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Steinsaltz Urges American Jews to “Find the Holy in the New” and Keep Judaism Vibrant

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July - August 2005

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who has drawn widespread acclaim for his interpretation, commentaries and translations of the Babylonian Talmud, sounded a note of caution about the future of Judaism in America at a talk in Washington, D.C. in June.  

According to Washington Jewish Week (June 30, 2005), Steinsaltz said that, “If we rely on anti-semitism to maintain us, it is not a reliable help.” Nor can Israel’s existence preserve Jewish life in America. “You cannot live, like so many American Jews are led to believe, a vicarious life.”  

Keeping Judaism vibrant paradoxically means, in the view of this Orthodox and Chasidic thinker, to “find the holy in the new.” He declared: “The urge for renewal is important because I cannot live on tradition and keeping the memories of my parents. I have to have my own personal encounter with the divine.”  

Steinsaltz, whose latest book is We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do? (Jossey-Bass, 2005), participated in a meeting at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center which involved a conversation with veteran broadcaster Ted Koppel.  

Koppel pressed Steinsaltz about his book’s thesis that Jews, as a group, have some distinctive traits. These qualities, said the rabbi, are “deeply cultural” and may stem in part from “100 generations of selective breeding” that favored Jews who had a certaIn stubbornness, enabling them to maintain their faith in the face of adversity. The Jewish people, he said, also “suffer from a Messiah complex ... Jews, especially when they are young, have a feeling that they have a mission to save the world.”  

On the theological side, asked by an audience member to describe God, Steinsaltz told his own advice to a student who teaches preschool. In speaking of the divine, he urged highlighting “the infinity of God” and “God is anywhere and everywhere.”  

Fielding a question on the seeming conflict between prayers of petition and free will, Steinsaltz spoke about the ultimate mystery of God’s response to human beings: “We have, all of us, whether we are great believers or small believers, we have complaints about God. If I get any answer that I understand and am satisfied with, surely it is not the right answer.”  

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