Remembering Rabbi Steinsaltz z”l

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has been a towering presence in my Jewish learning for the past forty years. I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally, but I feel that he has been my steadiest hevruta since ninth grade, when our high school presented us each with his Hebrew edition of Brakhot for Talmud class. I subsequently purchased and read many Steinsaltz Talmud volumes, starting with The Essential Talmud, and his Hebrew reference guide to Talmud study (מדריך לתלמוד). Later, I read his books on Jewish mysticism (The Thirteen Petaled Rose), on repentance, and on Jewish prayer.

I recall one speech that I heard from Rabbi Steinsaltz in Detroit, maybe 25 years ago. He was speaking before the holidays on the subject of Teshuvah and said that many people make the mistake of setting Rabbi Akiva as their role model. Illiterate at 40, but a towering Torah scholar soon thereafter—wouldn’t we all like to become so accomplished! Yes, Steinsaltz said, Rabbi Akiva is very impressive, but is he a realistic role model? When it comes to our own return to Judaism, we should seek not to sprint, but to become long distance runners. Do not fret, he told us, that you are still only beginning to gain knowledge of Torah and practice mitzvot. Establish long term goals and good habits, and your soul will be as beloved to God as that of any great scholar of our history. If Rabbi Steinsaltz had only preached this message, that might have been enough, but instead he created an entire library to give access and encouragement to Torah students at every level. Now that his Talmud commentary has been translated by Koren and made freely available on Sefaria, the entire world has access to the remarkable world of the Talmud.

I recently began studying Bavli Ketubot in memory of my mother, who was a calligrapher and ketubah artist. I’m afraid that  I am not on pace to finish by her 15th yahrzeit this Sukkot, and I’ll admit that much of the material is painful to contemplate, but she loved Torah and her presence sustains me in my study.

The second chapter of Bavli Ketubot explores the laws of testimony (עדות) which normally requires two independent witnesses who have no personal interest or family relationship to either party or to each other. The (male) rabbis generally prevent women from testifying, but they make some exceptions, even when there are other reasons to disqualify their testimony, as when it affects their own status.

These texts are obviously patriarchal—women are treated as subjects of rabbinic authority. Yet there are moments when the sages reveal flaws in their system, opening windows to a different reality in which women are viewed as legally competent and authorized to exercise agency in their own lives. Some of these texts fault men as irresponsible custodians of women’s lives; this awareness has consequences for both men—who are forced into actions that they would resist—and for women, who gain a measure of control previously denied them.

A story is told at Ketubot 23a of a group of captive women who were redeemed in the city of Nehardea, where Shmuel and his family were the dominant rabbinic leaders. Shmuel’s father recruits guards to protect these women, but his famous son asks an impertinent and shockingly insensitive question—“Who was guarding them until now?” Implicit in Shmuel’s words is that he views these women as damaged goods, hardly worth the effort of further protection. Shmuel’s father replies sharply, “If they were your daughters would you disparage them so?” The editor cites Kohelet 10:5, saying that the father of Shmuel’s question was, “like an error committed by a ruler.”

This observation precedes a horrific development when Shmuel’s own daughters are soon taken captive and brought to Palestine to be sold as slaves or redeemed by the local community. Yet this information is presented neutrally–after all, the point of the story is really a point of law, in this case a principle established in the prior Mishnah, and expanded upon by Shmuel’s father. If a woman presents negative information about herself prior to other reports, then she is trusted also to present positive information, even if it is in her self-interest, and even if independent reports subsequently become available. Indeed, this is precisely what plays out with Shmuel’s daughters.

The girls ask their captor to remain outside while they each enter the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Hanina to announce their own status: “I have been taken captive, but have not been violated.” If this testimony is accepted, then they will improve their marital prospects; this motivation would normally raise suspicions about their testimony. But because they themselves revealed their captive status, compromising their own position, they are trusted to also testify on their own behalf, even though their captor is just outside the door, and the truth will soon be known (it seems possible that the captor shares their self-interest, since he may get a higher redemption fee for unmolested captives).

These girls demonstrate remarkable familiarity with the workings of rabbinic law, and are quickly identified as members of an elite rabbinic family. Rabbi Hanina learns that they are related to one of his students, Rabbi Shemen [=Shimon] bar Abba, and tells him to take care of his relations—that is, to redeem them, and perhaps to marry one of them. Rabbi Shemen tries to object based on legal interpretation, but Rabbi Hanina pushes his proofs aside, with a final flourish citing none other than the father of Shmuel—even if witnesses arrive and testify that the girls had been taken captive, and even if this testimony arrives prior to their marriage, the women are nevertheless to be believed.

