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More than Words

November 3, 2010 – 11:01 pm27 Comments

By Simon Holloway

On November 7th, this coming Sunday, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz will be completing his forty-five year project of translating the entire Babylonian Talmud into Israeli Hebrew. Abigail Leichman, writing for the New Jersey Jewish Standard, notes that completion ceremonies (siyyumim) are going to be held in several locations around the world, including Mumbai, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Washington, Moscow, and Melbourne, Australia. But as Sue Fishkoff of JTA notes, there has been a great deal of attendant controversy.

Most important among the various criticisms of Rabbi Steinsaltz is the fact that, in June of 2005, he accepted an appointment to the post of Nasi on Israel’s fledgling Sanhedrin. As TheSanhedrin.org makes very clear, this is a body that expects to usher in the redemption of the Jewish people with a return to the state of play two millennia ago. It is fascinating to read their account of various of the other rabbis who make up the Sanhedrin and who were voted on for Nasi, which is a list that includes the founder of The Temple Institute in Jerusalem (an organisation that has already started building vessels for the third temple), the founder of Nachal Hareidi (a branch of the army that allows for participation from ultra-orthodox youth), and the brother of Rabbi Meir Kahane. For a considerably less positive view of them, Kobi Nahshoni reports at Ynet on their attempts to impose Torah law upon the Israeli population, their public boycotting of the Beijing Olympics, and their continued agitation for war with Hamas.

And in the midst of all of this, Rabbi Steinsaltz is translating the Babylonian Talmud. We would none of us doubt that he is a pious man, but that he is also tremendously learned is beyond reproof: he has published fifty-eight books on a wide range of topics, and has been releasing tractates of the Talmud as he has been producing them. Simply vocalising and punctuating the Aramaic text would have been an incredible achievement in itself (if not a slightly audacious one), but his translation is both lucid and precise. He lost much in the way of support in the early days, when he made the decision to visually replace Rashi’s commentary with his own translational commentary, and to move Rashi in with the Tosafot. Since causing a stir, new editions of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s “Vilna Edition” maintain the traditional typesetting, with the rabbi’s translation and commentary on the facing page. As it stands today, despite whatever opposition it may receive from certain circles, his translation is the best translation on the market: it significantly supersedes Artscroll for both its readability and its precision, and it is no surprise that it is being celebrated in so many locations around the world. Given the tension caused by his election to the head of Israel’s “self-appointed supreme court”, it is unsurprising that not one of those locations is in Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, while supportive of the project, notes that one must expect controversy when a single individual wishes to translate a vast and variegated corpus of literature, composed by multiple authors over the course of a few centuries. But an appreciation of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s perspective indicates that he not only sees himself as fitting for the task, but as a kind of 21st century Ezra, returning Torah to the people and laying the groundwork for the rebuilding of the temple. In an interview given to JTA, Rabbi Steinsaltz has the following to say:

“The Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish knowledge, important for the overall understanding of what is Jewish… But it is a book that Jews cannot understand. This is a dangerous situation, like a collective amnesia. I tried to make pathways through which people will be able to enter the Talmud without encountering impassable barriers. It’s something that will always be a challenge, but I tried to make it at least possible.”

This simple statement is a profound indicator of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s governing philosophy. For a start, he perceives the Talmud as “the central pillar of Jewish knowledge”. We can all of us agree that the Talmud is a central pillar, although some of us might prefer the indefinite article to the definite. Is the Talmud truly at the centre for all Jews, or have there always been Jews who elevated other corpora? As the man whose most popular publication was The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Steinsaltz is undoubtedly aware of the existence of Jews throughout history who have venerated the mystical tradition over and above the halakhic; were he adamant that the kabbalah can only be understood by Talmudic scholars, it is unlikely that he would have composed a popular introduction to Jewish mysticism.

And yet, he here describes the Babylonian Talmud as crucial for “the overall understanding of what is Jewish”. Well, what is Jewish? For Rabbi Steinsaltz, over and above every possible manifestation and expression of Judaism, there is one application of the faith that possesses authority. Delineated by a strict interpretation of the Talmud, and governed by a rigorous application of Torah law, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Judaism is anything but pluralist.

