Last week my wife, my younger son, and I had the opportunity to meet privately with a person that Time Magazine described as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.” His name is Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
I was first introduced to Rabbi Steinsaltz’s writing through a friend of mine. He’d given me a book as a gift nearly thirty years ago called The Thirteen Petalled Rose. The book is a mix of poetry, religious philosophy, and for me at least, it was entirely life changing; complex and artful, it is a rambling text about the nature of angels, souls, reality, and mankind’s purpose on Earth. For many years I carried it with me whenever I travelled and after our second date, I gave a copy to the woman who would eventually become my wife. (She admitted later that she never cared for the book, oh well…)
In 1989, about a year after I was married, I learned that Adin Steinsaltz would be speaking in Los Angeles. I was thrilled and somewhat surprised when I found out that he wouldn’t be speaking at a religious institution, but rather at the JNF office in the LA’s Mid-Wilshire district. The JNF or – the Jewish National Fund – is, for those of you who don’t know, a Zionist organization with a mostly secular bent. At any rate, I showed up early to his talk and got a seat near the front of the auditorium.
Before Rabbi Steinsaltz was scheduled to speak, a well-known Rabbi from the San Fernando Valley served as his opening act, as it were. His speech was expertly written; his diction was pitch-perfect and he delivered a message that ruffled exactly – zero feathers. Just in case you’ve not been steeped in the particulars of Jewish thought and history, I’m going to digress just bit, to provide you with a little background information to help you understand just what it was that this particular Rabbi spoke about.
The Jewish people are a diasporic nation, sent into exile nearly 3000 years ago. They were sovereigns in a land called, Eretz Yisroel – or the Land Of Israel. Many things happened there, it’s all in the bible of course, but we’ll skip over them for now. The main point to keep in mind is that two Jewish temples once existed on a mountaintop in Jerusalem. They were the ultimate symbols of faith and the national sovereignty I just mentioned. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the second one by the Romans in 70 CE. As a result of that second destruction, we Jews went into exile, dispersed all around the globe with some of us winding up in places as disparate as Sydney, Minneapolis, Teheran, and London.
Even in 2016, as we have for thousands of years, Jews pray three times a day for a return to Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel and specifically for the Third Temple to be rebuilt; (that there is a large mosque called Al Aksa currently standing on the site where the Temple will one day be reconstructed is just another of the huge problems -theological and otherwise – that face the Jewish people.) With this historical background in mind, here’s a reconstruction of what I remember that first Rabbi saying:
“…And it is imperative to remember that the Temple we pray for, the temple we’ve been longing for these many millennia, is not an edifice of stone or of steel, but rather, it is a place in our hearts and a space in our spirits. A state of mind and soul where all men are brothers, where harmony is the rule and where peace reigns on the face of the Earth. Nay, we long not for any material structure, but for a heart that beats with love and mercy for all.”
The Rabbi said this all in a voice that rose and fell, a voice practiced in the skills of oratory; and the crowed nodded in agreement. I thought I’d heard these kinds of platitudes before. But now it was time for the man I’d come to see and I wondered if anyone cared as much as I did.
The Thirteen Petalled Rose is a serious book, written in a scholarly, almost somber tone. Having never seen a picture of Rabbi Steinsaltz, I was at first taken aback when he shambled onto the stage. He was small, almost elfin. His clothes were a bit disheveled, his pants a bit too short, and his beard was wild and unkempt with streaks of yellow. What I noticed more than anything else was a certain glint in his eyes, as if he were about to play some tremendous prank on his audience. He approached the lectern slowly, with no notes whatsoever. He looked out at the crowd, assessing us, just as we were assessing him; after all, we were curious to meet a real live ‘once in a millennia scholar.’ Here’s how I recall his first words that afternoon:
“Thank you my dear friends for coming to see me today, I’m quite sure most of you have much better things to do than to listen to an old man. I also want to thank the esteemed Rabbi for his thoughts on the future in general and more specifically on his view of the Third Temple. What I’m most curious about however, is whether or not the good Rabbi has ever made love to a woman, and perhaps whether he is of the opinion that a purely platonic love is somehow the best form of love…”
The crowd, now visibly alarmed, muttered some and twisted in their seats. A handful of people simply got up and left. Had they heard the Rabbi correctly? Were the first words out of this bearded, clearly religious man’s mouth, about sex? He went on.
“And I wonder if the Rabbi who proceeded me here on this stage believes as well, that reality is comprised of nothing other than a spiritual dimension? Because in every case, as far as I’m aware, where there is a longing for something, that longing must also contain the element to which we human beings connect with most easily, that being, physicality. To say that the Third Temple exists only in the mind, that it is merely some ephemeral thing, rather than an actual construction of stone, is to relegate one of the central components of our faith to a fairy tale. Just as physical love between a man and a woman is inexpressibly higher, incomparably deeper than platonic love, so too a dream for our nation’s future must also contain both the physical and the spiritual for it to become a reality.”
It was just then that someone in the audience stood up and shouted, “What the hell do you know about reality?” (I suppose I should also mention that aside from being one of the great rabbinical minds of our age, Adin Steinsaltz is also a zoologist, and a scientist, having served as a resident scholar at Yale University, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington, D.C.) But rather than be the least bit offended by the outburst, Rabbi Steinsaltz smiled and extended a warm invitation to the man for a discussion about the nature of reality backstage, after he’d concluded his speech.
That first encounter with Adin Steinsaltz sealed the deal. I had been taken with his self-effacing charm, his quick wit and the love, evident in the way he embraced the crowd and brought them to embrace him as well – even as he posed his challenging ideas.
In our meeting with the Rabbi last week, we found him in good spirits but looking thin and somewhat older than his seventy-eight years. A bit weary as well, perhaps from a recent surgery, his voice heavily accented and very quiet, was one I strained to hear over the noise of the electric heater set up in his spare office to ward off the chill of a rainy Jerusalem morning. As he struggled to light his ever-present pipe and I sipped on green tea, we soon got around to the question of anti Semitism. Why, we wondered, did the world seem to hate Jews as much it did?
To this question he had exactly one quote and two jokes to offer. I should add that none of these added any profound insights, only confirmation that historical disdain for the Jewish people is somehow ingrained into the fabric of the universe.
First the quote:
Kant, expressed two great perplexities: The first, being the survival of the Jewish people through the millennia, and the second, the world’s never-ending scourge of anti-semitism.
And then the two jokes – from what is arguably one of the great minds of the last thousand years:
A person was asked to explain anti-Semitism. “Anti-semitism,” he said, “is when someone hates a Jew even more than they deserve to be hated.”
A man once said to his friend: “There are two causes for the ills of the world. One is the Jews, the other are bicycle racers. To which his friend replied, “Ok, the Jews I understand… but what about the bicycle racers?”
We left Rabbi Steinsaltz’s office not knowing precisely what category to place him in. Meeting someone that truly defies description is not common. It is however, beautiful and uplifting.