About Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Israel's Mystical Rabbi

Israel's Mystical Rabbi


May 26, 1980

Jewish lore is filled with tales of formidable rabbis. Probably none living today can compare in genius and influence to Adin Steinsaltz, 42, whose extraordinary gifts as a scholar, teacher, scientist, writer, mystic and social critic have attracted disciples from every faction in Israeli society. Steinsaltz is renowned chiefly for producing-on his own---a modern Hebrew translation of the Babylonian Talmud that, together with his lucid commentary, will for the first time make that library of Jewish theology and law accessible to the average Israeli. He has also written widely on science fiction, archeology, mysticism and zoology, and he is currently advising Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo on the reconstruction of Noah's ark.

When he is not writing, Steinsaltz is talking. Last year, he spoke at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies at Yale University. In Jerusalem, his evening seminars, which usually last till 2 in the morning, attract devoted followers who have included such prominent politicians as the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and former Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir as well as scholars and students from around the world. A frequent radio commentator, Steinsaltz discourses easily on contemporary films, French literature and Israeli politics. "He is a genius of the highest order," marvels Dan Segre, a professor of International Relations at Haifa University. "Steinsaltz has the sort of mind that comes around only every couple thousand years."


Ultimate Purpose: Now, in what may be his boldest venture yet, Steinsaltz has published "The Thirteen Petalled Rose," a personal exposition of Jewish mysticism that presents the kabbalah, rather than more rationalistic interpretations of Hebrew scriptures, as the authentic theology of the Jewish people. According to the kabbalistic doctrine, the Torah contains not only manifest but also hidden truths: the same transcendent God whom the Bible celebrates as supreme king and lawgiver is, from the mystical viewpoint, also an infinity of divine light that exists as the foundation of every human soul. For Steinsaltz, every soul is an emanation or spark of the divine, and its ultimate purpose is to rejoin the God it came from.


The kabbalah locates man within a mingled hierarchy of material and spiritual worlds that exist both inside and outside human beings. According to Steinsaltz, creation is a continuing emanation from God who sustains spiritual worlds of angels above the material world of man. These angels act as messengers between God and man and come into being either by divine impulse or by human acts of piety. There are also separate realms of evil, or hell, where devils come into existence by the immoral acts of men. Devils not only tempt human beings, but after death, continue to torment their "fallen" human creators.


The purpose of Jewish life, says Steinsaltz, is to rise through obedience to the Torah and good deeds to the very throne of God. This ascension is a painfully slow process made possible only by the mediating presence of ten interlocking sefirot or "channels of divine flow." In kabbalistic diagrams, the sefirot are given labels such as "wisdom" and "beauty" and are often superimposed on the human form to indicate their symbolic congruity with certain parts of the body (chart). As incarnate souls, human beings are to use these channels to "repair" the world-here Jewish mysticism intersects with social ethics-and, at the same time, to rise individually through realms of higher consciousness to an understanding of the whole of God's creation.


In a significant departure from mainstream Jewish theology, Steinsaltz believes in reincarnation. So few souls achieve spiritual perfection in one lifetime, he says, that they must be reborn in another body. "Almost every person bears the legacy of previous existences," he says.


For all its mystical topography, the world described by Steinsaltz remains firmly rooted in orthodox Jewish practice. Obedience to the Torah, the rabbi writes, "lends to every act the quality of ritual and makes it seem a direct link between man and his Maker." Since the Torah is "the blueprint of the world," nothing in life can be seen as merely secular. Every mitzvah, or commandment, that a Jew performs, transforms the material world and becomes a concentrated act of holiness in the spiritual realms above. In this sacramental view of human choice and action, all Jews constitute a priesthood whose destiny is to restore themselves-and the world-to the throne of God. Steinsaltz hopes to demonstrate that the secrets of the kabbalah-which rationalistic rabbis of the nineteenth century dismissed as dangerous magic-are fully constant with traditional rabbinic Judaism.


Steinsaltz himself was raised in a militantly secular family and read the works of Lenin before he ever opened a Bible. "One of the sports we boys had was to catch some religious kids and beat them up," he recalls. Schooled in physics and mathematics, Steinsaltz took up religious studies as a private passion and became a teacher only after trying unsuccessfully to start a neo-Hassidic community in the Negev desert.


A Loner: Although he is married and the father of two children, Steinsaltz remains very much a loner. He is by choice independent of all Israeli universities and political parties and so, he feels, "I'm suspect to them all." His next project is a translation of the Jerusalem Talmud, an undertaking that would be awesome even for an entire team of scholars. But first he must survive a risky surgical procedure-scheduled next week-to remove a distended spleen caused by Gaucher's disease, a debilitating genetic illness.


Like the state of Israel itself, Steinsaltz sees himself as "caught between two worlds"-the secular world of the West and the traditional Jewish world. "My duty," he says, "is to combine the two." In doing so, Steinsaltz has breathed fresh life into Orthodox Judaism, providing mystical underpinnings to Biblical observance, and he has demonstrated to secularized Jews that Jewish law may be truly a path to spiritual enlightenment.