But then, as Rabbi Meir Kahane once noted, democracy is not a Jewish phenomenon. Any Jew who hearkens for a return to the monarchy, a re-establishment of the temple and a resumption of sacrificial offerings must reckon with the crucial reality of life under theocracy. No amount of wishful retrojection changes the very real and very nasty images that the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah provide for us. The forced exile and execution of religious dissidents, the expulsion of non-Jews from Judea, the repeated and deliberate confrontation with Israel’s enemies, the cursing and the spitting and the tearing out of hair. These are all phenomena, whether good, bad or ugly, that heralded in the era of second temple Judaism, in all its sectarian glory. For those of us who shudder at the thought of such a contemporary revolution, it is fortunate that Israel’s infant Sanhedrin has enemies on every side of the religious divide. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that their establishment, like the Nasi‘s translation of the Talmud itself, says much as regards the expectations of many. If they were ever to succeed in their aims of uniting the religious parties beneath their authority and of establishing themselves as the upper house of Israel’s Knesset, we will have more than words from Rabbi Steinsaltz. And more than words from his detractors as well.

[Addendum: It has recently been drawn to my attention that the list of locations that was published by the Jewish Standard was not exhaustive. Those who are interested can have a look at the exhaustive list. I apologise for the unintentionally misleading remark that I made, concerning Israel’s absence from the list of countries that are celebrating Rabbi Steinsaltz’s incredible achievement. There are no fewer than nine such locations in Israel, four of which are in Jerusalem.

You will also be pleased to note (I know that I was!) that, in addition to Melbourne, there will also be siyyumim in both Cairns and Sydney! The Sydney siyyum is being organised by a friend of mine, and will be held on Sunday evening at Coogee Synagogue.]

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  • Larry Stillman says:

    Wonderfully perceptive about the complex religious politics and ultimate intolerance associated with Stensaltz. But may I say, it was Steinsaltz’s Talmud that gave me an introduction to traditional interpretation that would have otherwise passed me by.

  • Yeshayahu Hollander says:

    Just a little more about Rabbi Steinsaltz.
    When he was a young man – in the 60’s – Newsweek published an article about him, in which he was compared to Leonardo Da Vinci. Others wrote that people of his caliber appear in the history of mankind once in a thousand years. When he started university – he finished the course of learning in theoretical physics in less than one year, together with mathematics [of course, without the math one cannot understand the Quantum Theory and the Theory of General Relativity].

    I do not know what the sources of Kobi Nahshoni are who wrote about attempts of the Sanhedrin to “impose Torah law upon the Israeli population…”. The Sanhedrin did not try to impose anything on anyone. It has no power to impose. It advocates return to a commitment to live according to the Torah, but with a clear understranding that many of what is written in revered books on Jewish law, written over 3 millenia, are inapplicable as written to the situation of the world in our times, and will have to be adapted, as indeed Chief Rabbi Herzog started to do over 60 years ago, in anticipation of the creation of the State of Israel.

    Further, Nahshoni criticizes the Sanhedrin for “their public boycotting of the Beijing Olympics, and their continued agitation for war with Hamas”.

    The boycott of the Beijing olympics was called for because of considerable evidence of the “organ harvesting” of vital body parts in China from those who were killed by the Chinese government because they were considered “enemies of the Chinese Republic”. See, for example, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/apr/27/chinese-accused-of-vast-trade-in-organs/. It is a sign of the depravity of the “World Leaders” that they preferred sports to protesting the mass murders attributed to China.

    The “continued agitation for war with Hamas” is unfortunately absolutely justified: Hamas teaches children to kill every Jew. See for instance http://www.palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=844.

    Samuel Johnson is reported to have said in a discussion with Goldsmith, that before a person has the right to express and opinion, he has the duty to educate himself. This applies, in my mind, to journalists and essayists also.

  • Ilana Leeds says:


    Excellent article and well written response by Yeshayahu Hollander. The last two points he makes, especially the one about Hamas unfortunately very true.

  • Dov Meir says:

    The comment written by Yeshayahu Hollander is excellent. I would like to relate to two very important points in his comment. The Sanhedrin was the first court on the globe condemning the Chinese government about organ harvesting. It is a guide to all humanity that there is one super justice court that is making what is needed to plant justice, charity and grace in the world. Almost all the courts over the world, if not all of them, are running away from confronting injustice, cruelty, murders and so on made by super power country. There is only one address for definite justice. The world will be much better world guided by the values of the Jewish Bible interpretated by the Sanhedrin.
    About democracy. The Jewish law is democracy under basic law = the Bible. The king is basically chosen by the nation, but it is not a condition for the system. Democracy without a basic law is dangerous. Democracy is ruling the minority by the majority. Some times it is very bad for the minority. A good basic law is needed. The bible fulfils it.

