Last of three articles on different aspects of the life and works of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz zts"l:
Teaching Chassidut in an individualistic, humanistic manner
Almost all commentators on the bountiful heritage of Torah scholarship that Rav Steinsaltz left us have commented on the long term significance of the content and scholarship of his commentaries on the Talmud, Tanach and the Rambam’s Code of Laws.
I would like to comment instead not on What he taught, but on the significance of How (the manner in which), he taught Torah, and particularly hassidut.
Rav Steinsaltz believed in the ultimate truth of the rabbinic understanding of the Torah, and of the metaphysical Kabbala/Hassidut, with ‘every bit of his of his mind and soul’. But early on he decided to dedicate his life to teaching these texts to the widest possible, often non-observant Jewish (and non Jewish) audiences. In order to reach and teach these publics G-d gave him an incredible ability to teach (without compromise) the truth of these texts in an individualistic, humanistic manner.
The success of this teaching is attested to by the fact that his books (close to thirty expertly translated into English) are the most popular books on Jewish theology and spiritual heritage in hundreds of American Jewish bookstores.
On a more personal note, one of my three Chabad sons has been a dedicated student of Rav Steinsaltz for over twenty three years. When I learn the Rav’s books with my son and grandchildren, the Rav’s individualistic, humanistic teaching of hasisidut helps to create a conceptual and linguistic common denominator between us and between my existential-Rav Soloveitchik soul and my son’s hassidic-Chabad soul.
The ‘individualism’ of the Rav’s Chassidic teachings
By the term ‘individualism’ I mean teachings which help the learner develop increased self understanding and awareness, and which encourages self development and creativity.
In the vast majority of educational institutions of the hassidic world the Torah and hassidut are not taught in a manner that encourages self awareness, self creativity and self choice, or self development. Instead, the Torah and hassidut are taught in a fundamentalistic, black and white manner. The basic educational attitude is one of ‘true believing’: this Is the truth, you are part of a hassidic sect/’army’, and this is the truth we are encouraging you to believe. Metaphysical concepts are usually not ‘explained/translated’ into more commonly used psychological and sociological terms in order to help the student more easily relate metaphysical concepts to his own personal, existential dilemmas and struggles.
Because Rav Steinsaltz decided to devote his life to teaching Torah and hassidut to wider non hassdic, non observant audiences, he developed a Torah language that emphasized self responsibility and self development. He struggled and insisted that his students do not simply ‘swallow whole’ Torah/hassidic truths, but rather hold up these truths to the sun, and then use these truths to examine mercilessly how they are leading their own lives. He repeatedly taught his audiences to use hassdic truths to reveal and uproot the patterns in which they are deceiving themselves, and to go on to demand real, inner change from themselves.
Rav Steinsaltz taught that self deception is the ‘root’ of all rebellion against G-d’s truths.
He spoke very softly, in simple terms, which he would repeat several times in a single Torah lesson, but also hammered home without compromise the blatant message that true hassidut means constantly, daily demanding more spiritual self development of oneself.
Rav Steinsaltz ‘practiced what he preached’. He was an authentic individualist in all of his life projects. Although a very devoted believer and follower of the last Chabad rebbe, he did not participate actively in the inner affairs of the Chabad community. The educational institutions that he inspired and with which he was tangentially associated served primarily the national religious community. His life was one of writing, teaching and publishing. He established no ‘hassidic ‘court’. He established no ‘school’ of hassdic thought. He had devoted students (like my son) but no ‘followers.’
Rav Steinsaltz was a ‘one (genius) man Torah enterprise.’
The ‘humanism’ of Rav Steinsaltz
By humanism I mean teaching the truths of the Torah and hassidut using language and concepts that are understood and accessible to a wide range of humanity, to an audience that was usually non observant and lacked a religious education. Usually this meant that Rabbi Steinsaltz would teach using the more popular language of psychology and sociology.
I believe that the most important example of his humanism is the monumental, historical project of his commentary on the complete Tanach (Hebrew Bible). On one page is the original Hebrew text, and on the opposite page are brief, very literate and accurate (in modern day Hebrew) explanations of the Tanach’s many difficult to understand phrases and terms. This Tanach thus enables a modern reader knowing only modern Hebrew, with no prior religious education, to read and understand our Bible on his own. And though all explanations are accessible to the non religious reader, all explanations are also footnoted at the volume’s end, indicating how they are based on Rabbinic sources.’ Rabbi Steinsaltz has ‘done the impossible’- making the Tanach understandable to a non religious audience (this is the essence of his ‘humanism’) and yet a Tanach that is faithful and in accord with the Rabbinic tradition. The English translation does the same.
To me, the most refreshing , meaningful example of Rabbi Steinsaltz's approach is his Tanach’s commentary on the Book of Psalms. Traditional rabbinic comments usually explain the Psalm’s bountiful references to existential and emotional turmoil, joy and sorrow, with ‘heavy’ references to King David’s personal life. Rabbi Steinsaltz instead explains the same emotional turmoil in more popular, simple, psychological, personal language. His commentary allows me and many others to read the Psalms and immediately find very personal, relevant, accessible comfort in the text.
Rav Steinsaltz’s mission
Rav Steinsaltz saw himself as both a hassid and emissary of the Lubavicher Rebbe .I believe that he understood his emissary mission was to teach Torah and hassidut to the widest possible Jewish (and non-Jewish) audience, without compromising one iota of the eternal truth of our Torah. To accomplish this task G-d bestowed upon him an intellectual and spiritual genius to convey the truth of Torah in an individualistic , humanistic, yet uncompromising, manner. He succeeded to a degree that is hard for us to fathom.
May his teachings and memory be an eternal blessing for all of Am Yisroel.