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rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


Last Friday, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz), the world-famous Talmudist, Kabbalist, educator, community rabbi, philosopher, prolific author and devoted Chassid, passed away in Jerusalem. He was 83 years old. What follows are several obituaries looking at Rabbi Steinsaltz’s life from different perspectives:

Blog #1: The Chabad Perspective

Born in 1937 in Jerusalem to Avraham Moshe and Leah Steinsaltz—Polish immigrants with avowedly secular left-leaning worldviews—young Adin was consummately curious as a boy and teenager growing up in the Katamon neighborhood of the Holy City, and would recall how he explored the religious texts he first encountered with the same rigor and voraciousness that he had applied to the writings of Communist and Socialist thinkers that his parents had proffered to him.

With a determination that closely matched his intellect, the teen won his parents’ permission to study Talmud and Chassidic philosophy full-time in the Chabad yeshivah in Lod. There he was exposed to the teachings of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson who became known as the “Rebbe” who had recently taken up the mantle of leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement following the passing of his father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn.

In the model of some great rabbinic scholars throughout Jewish history, Steinsaltz complemented his religious studies with immersion in scientific study as well, and he studied chemistry and physics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before entering the field of education. He established several experimental schools and became Israel’s youngest school principal at the age of 24.

In 1965, he married Chaya Sarah Azimov, the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Hillel Azimov, director of the Chabad schools in Paris, and the scion of a longtime Chabad family.

In the Rebbe, he found more than an intellectual and spiritual guide and Torah teacher. “I firmly believe that he possessed some sort of supernatural capability and that he was in contact with another state of being, which I do not hesitate to call the Divine,” recalled Even-Israel in My Rebbe, his 2014 biography of the Rebbe, which be begins by stating: “The first time I met the Rebbe, I felt his intense personality, his almost complete otherness.” That first meeting took place in 1970, when at the age of 33, he was sent to bring greetings to the Rebbe as the representative of President Zalman Shazar.

The Steinsaltzes had three children, Esti, Meni and Amechayeh. Besides providing guidance in his Torah studies and communal leadership, the Rebbe provided fatherly care and Divinely inspired advice in personal matters as well. In 1989, the Rebbe advised him and his wife that the family change their name from Steinsaltz, which suggests bitterness, to a Hebrew alternative.

Shortly thereafter, their 15-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia, and the Rebbe blessed the boy and told the parents that they were not to pursue a marrow transplant. “The doctors were furious that we chose to follow the Rebbe’s guidance, not theirs,” recalled Even-Israel in My Rebbe. “Despite their prediction, our son healed, married and had children … years later the doctors admitted … that their approach had been wrong.”

For many, Rabbi Even-Israel will be best-remembered for translating and elucidating the entire Talmud in Modern Hebrew and then English—an unrivaled solo feat he began around the time of his marriage and completed decades later. His classic work on Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, was published in 1980 and has been reprinted in eight languages. In all, he authored more than 200 books and hundreds of articles, including groundbreaking translations. 

A frail man with a wry smile and a soft voice, Even-Israel was known for his caustic sense of humor and a disdain for pretense. An admirer recalls once complimenting him after a class on Talmud for beginners, innocently telling the rabbi how much he had enjoyed it. “You were not suppose to enjoy it,” was the reply. “You were suppose to learn something.”

The recipient of several prestigious awards, including the Israel Prize, he served as scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.

Even-Israel received numerous accolades, including the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies in 1988; the President’s Prize and National Jewish Book Award in 2012, for making the study of Talmud more accessible; and the Yakir Yerushalayim (“Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem”) medal in 2017. His honorary degrees include doctorates from Yeshiva University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar-Ilan University, Brandeis University and Florida International University.


Blog #2: Alan Dershowitz’s Perspective 

The late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was a remarkable man—a genius who made the Talmud accessible to so many. TIME magazine called him a “once in millennia” scholar. But he was more, much more.

I first got to know him when we were invited by an American Jewish organization to debate the role of religion in democratic societies. He had debated the late Justice Antonin Scalia on a related subject and Justice Scalia, a brilliant and knowledgeable Catholic, told me how much he had enjoyed jousting with “the great Rabbi.”

Our debate began with a counterintuitive introduction in which the moderator said that the two debaters grew up in very different ways: one with an orthodox Yeshiva background; the other in a secular left wing family. He said that one will now speak from a religious perspective; the other from a secular perspective. He then pointed to me as the debater from the religious background who will present the secular view; and to Rabbi Steinsaltz as the person from the secular background who will present the religious view. The truth is that Rabbi Steinsaltz could have brilliantly presented either perspective, because he was well versed in both worlds. When once asked whether a person must believe in God to enjoy studying the Talmud, he said “no,” and then rhetorically asked whether one has to believe in Shakespeare to enjoy Hamlet.