  • zc schnur says:

    Just to clarify — your story about the Global Day and Rabbi Steinsaltz’s monumental achievement is somewhat inaccurate. You are using a JTA story that has since been updated, in particular about the Rabbi’s involvement with the formation of the Sanhedrin. He resigned in June 2008 and has not been involved in any of their activities. And he never approved of any activity that did not conform to Halacha. So you may want to update your link to the JTA story in order to provide your reading public with more accurate and updated information.

    thank you

  • Yeshayahu, that’s all very reasonable. I did, after all, say that Kobi Nahshoni presented “a considerably less positive view of them” than is found on TheSanhedrin.org. Did you follow the links? I think that the first of those three articles is the most interesting, myself. While I do not usually read the comments appended to online news sources, the first comment in this situation is quite revealing. “The road to Tehran is open,” one person said. It is a frightening thought. Indeed, I will tell you that there is not one aspect of theocracy that is appealling to me in any respect whatsoever. I think that a supreme court run in accordance with a strict interpretation of Torah law is a frightening monstrosity.

    Of course, contrary to what Dov Meir says, this is not to say that there should be no legislation at all. We should definitely have a “good basic law”, but the biblical literature does not fulfil that. Not for the running of a state, in any case. For the running of one’s personal life, nobody has the right to prevent you from utilising it. But why would you want to live somewhere where people do have that right? Where there are laws that concern whether and how you apply religious texts to your daily living? What if you don’t want to live that way? What if you favour different texts? Or a different religion?

    As for the rest, I was not condemning the Sanhedrin for boycotting the Beijing Olympics, but providing a source for somebody else’s view on the matter. There is more than one solution for dealing with human rights abuses, and supporters of the Olympics were not favouring sport over human life when they stressed that increased media attention in China might help to do the trick. That boycotts and sanctions don’t necessarily achieve their desired purpose is something that an Israeli institution should know full well, and so I do think it tactless of them in the present circumstances to call for a boycott of their own. And we can disagree regarding Hamas: to me, the only way to defeat them is to make them irrelevant. Threatening to kill all of the Palestinian prisoners, and kidnapping senior Palestinian officials is a fairly sloppy and heavyhanded way to combat terrorism. But then, these are all scholars of the law, not military officials or policy analysts.

    ZC Schneur, my link takes you to the updated article already. His 2008 resignation is very relevant indeed, but it does not change any of the information that I have here related about his personal philosophy, nor about the role of the Sanhedrin in contemporary Israel. For more on the former, there are several videos on YouTube. I don’t know how long this link is going to remain good, but it’s here if anybody wants it.

  • ariel says:

    Hi Everyone!

    Simon thank you for publicising the Global Day of Jewish Learning!

    There is an event in Melbourne, but there is also one in Sydney for those who live in Sydney! (I’m organising it and it includes a bbq!)

    Simon, please come along and participate, even though you may get nauseated by the content; I invited you on FB.

    Go to http://www.1people1day.org/registered_communities.php and look for the Sydney Event…


  • Thank you for that, Ariel: I am sorry to say that I thought the list on New Jersey’s Jewish Standard was exhaustive! Contrary to what I said in the article, the culmination of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s remarkable achievement will be celebrated in several locations in Israel as well. I apologise for the misleading nature of that particular remark.

    And I would love to come: I wouldn’t be nauseated at all :) I will, however, be completely incapable of movement, as I’m preparing to cycle 180km that day, from Sydney to Wollongong and back again. I’ll see how I go!

  • ariel says:

    No worries Simon!

    Behatzlacha! If you need help, ring Hatzolah ;p

  • The article mentions the work of the Temple Institute in ominous fashion, as part of a list of “credentials” possessed by the nascent Sanhedrin. The Temple Institute is indeed constructing the vessels to be used in the Holy Temple. The Holy Temple was a central and unifying aspect of the sovereign nation of Israel in times past and has the potential to serve that function again. A majority of Jewish Israelis consistently express their desire for a rebuilt Holy Temple, as has been made evident by polls conducted during recent years, and that support and longing grows stronger as ignorance of the Holy Temple, (as a result of 2000 years of exile), is dispelled via the educational efforts of the Temple Institute and other organizations, religious as well as historical and archaeological.

