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August 9, 2020 11:05 am

Alan Dershowitz: The Rabbi Steinsaltz I Knew

avatar by Alan Dershowitz


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who passed away in Jerusalem on August 7, 2020. Photo:

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.

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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.

Follow Alan Dershowitz on Twitter: @AlanDersh and Facebook: @AlanMDershowitz.

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