi replies, “I cannot say. Although, if I would believe that they are not, I cannot see how I would be a Jew.”

by Marina Valensise, for Il Foglio, November 15, 2005