We ended up agreeing more than disagreeing about the role of religion in a democracy. We agreed that no one can be compelled to believe in religion or God; nor should anyone be compelled to practice religion. We politely disagreed about the sources of morality, which he found in God and I found in human experience. The debate was punctuated by humor and good will. I wish today’s differences in world views could be discussed in a similar manner.

The other time we encountered each other was in Israel when he invited me, my wife and my then 8-year-old daughter to bake hand matzos with him in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover. I knew there would be an issue because my wife and daughter are feminists who demand gender equality in all walks of life. They had both participated with Women of the Wall in outlawed prayer services at the Western Wall. I also knew that only men were allowed to bake the special matzos that are used at the Seder (shmura matzot). Why then did Rabbi Steinsaltz invite my wife and daughter? He gently explained that Jewish law did not forbid woman from baking the special matzos; it only forbade their use at the Seder. My wife and daughter accepted the compromise — though a bit grudgingly — and we proceeded to race through the baking process which must be completed within 18 minutes. We all had a great time and ate the resulting delicious fruits of our labor as a snack. Again, I wish all religious conflicts could be resolved so positively by pragmatic compromise.

My other encounters with Rabbi Steinsaltz over the years were in passing. We discussed the Talmud, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Benjamin Netanyahu and the case for Israel. His observations were always sharp, insightful and positive. In addition to being an indefatigable scholar in the tradition of Rashi and Maimonides, he was a real mensch, for whom the glass was half full.

The death of Rabbi Steinsaltz is a tragedy for the Jewish people and for Israel. He was their heart and soul. He united at a time when divisions were growing — between religious and secular, nationalistic and universal, conservative and liberal. He understood all points of view and he tried to reconcile them in a principled way. His published scholarship will endure for millennia. His personal influence on students will continue for decades. But his physical presence has now ended and the world is the poorer for that loss.


Blog #3: The Times of Israel Perspective

Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael Steinsaltz, whose translation and groundbreaking commentary of the entire Babylonian Talmud and Bible has been lauded for making the ancient Jewish texts approachable, died Friday at the age of 83.

A longtime educator, prolific author of over 60 books and Israel Prize laureate, Steinsaltz (who years ago switched to a Hebraicized version of his surname, Even-Israel, but never shook off the original) was also a physicist and chemist, a biting social critic and a beloved public figure in Israel — revered for his encyclopedic mind, and admired for his down-to-earth and kindly bearing. His first name means “gentle” in Hebrew, and by all accounts, he was.

But Steinsaltz’s crowning achievement was indisputably the 45-year project of democratizing the 1,500-year-old corpus of rabbinic Jewish law — a feat that saw Time magazine in 2001 declare him a “once-in-a-millennium” scholar. It earned him comparisons to the 11th-century French sage Rashi, whose commentary on most of the Talmud and Bible was unmatched in terms of the scope of texts it covered for 1,000 years.

Steinsaltz’s formidable effort began in 1965, when he was just 27, three years after he became Israel’s youngest-ever school principal. He completed it in 2010, when he was 72-73 years old.

“Since I started the work at a relatively young age, obviously I didn’t take into account the immense effort it requires, which includes not only the work of researching and writing, but also many logistical problems,” he told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in 2009. “But sometimes, when a person knows too much, it causes him to do nothing,” Steinsaltz mused, adding that “it seems it’s better, sometimes, for man, as for humanity, not to know too much about the difficulties and believe more in the possibilities.”

After 45 years of 16-hour workdays, Steinsaltz had finally completed his life’s work, a translation of the entire Talmud, one of Judaism’s most important texts, to make it accessible to ordinary people. 

When he completed, in 2010, his 41-volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew with a running commentary (which has since been translated into English), it was hailed as a revolutionary feat making the largely Aramaic, often obscure text accessible, furthering its reach and encouraging deeper study.

But like any good Jewish literary-rabbinical product worth its salt, it was not without its raging critics, its furious bans, its Talmudic-like head-shaking, finger-wagging and nitpicking along the way. Ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian rabbis led by the late rabbi Elazar Shach banned the series outright, citing its contents, its change of format from the traditional layout, and what was derided as a simplification of the foundational text of Jewish oral law. Still, endorsed by the US-based late rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Steinsaltz’s translation was also reportedly applauded by the Gur Hasidic sect. 

Former Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar praised its capacity to “expand the borders of holiness” to encompass those not well-versed in Talmud, but fretted that its ease of use would contribute to the dying out of ancient methods of study among yeshiva students and runs counter to the edict to “toil in the study of Torah.” Steinsaltz, he and others argued, just made the infamously rigorous discipline too darn easy.

