Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a teacher, philosopher, social critic and prolific author who has been hailed by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.” His lifelong work in Jewish education earned him the Israel Prize, his country’s highest honor.
Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to secular parents who immigrated to Palestine in 1924. Rabbi Steinsaltz studied mathematics, physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University in addition to rabbinical studies. He established several experimental schools and, at the age of 24, became Israel’s youngest school principal.
His favorite slogan was, “Let my people know” and he spent his life making Jewish texts accessible. In 1965, Steinsaltz founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications and began his epic modern Hebrew translation and commentary on the Talmud. It took 45 years, but he completed all 63 volumes and the work was also translated into English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
“The Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish knowledge, important for the overall understanding of what is Jewish,” Steinsaltz told JTA in 2010 after completing the translation. “But it is a book that Jews cannot understand. This is a dangerous situation, like a collective amnesia. I tried to make pathways through which people will be able to enter the Talmud without encountering impassable barriers. It’s something that will always be a challenge, but I tried to make it at least possible.”
The Rabbi’s classic work of Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, was first published in 1980 and appears in at least eight languages. In all, Rabbi Steinsaltz authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from zoology to theology to social commentary.
Continuing his work as a teacher and spiritual mentor, Steinsaltz established a network of schools and educational institutions in Israel and the former Soviet Union. Steinsaltz established Yeshivat Mekor in 1984, and Yeshivat Tekoa in 1999. He also served as president of the Shefa Middle and High Schools. During his time in the former Soviet Union, he founded the Jewish University, the first degree-granting institution of Jewish studies, in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
As Ben Harris’ obituary noted, his work provoked controversy in the Jewish religious world. “His Talmud departed from longstanding conventions, introducing punctuation and paragraph breaks, altering the pagination and placing his own commentary in the space around the main text that had previously been the domain of Rashi.”
Harris noted that Rabbi Elazar Shach, a leading Haredi Orthodox rabbi in Israel, considered Steinsaltz a heretic. Jacob Neusner, a Conservative rabbi published a book entitled “How Adin Steinsaltz Misrepresents the Talmud.”
Steinsaltz also provoked a debate when he accepted the position as Nasi (President) of the 2004 attempt to revive the Sanhedrin. In 2008, he resigned from this position due to differences of opinion.
He also had many admirers, including secular Israeli historian Zeev Katz, who compared Steinsaltz’s importance to that of Rashi and Maimonides. Rabbi Pinchas Allouche, who studied under Steinsaltz, also praised him for revolutionizing the Jewish landscape.
In 2009, he inspired the inauguration of the Global Day of Jewish learning to connect Jews around the world in mutual appreciation of Jewish wisdom. “Torah,” Steinsaltz said, “is the shared inheritance of all the Jewish people.”
Steinsaltz served as scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. His honorary degrees include doctorates from Yeshiva University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Bar Ilan University, Brandeis University, and Florida International University. In addition to the Israel Prize, he also received the Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, the French Order of Arts and Literature, and a 2012 National Jewish Book Award.
Steinsaltz died in Jerusalem at the age of 83 on August 7, 2020. He was survived by his wife have three children and ten grandchildren.