Challenging Faith in a Traditional Setting (On Rav Adin Steinzaltz)

The news lines are all abuzz with the coming end to Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz’s monumental translation of the Babylonian Talmud, a project which spans 45 years. The usual discussions are being had regarding the usefulness of this innovation, as well as other, more controversial aspects of his persona. Indeed, if ever there was an religious figure deserving of a biography, Rav Steinzaltz would be it.

I would like to regale one particular story I heard about him, the point of which will be explained below:

Rav Steinzaltz was invited to speak before the students of a yeshiva. He got up, in front of teachers and students, and proceeded to give five arguments for the non-existence of God. Afterwards he stepped down and started to walk away. The Rabbis of the yeshiva, horrified that he was letting the speech end on that note, asked him to continue the lecture, obviously hoping he would refute what he had just said. Rav Steinzaltz went back and then made a sixth argument against God’s existence. When asked why he did so, his reply was “Nobody thinks anymore. They need to start.”

Now, you can say what you will about Rav Steinzaltz’s idiosyncratic persona and unorthodox actions. I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that he is a devout, believing Jew. So what gives? Here’s my take:

In a discussion on whether (and how) to teach DH in Orthodox high schools, a commenter pointed out that in his experience, more people crash because of science and philosophical questions than the issue of authorship of the Chumash. It is not hard to guess why: if Jewish philosophy is taught at all, it is usually done via the old medieval method of “proofs” of God, a concept which is untenable in the post-Kantian era. The same goes for discussions of science and religion, which are often triumphalist and dismissive in tone.

Anyone who goes out into the real world or college will quickly learn that things are far more complicated than that. If they are unable to think and cope with these challenges, they’ll either collapse or their children will. Hence Rav Steinzaltz’s rattling of the cages.

So what do you say, dear reader?


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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4 Responses to Challenging Faith in a Traditional Setting (On Rav Adin Steinzaltz)

  1. fred says:

    rattling cages is fine. but you are not helping anyone by doing what seinzaltz did. you cannot just destroy without building; that is just negative. i mean, is this all the guy had to say to these kids? there are very few places for them to go from that point. they could either reject him out of hand, or adopt his heretical standpoint [as presented], neither of which solves any problems. this is a pretty big risk without giving a concrete direction or advice. he did not know these kids, and this is what he did?!? if i were the rosh yeshiva there i would have gotten up immediately and debunked everything a.s. said. so basically, my read is that he helped no one with his daring.
    i do agree with you about jewish philosophy. ben chorin had a post a while ago which is on target. at the end of the day, there is little proof for our way of life. herman wouk wrote in, i believe, this is my god [and possibly also the will to live on] that he based his life on a hunch, and it is only verifiable thru experience, not proof.
    i also think that going off often has less to do with philosophy and more to do with experience: a cruel teacher, lack of religious structure or society in college, etc. this hunch of mine is corroborated in a j.a. response to rav aharon lichtenstein about 8 years ago, and in the highly impressionistic book by faranak margolese.

    • AIWAC says:


      I have spent the better part of three months trying to describe positive methods of coping or bringing those of others. Just because I mentioned Rav Steinzaltz’s method doesn’t mean I agree with it, even though I agree that we cannot be cavalier about the questions.

      You of all people should know this is not my method.


      • fred says:

        i did not mean you when i wrote ‘you.’ i meant ‘one,’ or perhaps in this case specifically a.s.
        sorry you inferred that i thought you agreed with a.s.

  2. Pingback: Challenging Faith in a Traditional Setting (on Rav Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo) | QED

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