Notice that in this story there are “good rabbis,” and “bad rabbis,” with the former distinguishing themselves through hermeneutics that not only protect women but also recognize their legal agency. The “bad rabbis” are not necessarily evil, but they are insensitive, and therefore unworthy custodians of women, even in their own family. This story is certainly not feminist—it is similar to the stories analyzed by Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky in her book on gender play in the Bible, a story that challenges but ultimately reinforces the patriarchy. In the end rabbis like Shmuel and Shemen learn their lesson, the girls are redeemed and married off to proper men, who remain very much in control of their lives. But the story exposes the deficiencies of this arrangement, the tendency of men to mismanage their responsibilities toward women, and the ability and right of women to assert their own interests. For an ancient text, it has much to offer modern readers as they examine systemic discrimination in their own time.

Rabbi Steinsaltz provides his full toolbox to explicate this fascinating and troubling story. He cites parallel texts, manuscript variants, and offers a philological note on a rare word (istan), which he traces to an Assyrian word for north. Steinsaltz adds a paragraph on the story of the daughters of Samuel, supplementing it with material from elsewhere in the Bavli and Yerushalmi. At the bottom of the page, Steinsaltz summarizes medieval commentaries (especially Ritba) and gives citations to the halakhic codes.

With all this assistance, Rabbi Steinsaltz helps a modern reader understand a difficult story. However, we must acknowledge what he does not do. Rabbi Steinsaltz does not offer a critique of the ancient, medieval or modern rabbis for their construction of gender. His commentary presents the Talmud on its own terms, using modern tools such as philology and manuscript witnesses to explicate what is found in its pages, and medieval commentaries to share how the text has been understood and implemented in Jewish practice. He is not a cultural critic, nor are his critical tools used for pure historical inquiry. Rabbi Steinsaltz is very much an Orthodox scholar, confident that our ancient texts do not require apologetics. He does not criticize the sages for their patriarchal institutions, nor does he defend them against modern critics. He simply helps us read the sages and understand them on their own terms.

While Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is not, therefore, the type of scholar who can teach us how to integrate these texts into a modern, egalitarian perspective, he gives those of us who are so inclined the tools to access the world of the ancient sages. With that access, we, and our students, and the students of our students, will be able to add layers of meaning to the Torah, and find within its vast pages a usable past. We are forever in his debt. יהי זכרו ברוך

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף כג עמוד א

ואם משנשאת באו עדים וכו’. אמר אבוה דשמואל: לא נשאת – נשאת ממש, אלא כיון שהתירוה לינשא אף על פי שלא נשאת. והא לא תצא קתני! לא תצא מהתירה הראשון. ת”ר: אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, ויש לי עדים שטהורה אני, אין אומרים נמתין עד שיבאו עדים, אלא מתירין אותה מיד; התירוה לינשא, ואחר כך באו עדים ואמרו לא ידענו – הרי זו לא תצא, ואם באו עדי טומאה, אפי’ יש לה כמה בנים – תצא. הני שבוייתא דאתיין לנהרדעא, אותיב אבוה דשמואל נטורי בהדייהו. א”ל שמואל: ועד האידנא מאן נטרינהו? א”ל: אילו בנתך הווין, מי הוית מזלזל בהו כולי האי? הואי כשגגה שיוצא מלפני השליט, ואישתביין בנתיה דמר שמואל ואסקינהו לארעא דישראל. אוקמן לשבויינהו מאבראי ועיילי לבי מדרשא דר’ חנינא, הא אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, והא אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, שרינהו. סוף עול אתו שבויינהו, אמר רבי חנינא: בנן דמוריין אינון. איגלאי מילתא דבנתיה דמר שמואל הווין, אמר ליה רבי חנינא לרב שמן בר אבא: פוק איטפל בקרובותיך, אמר ליה לרבי חנינא: והאיכא עדים במדינת הים! השתא מיהת ליתנהו קמן, עדים בצד אסתן ותאסר? טעמא דלא אתו עדים, הא אתו עדים מיתסרא, והאמר אבוה דשמואל: כיון שהתירוה לינשא אף על פי שלא נשאת! אמר רב אשי: עדי טומאה איתמר.