What I learnt from Rabbi Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the world-renown talmudic scholar and author, died in Israel on August 7, aged 83

August 12, 2020 19:38

My first introduction to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was through his book The Thirteen Petalled Rose. My father had a well-thumbed paperback edition on his bookcase. I’m not sure what drew me to this esoteric text on Jewish existence and belief. It may have been the intriguing title, or the fact that my father spoke highly of it. I remember trying and failing to understand any of it. And while the kabbalistic concepts he introduced were beyond me, the experience left me with a sense of wonder and hunger for the deep and mysterious world of Jewish mysticism. I was 12 years old at the time. 

Twenty years later, I was on Sabbatical in Jerusalem, working on my PhD. In my spare time I sought out rabbinic and academic figures who I respected from afar. By then I read most of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s writings and had become an ardent fan. 

I had asked around about meeting him but was told that I was reaching too high. He was extraordinarily busy and unlikely to squander his precious time satisfying my curiosity. 

And then it happened. One Friday morning after prayer as I was putting away my tefillin, a friend told me that he could get me 15 minutes with the great man later that afternoon. 

I enthusiastically showed up at his office a half hour before the appointed time and was ushered in by a distracted secretary who was itching to leave in order to prepare for Shabbat. 

That the secretary left shortly after my arrival ensured I had close to two uninterrupted hours with Rabbi Steinsaltz, which I will always cherish. 

When I entered his office, He was sitting at his book-strewn desk, wreathed in cherry tobacco scented smoke and fiddling with a smoldering pipe. He fixed his eyes on me and with a great smile asked in his thick Jerusalem accent, “Who are you?” I gave him my name. “No,” he said, “Who are you?” emphasising the second word. I elaborated more of my biography. “No, no,” he chuckled, “I mean who is Naftali Brawer?” In that moment, I learned how sincerity and genuine curiosity in another human being can make that person feel centered and seen. 

Of all the ideas we discussed that afternoon, it is the way he greeted me that I remember most, and I have tried to emulate his example, especially when meeting students for the first time.

Some ten years later, I once again had the joyful opportunity of spending time with Rabbi Steinsaltz. I was presenting a programme on the Talmud for the BBC and I flew to Israel to interview him. 

I recall him as an unpredictable and mischievous interviewee, going off on long tangents, which was in equal measure frustrating and thrilling.  And then, when our time was almost up, his eyes twinkling, he said something that has stayed with me since. 

 “Talmud study,” he said, is not talking about God, but talking with God. The theological audacity and pathos of that sentiment frames Rabbi Steinsaltz’s life’s work bringing ever more Jews into conversation with God. 

Rabbi Brawer is the Neubauer Executive Director at Tufts Hillel

August 12, 2020 19:38

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