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.