On August 7, 2020, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz died at the age of eighty-three from a case of acute pneumonia.
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s lifetime dedication to familiarize secular Jews with the wisdom of the Torah and Jewish literature earned him the reputation of being the one the most influential Orthodox rabbis of the past half-century. Growing up in a secular home and only later becoming religious, R’ Steinsaltz was acutely aware of the challenges faced by assimilated Jews in engaging with classic Jewish literature. R’ Steinsaltz’s desire to bring the Torah’s wisdom as represented in classic Jewish works such as the Midrash and Talmud to Jews who had assimilated into the wider secular culture around them was, much like our Master’s desire, a mission to bring the lost sheep of the house of Israel back into relationship with God.
He began this ambitious endeavor in 1965 at the age of twenty-seven. By the end of his life, Rabbi Steinsaltz had written sixty books on everything from the Passover Haggadah to explanations on some of the most complex ideas in Jewish metaphysics. This he did along with hosting weekly Torah classes in his study center in Jerusalem and the Knesset. However, before his death Rabbi Steinsaltz pointed to his forty-five-volume translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Modern Hebrew and the subsequent English, French, Russian, and Spanish translations from it as his lifetime crowning achievement. In addition to translating the entire Talmud, he also vowelized the corresponding Hebrew-Aramaic text (an overwhelming task in itself) and wrote a concise commentary as an aide to the reader.
His translation, while widely praised, did have its detractors in both the Yeshiva and academic world. The main critique lobbed at his work was that the translation was so literal that it failed to fully represent the richness of the Talmud. This critique is merited; however, I think this is exactly the type of feeling Rabbi Steinsaltz wanted to invoke in his readers. As an Orthodox rabbi, Steinsaltz understood that true talmudic learning happened when the student engaged the arguments in the text without the veil of translation and saw himself as a part of the talmudic tradition along with great Jewish thinkers like Rashi and his grandchildren and their students.
On the other hand, Rabbi Steinsaltz also understood how the crushing demands of learning Aramaic, mastering talmudic logic, and becoming acquainted with the nuanced meanings of hundreds of legal terms, would deter the secular Jew from engaging in the text. I believe Rabbi Steinsaltz sought a balance in his translation between giving the student enough of a feel for the Talmud to encourage him but, at the same time, leaving the student with the feeling that what he just read is only a partial picture of a much richer world.
In this regard, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s translation is more praiseworthy than the often-compared Artscroll Talmud translation, whose extensive comprehensiveness leaves little need for further study. This is what Rabbi Steinsaltz wanted to avoid. He wanted his students to understand that no translation, let alone his own, could ever fully transmit the richness of Jewish learning.
In this regard Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was a humble man, offering a gateway into Jewish thought as contained mainly in the Talmud yet not producing a translation that would render any further study needless. We all owe Rabbi Steinsaltz a debt of gratitude for finding a way to give us access to the richness of classic Jewish literature while also encouraging us to view ourselves as capable of putting in the hard work to become benei Torah, i.e., dedicated students of the Torah.