Adin Steinsaltz and his Faithful, Driving Boswell


On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz
By Arthur Kurzweil
290 pages. Jossey-Bass. $24.95.


One of my favorite moments in Arthur Kurzweil’s memoir-cum-hagiography-cum-popularization of the teachings of his hero, the prolific genius Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, comes right at the beginning. Kurzweil is describing his own path to Jewish observance, and relates how, as he was beginning to take on Jewish practice more openly, he fretted over whether or not to wear a yarmulke to a breakfast date with a friend. He decides at the last minute not to do so, stuffing it in his pocket. And then, at the breakfast, his friend says, “I have something to tell you, Arthur. I’m a lesbian.”

Then Kurzweil writes, “she was brave enough to come out of her closet, but I was still a Marrano, a hidden Jew.”

I think that in this simple anecdote lies much of what is appealing about On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz. First, there is Kurzweil’s own voice—someone (maybe Kurzweil himself, or maybe his editor) made the very smart decision not to make the book all about Rabbi Steinsaltz and His Wisdom. Everyone who’s learned with Arthur Kurzweil knows he’s a funny, engaging guy, and that comes through in the book, making it less a puff piece about Steinsaltz and more a first-person account of one scholar’s admiration for another. Without Boswell, after all, Samuel Johnson would be insufferable.

Second, there is, in that simple story, a glimpse of what Kurzweil and others seem to admire about Rabbi Steinsaltz: he’s open, driven, and clearly “out” as a Hasidic Orthodox Jew. There are, today, plenty of market-driven celebrity teachers who give catchily-titled lectures for $15,000 a weekend. Some are Orthodox, some Reform, some conservative, some liberal—but the main thing is that they see themselves either as products or as salesmen. Not Steinsaltz. For all his many efforts to popularize and render accessible the Jewish tradition, he never gives the impression of hucksterism. He means what he says, and he’s got the intellectual and spiritual credibility to back it up. No shame here, and no shamelessness, either.

And finally, there is, right in that early anecdote, the almost rambling quality of memoir that makes On the Road an enjoyable read. There were times at which it felt more like Kurzweil’s story than Steinsaltz’s, and frankly, I didn’t care. In fact, I’m not sure I prefer Steinsaltz’s almost saintly demeanor (at least as presented in the book) to Kurzweil’s messy imperfection. As presented by his adoring student, Steinsaltz is a paragon of virtue and brilliance—Israel Prize winner, family man, tireless promoter of all things Jewish. Kurzweil, in contrast, gets divorced, has crises of faith, and gets upset in traffic jams. I think I like him more. His story resonates more with my own and, I think, with the Jewish tradition of conveying moral teachings not through perfect moral exemplars but in the real stories of imperfect heroes.

On the Road is loosely structured around a series of encounters between Kurzweil and Steinsaltz, starting around 1986, when the young Kurzweil offered to be the older scholar’s chauffeur when he visited the United States from Israel. You couldn’t ask for a better framing device: teacher and student trapped in a car, sharing over 20 years of scholarship and life together.

Curiously, the book is at its weakest when Kurzweil drops out and presents Steinsaltz’s teachings to the reader. Maybe it’s because Kurzweil oversells—he credits Steinsaltz with changing his life, calls him the preeminent scholar of our generation, and basically sets us up to expect life-changing pearls of wisdom from the man, who dispenses, by and large, fairly standard Jewish teachings on ethics, mysticism, and the like. As this reviewer has noted on this site before, Steinsaltz is a brilliant thinker, but also, in some ways, a conservative one. There’s not as much newness in what Steinsaltz says as Kurzweil leads us to expect.

More interesting, to Kurzweil and the reader, is how Steinsaltz’s traditional outlook meets the modern world. In their first meeting, Steinsaltz agrees with Kurzweil that many Jewish teachings accord with those of “the East,” saying, “How could it be otherwise?” He admits that Jews do many of the same things as members of other religious traditions, saying only that “Jews do it in a Jewish way.” And he has surprisingly insightful things to say about marijuana, consumerism, and the counterculture.

Much of this worldliness no doubt springs from Steinsaltz’s secular upbringing in pre-state Jerusalem. “I read Marx and Lenin before I read the Bible” he tells Kurzweil at one point. “I disliked those Orthodox Jews. I used to throw rocks at them.” Unfortunately, Kurzweil glosses over Steinsaltz’s transition from a “nonbelieving teenager” to a follower of Chabad Hasidism. We see Steinsaltz rub shoulders with senators and celebrities, but we don’t get much in the way of his own personal evolution. Unlike Kurzweil, whose religious journey is one of the primary narratives of the book, Steinsaltz appears as more or less a static character, rising in the world but essentially unchanging in his wisdom.

Too bad. The enthusiasm Kurzweil has for Talmud study and for Kabbalah leaps off the page. It would have been interesting to learn more about how Steinsaltz sees the relationship between the two: that is, between the hyper-rational Talmud on the one hand, and the non-rational Kabbalah on the other. There are a few hints here and there. For example, when Steinsaltz does start talking about spirituality and rationalism—over dinner at My Most Favorite Dessert Company in Midtown Manhattan, yet another appealing setting for an informal discourse on the meaning of life—he is a perceptive critic both of the “well-dried” historicism of the Conservative and Reform movements in America and of the “very crazy” weirdness of the American New Age. And, while avoiding the usual clichés of off-the-shelf spirituality, he does have some remarkably Buddhist-sounding moments like this one:

Look at a sparrow. And then look at the sparrow without trying to think of its being a sparrow... This is what is called, what they used to call, ‘the eye of a poet.’ In a different way, it is the eye of the scientist. And in a different way, it is the eye of the lover. This is an eye that is not searching for abstractions. If I look at somebody that I love, it doesn’t mean that instead of seeing a nose I see something completely different. But somehow I see the nose and it appears to be a very different and very unique nose, not like anything else.

I was reminded, reading this passage, of the words of neglected writer Donald Windham, who said, “It is ordinary to love the marvelous. It is marvelous to love the ordinary.”

Perhaps here is the link between Steinsaltz the translator of the Talmud and Steinsaltz the sometimes recondite mystic: this bringing together of the revealed and the concealed, a refusal to deny either the facticity of ordinary reality or its deeper, unknowable Essence. That, after all, is one of the deepest teachings of Chabad Hasidism: not the flight from the world to God, but the integration of the two together. This is why Judaism is a religion of the body more than of the “spirit,” because in the body, heaven and earth meet. And perhaps it is why Steinsaltz has been able to speak to such diverse audiences, and why his books are on the shelves of people who surely do not agree with his views of Jewish identity, the divinity of the Law, or a host of other issues: because he has never lost his appreciation of idiosyncrasy, difference, and individuality.

There would, of course, have been an Adin Steinsaltz even had their been no Arthur Kurzweil. Yet it is through Kurzweil’s own journeys that Steinsaltz’s teachings are illuminated. Abstracted from human life, they are occasionally interesting, and sometimes rather pat. But when applied, when presented not to a faceless general audience but to an individual student with his own strengths and weaknesses, they take on a more profound cast. Kurzweil depicts his teacher as almost superhuman, but it is in their encounter with messy humanity that Steinsaltz’s ideas gain vitality. As the rabbi tells Kurzweil at the end of the book, “I was once worried about you... You used to put me so high. I see that you’ve grown up a little.”