I got the feeling that my extended hour with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, late in the afternoon last Wednesday, was going to be more shmooze than interview when his assistant, on entering my office with him, asked if I would mind if the prolific scholar and author ate the chocolate rugelach she brought for him during our chat.
In that spirit, I prepared hot tea for them, and switched mental gears, relishing the opportunity to have a relaxing talk, rather than a hard-hitting interview, with one of the great Jewish minds of modern times. The Jewish Week’s Steve Lipman had recently written a major piece (“The Longest Translation,” Nov. 5) on the Jerusalem-based rabbi on the occasion of his having just completed a monumental, 45-year project to translate the entire Talmud into Modern Hebrew. The translation includes vowels, punctuation and Rabbi Steinsaltz’s own original commentary.
The rabbi hadn’t read the article, which didn’t surprise me.
I knew he is not a big fan of journalism, having teased me from time to time over the last three decades about his belief that journalists tend to see the dark side of life, looking for the bad. He came back to the subject several times on Wednesday afternoon, noting, for example, that for the most part, “journalists have treated me nicely — but never completely accurately.” All said with a smile.
I had a chance to remind the rabbi of the first time we met, about 30 years ago, when I was editing the Baltimore Jewish Times and arranged to interview him after picking him up at the airport in Washington and driving him to the house where he would be staying overnight for a lecture.
I drove into D.C. with Craig Terkowitz, our staff photographer at the time, a shy fellow who was worried about making small talk at the airport with the already famous rabbi — Time magazine later called him “a once-in-a-millennium scholar” — while I went to get the car from the parking lot.
I assured him all would be fine, and when I came back a few minutes later, the two men were deeply engrossed in a discussion about Craig’s camera’s F-stops and other features.
Later, after the interview and driving back to Baltimore, Craig told me, “I don’t know if he’s an expert on the Talmud, but that rabbi knows a lot about photography.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz is an authority on many subjects. The topics of the 60 books he has written range from animals to flora to mysticism. He seemed to enjoy the camera recollection, and clearly was in a lighthearted, almost impish mood at the end of a long day. He had done an interview with Sally Quinn of The Washington Post the day before and apparently commented irreverently about Jesus.
At 73, and after a recent illness, Rabbi Steinsaltz is not resting on his impressive laurels. He spent most of our time together answering my first question: what are you working on now?
After explaining that he is “lazy” by nature — dear Lord, what does that say about the rest of us when it comes to productivity? — the rabbi described briefly the “pile of books I am writing.” The 11 writing projects he is now engaged in range from “a little book about the neshama [soul] — does it have wings? blond hair? what pains it?” — to a three-volume “running commentary” on the Bible, starting from Genesis, sentence by sentence.
And then there is “a small book on the Sabbath,” “a little book on prayer” and “a little book about Jews,” published by the National Scientific Center of France, on “the history and mystery of the Jews,” especially their continued existence and the persistence of anti-Semitism through the ages.
In addition there is a book about education; a new edition of the Mishnah that is “more user-friendly than what exists, more concise, more understandable, a project of several years;” a book on the Rambam (Maimonides, the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher) that will deal with contemporary questions and issues; a book on Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers); and more.
Not every book he has written has been widely distributed, I learned. The rabbi noted that he once wrote “a detective story, and was wise enough not to publish it.” But his family “stole it” from his computer and printed 20 copies, to be read among themselves.
As for his current projects, “I’ll try to finish them as soon as I can,” Rabbi Steinsaltz said, after noting that he dislikes his own writing and is always working to improve it. And he said wants to be more involved in Jewish education, having already established a network of schools in Israel and the former Soviet Union. He said education today is “full of holes, like Swiss cheese.” But he had to go on to his next appointment before having a chance to explain.
“I told my wife that in 170 years I’ll retire and we’ll sit in the garden,” he said with a grin. In the meantime, he intends to keep busy.