The written compilation of centuries of oral wisdom, the Talmud was completed 1,500 years ago in two versions, named for their places of origin. The commonly used Babylonian text runs to 2.5 million words. The Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud, far less known, is half as long, but many sections are so condensed as to be unintelligible. Its message was alive only for scholars and a handful of others. Now that is changing because a brilliant Orthodox rabbi named Adin Steinsaltz believes Judaism is in peril if "an essential part of our people are cut off from the Talmud."
He is working to produce new editions of both Talmudic texts, a feat no scholar has ever attempted, and, at age 50, is well along on the monumental task. This summer his Institute for Talmudic Publications will print Volume XX of the Babylonian Talmud, the halfway point, with completion expected in 15 years. To date, nearly 1 million of the various books have been sold, and an English translation is planned. Last month the long-awaited first volume of the Steinsaltz Jerusalem Talmud was issued. The first printing sold out in a matter of days; a second appeared last week.
"He will stand like Rashi and Maimonides," says Israeli Historian Zeev Katz, daring to compare the contemporary rabbi with the two great Jewish sages of medieval times. The assertion that Steinsaltz is a once-in-a-millennium scholar is particularly remarkable coming from Katz, a leader of Israel's association of secular humanists. But the diminutive, soft-spoken Steinsaltz inspires superlatives from all Jewish factions. In recognition of his achievements, he has just been named winner of the 1988 Israel Prize, his nation's highest honor. The rabbi greeted the news with characteristic mirth: "Gee, one gets that a year before one dies."
A self-described "commuter between heaven and earth," Steinsaltz did university work in physics and mathematics rather than rabbinics and had a rigidly secular upbringing in Jerusalem. His father Avraham, a far-left socialist, was an early Zionist and proudly Jewish, but he kept any religious sentiments carefully concealed. Little Adin read Lenin and Freud before his bar mitzvah. Later, however, the family saw to it that he was tutored in the Talmud and attended a religious high school. Explained Avraham: "I don't care if you are a heretic. I don't want you to be an ignoramus."
Adin was bored at school and far more interested in the struggle to establish the state of Israel than in spiritual questions. "I am by nature a skeptic," he remarks. But the youth who looked upon believers with disdain was slowly and inexplicably drawn to faith. "I never climbed high mountains or shot lions. The way to religion was the beginning of an adventure, and a very big one," he says. "It came to the point that this world was not enough."
Steinsaltz's audacity was such that at age 27 he decided to create a modern Talmud. "It was a kind of hubris," he admits. Standard editions are virtually unreadable for nonexperts partly because the Hebrew is printed without vowel notations or punctuation. And the work abounds with obscurities. Two commentaries are customarily printed alongside the text to assist understanding, but they raise further questions because they are centuries old.
Braving the ire of traditionalists, Steinsaltz inserted vowel marks and punctuation. He also translated Aramaic sections into modern Hebrew and explained the numerous words from other languages that crop up. Even more boldly, he wrote his own commentary to appear with the two classical ones and provided a wealth of explanatory notes. Twelve typefaces had to be used to help readers sort out the various categories of material.
Once the first Babylonian volume appeared in 1967, opposition among the ultra-Orthodox melted away. Today most Israelis agree with Hebrew University's Shmuel Shilo: "You can now read the Talmud the way any book is read. It is now a popular work." The director of the pluralistic World Union of Jewish Students, Daniel Yosef, says that "Steinsaltz has taken the study of the Talmud out from behind the closed doors of the yeshiva and given it to all of us."
In frail health (his spleen was removed in 1980), Steinsaltz nonetheless puts in days of 16 hours or more, much of them at the word processor, where he uses software he designed for handling Hebrew. Working in an old stone house near his Jerusalem apartment, where he lives with his psychologist wife and three children, he is helped by a devoted, low-paid group of 15 to 18 disciples. On the side, he has written everything from a detective novel to a celebrated work of mystical thought, The Thirteen Petalled Rose. Steinsaltz also presides over two synagogues and two yeshivas and is a popular lecturer and radio speaker. "He is good at everything but raising money," laments one New York City supporter of the Talmud project. "Every time I bring a potential donor, he goes for the man's soul, not his pocket."
The Steinsaltz Jerusalem Talmud, begun in 1976, is likely to prove even more important than the Babylonian, since the text has never before been available with a satisfactory commentary. To make the notorious Jerusalem passages readable, Steinsaltz is interpolating words into the text, marking additions in a lighter typeface so readers can discern the original. He has no idea how long it will take to finish the Jerusalem version. There are many sources of information on the Babylonian, he explains, but "with the Jerusalem I am almost alone." But then, Steinsaltz is almost unique as well.