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How Rabbi Steinsaltz’s whiskey shenanigans changed Judaism for me

It was one of my most memorable interviews. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the world renowned Talmudist who died on Friday, sat opposite me, puffing away on his pipe, regaling me with the tale of a drinking escapade with two friends.

“Between us, we finished about three bottles of whisky,” he said, telling me what an “experience” it was.

One of the friends was Conor Cruise O’Brien, the late Irish politician and writer who once famously tried to use the might of the United Nations to keep his glass charged, writing a resolution that insisted the UN headquarters guarantee “the free flow of wholesome beer at a temperature appropriate to the present thaw in international relations.”

But Steinsaltz intimated that he drank O’Brien and his other friend under the table. “In fact, I have a better head for drinking than they have,” he told me.

If it seems galling to share this recollection soon after his death, that’s precisely why it should be shared. Steinsaltz was a great scholar. With his mammoth Talmud translation and commentary, he made the seminal work of rabbinic wisdom accessible to all. In other books he provided valuable insight into a range of other topics, from Passover to prayer.

And it was all done with a view to empower Jewish people to feel connected to our tradition. “What I am doing,” he told me, “is changing the melody of one simple sentence, which is: ‘I am a Jew.’

“The sentence has two possible melodies. One is the tune of: ‘I have an inherited disease.’ The meaning is: ‘I’m not guilty, I didn’t do anything. I acquired it. I try as much as I can to hide it. And if I have a way of getting rid of it, though I probably cannot, I will try.

“The other is to sing ‘I am a Jew’ in the same way you’d sing: ‘I am a royal prince – it’s not my doing, I inherited it.’ The point lies in what your attitude is towards this inheritance.”

Nu, Nathan? You interview this great thinker, twice, for conversations that lasted hundreds of pipe-puffs, and decide upon his passing to share a drinking story?

Absolutely. Because his unusual choice of conversation topic during our interview was no mere amusement. It was a profound lesson we can hold onto, long after his passing.

Steinsaltz was not just being charming. He was laughing in the face of a culture where some religious leaders take on superior airs, dressing in royal garb and claiming VIP connections to the Almighty.

In his scholarship, Steinsaltz was manning the barricades against the trend of hagiography – depicting our great Jews as one-dimensional saints.

One of many lessons he taught us was that when we record the lives of our heroes, we need to remember them as three-dimensional beings. That doesn’t mean dishing dirt; it means remembering them as relatable and deeply human characters.

He controversially insisted that even Biblical characters should not be idealized. He sharply dismissed the view that any person “is a saint so you shouldn’t say something.”

As a scholar of such enormous standing, it was easy to put Steinsaltz on a pedestal. But both times I met him, he steered the conversation to ensure this could not happen.

At our second meeting, in 2011, he insisted on interviewing this interviewer before talking about himself, and went on to be frank about his own personality, saying the task he had just finished, the first ever translation of the Talmud into Modern Hebrew, “was in many ways to keep myself in rein.”

He was tempted to write “astonishing” and “novel” works, but that would have put him at the center. “Working on this kind of thing you are far more thinking about the readers, whoever they are, than you are thinking about what I can do to glorify myself,” he said.

At our first interview, in 2005, the 26-year-old journalist in front of him was awestruck. I wrote in my article at the time that, given the authority he had as a reference resource on the page, meeting him “feels as unreal as, say, going for tea with the Oxford English Dictionary.”

He wanted none of that. If we were spending time together, I was to take him as he was, complete with a drinking story, and an admission amid his long, winding sentences that he was “very un-user friendly.” We talked about his interests at the time, as an amateur detective novelist, sculptor and zoologist.

He criticized the adulation of rabbis, saying that “whether you worship Michael Jackson or Rabbi So-and-So it is sometimes the same need to be dependent.”

I was reporting on religious affairs at the time and these cookie-cutter accounts of great sages were all around me, so it was refreshing to meet one who gave such a rounded view of himself, and urged doing so with other figures we encounter as we delve into Jewish study.

I went to hear about Steinsaltz the Talmudist, but in his worldview, if you only bother to listen when a person is answering the questions you think are important, you miss some of the best and most interesting bits.

“People are intrinsically complex, complicated, so to make a hagiography is to take a real person and to overcast him with plastic cladding,” he said in a video interview.

There is next-to-no importance in the fact that Steinsaltz went drinking with Conor Cruise O’Brien and they finished three bottles of whisky.

What’s important is that he was the type of person who would tell such a story, and speak of much else that made him relatable, when being quizzed on his magnum opus by an admiring young journalist.

Just as his Talmud translation and commentary is part of his lasting legacy to the Jewish People, so is his clarion call against hagiography. And the way he made sure there was no pedestal in sight when I interviewed him, makes me think about this now.

It makes me think that, as the great and the good are giving him well-deserved plaudits for his earnest achievements, he would like to also be remembered as he taught us to remember others.

I’m convinced that he would crack a smile if he could see that, as Israel’s Prime Minister and President are eulogizing him, it’s also being noted that he could hold his drink better than Conor Cruise O’Brien could.

Our image of people can quickly fade to the sum part of their Wikipedia entries, or the hallowed pages of rabbinically-sanctioned biographies. I hope our memories of Steinsaltz capture something of the three-dimensional man.

Original: Nathan Jeffay – TOI