“There is no laziness like intellectual laziness,” Amar told the ultra-Orthodox Kol Berama radio station in 2009, lamenting the resorting to “easy commentaries” by yeshiva students. The Steinsaltz edition also met with some academic criticism, namely by Jacob Neusner, an American scholar at Bard College.

Steinsaltz’s was not the first translation of the Babylonian Talmud. But as the first into modern Hebrew, with his own phrase-by-phrase commentary appearing alongside medieval commentaries Rashi and Tosafot, it caused the greatest stir.

In interviews, Steinsaltz countered that much of the Haredi criticism stemmed from opposition among the ultra-Orthodox to the Chabad-Lubavitch community with which he was affiliated, rather than to his work. Traditional study of Talmud, he insisted, is bogged down by technical details that keep students from plumbing its depths.

“My translation not only doesn’t reduce the Gemara, but rather in a certain sense it allows for greater in-depth [study] and advancement,” he told Yedioth over a decade ago. “In the end, my explanations primarily try to resolve the technical problems: The language difficulties, the associative problems, the problems that stem from the fact that the Talmud is not an organized text with a gradual build-up… unfortunately, many times the traditional [method of] study dedicates so much time to overcoming the technical problems that in practice, there is not much time left for in-depth and innovative [study].”

In 2016, the logophile who expertly dotted the 2.5 million unpunctuated Hebrew and Aramaic words in the 6,000 pages of the Babylonian Talmud lost his capacity to speak after suffering a stroke, his son told the Makor Rishon newspaper in 2018. He continued to work, proofreading and marking up his previous work, while silently signaling to his son to convey his edits.

Steinsaltz is survived by his wife, three children and numerous grandchildren.

Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to a secular communist family, Steinsaltz was raised in the Katamon neighborhood, not far from his contemporaries, Israeli authors Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. Though his father was not interested in religion, he sought out a tutor to teach the young Steinsaltz the Talmud, insisting — the rabbi has recalled in slightly different formulations over the years — that while he was free to be a nonbeliever, “no family member of mine will be an am haaretz [ignoramus].”

After choosing to attend a religious high school, Steinsaltz adopted Orthodox Jewish observance and later became a dedicated follower of the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

In the merging of his quintessentially Zionist upbringing in pre-state Israel with his love for the Talmud, Steinsaltz discovered a language of caustic debate and lucid reasoning that he hoped would someday be integrated into Israeli culture.

“The Talmud is the book of sanity. And when you study it, it confers a certain amount of sanity,” he told The Times of Israel in 2012, suggesting that the most fanatical rabbis are rarely great Talmudists. After all, the Gemara consists mainly of logical and rational back-and-forth discussions about legal issues, aimed at arriving at a factual truth, he pointed out. What could be more sane than that?

“It was a big mistake to make the education in Israel based so much on the Bible,” Steinsaltz said. “Because the Bible was written by prophets. If you read the Bible, you somehow become in your mind a little prophet. That’s the way in which Israelis speak to each other — they don’t have conversations, they all have complete and unlimited knowledge. Learning Talmud would bring a big change to the Israeli mind because it deals with and is connected to dialectic.”

The founder of a network of yeshivas in Israel and the former Soviet Union, Steinsaltz was also active in outreach to Jews beyond the Iron Curtain. In 1989, when he founded a yeshiva in Moscow, it became the first state-sanctioned institution of Jewish study in the city in 60 years, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

From 2004, he also served as the head of a nascent right-wing Israeli movement to revive the Sanhedrin, or supreme religious tribunal, though he resigned in 2008.

In his later years — even as his books were translated into numerous languages, selling millions of copies worldwide, and as he wrapped up his Bible commentary — Steinsaltz was still daunted by the work that remained unfinished.

In one of his final interviews in 2016, to the Ben Gurion University periodical “Israelis,” he mused: “I never thought about what will be written on my tombstone, it doesn’t really preoccupy me. But I am concerned by what will be remembered. I did something, but I didn’t do enough, I didn’t even do a fraction of the things I wanted to do. I wrote such-and-such books — very nice. I gave such-and-such lectures — very nice. I wrote articles like sand on the seashore; it’s not enough. What would I have wanted to do? I would want to leave [behind] a small tree that will grow.”

“I will tell you a final story,” he continued. “In my garden, years ago, I planted two cypress trees. One was stolen, and the other was a small cypress whose head was shorn off. I simply had mercy on it, I took its head and taped it to the still-fresh trunk. I didn’t do anything else. I let it grow, I hoped the fissure would heal. Today, that cypress is almost three meters tall, a mighty tree! That’s what I would have wanted to have done, to plant a small cypress, even one that was chopped, that will grow into a large tree.”