    The source of the Holy Temple and the priesthood is the Torah, (over 200 of the 613 commandments concern the Holy Temple), and is therefore independent of the authority of the state of Israel. In other words, the Holy Temple embodies by virtue of its establishment, a separation of state and church. This was also the case under the monarchy. This status was at times abused and at times undermined, but it was the status nonetheless.

    Furthermore, the Holy Temple embodies the universalism articulated by the prophets, being a “house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7) What better way for Israel to take its place among the nations, while retaining its own unique identity?

    As for a “resumption of sacrificial offerings” as mentioned later in the article, this, too, is prescribed by Torah law, as as such, is a vital expression of Jewish faith. Whereas the wholesale slaughter of animals in factories for the consumption and physical gratification of countless millions of humans may be of questionable morality, the offerings, as prescribed by Torah, are intended to be done in the light of day, for the purpose of drawing spiritually closer to the Creator of all life. The act itself possesses the power to bring man to the recognition of the inherent worth and holiness possessed in all living things. Surely this can only be a much desired departure from today’s prevailing attitude that domesticated animals exist and are propagated for the sole purpose of filling man’s gullet.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Simon, I enjoyed the article, but am interested to know – what is your basis for claiming that a Jewish monarchy/theocracy would necessarily entail “the forced exile and execution of religious dissidents, the expulsion of non-Jews from Judea, the repeated and deliberate confrontation with Israel’s enemies, the cursing and the spitting and the tearing out of hair”?

    I don’t doubt that incidences of all of the above did occur during the various centuries of the Jewish Commonwealth, but they don’t strike me as being integral to the concept.

    The “repeated and deliberate confrontation with Israel’s enemies”, while mandated in the setting of milchemet mitzvah, is unfortunately not a phenomenon unique to milchemet mitzvah or to a Jewish monarchy. Many of the wars recorded in the Tanach and later were forced upon the Judean and/or Israelite kingdoms by offensive strikes by other nations. This is something we can surely identify with today.

    All the other phenomena you mention are not, to my knowledge, mandated at all. (All the references to “spitting” that immediately come to my mind involve other nations spitting at the Jews as an expression of their fall from grace after the destruction of the beit hamikdash. And certainly this, tearing out hair, etc are just symbolic of behaviours prevalent in the society of the time!)

    Democracy is not an inherently Jewish concept, in the sense that when halacha and the will of the majority of the population collide, halacha trumps majority. However, as Judaism is not a missionary religion, and it would not contravene any halacha for people of other religions to live their lives privately as they wish within the borders of a Jewish state, I think that many values that are held sacred in Western democracies would remain. I doubt there would be grounds for expulsion or execution of any non-Jew. I’m not saying life under a Jewish monarchy and Sanhedrin would be no different to 21st century Australia. I am saying that it would be very different to Iran, or Afghanistan under the Taliban, or any other oppressive regime that immediately comes to mind when reading your description of theocracy above.

  • There’s too much for me to respond to now :)

    For a start, Shira, my references to life under a Jewish theocracy were deliberate references to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. That we have no other examples of this throughout Jewish history (and I extend the pool of documentation to everything pertaining to life in second temple Judah) is only a reflection on the comparative powerlessness of Jews in the millennia since then. Like Muslims who aspire to life under a new and global caliphate, or like Catholics who yearn for a society ruled over by the church, we Jews have a habit of also idealising our past and depicting it in a rosy hue.

    Be it a product of my upbringing or not, it is to me a self-evident truth that people should be allowed to lead their lives as they see fit, with the only exception being that it does not encroach upon another’s ability to do the same. There has never been a theocratic state that has enabled this possibility, nor any theocratic state that has not degenerated into chaos and bloodshed. I have no faith whatsoever in religious Jews succeeding where everybody else has failed. For all of their noble intentions, I would refuse to live in a country that operated in accordance with religious law, as I would be condemned in such a state to being a criminal by virtue of my unbelief.

    Other examples of spitting that come to mind are the spitting on women that occasionally happens in Mea Shearim (and I tell you this, not from first-hand experience, but from the experiences of girls whom I know), and the spitting on women that has been known to happen even at the Kotel, where those women have prayed together and with a Sefer Torah. In all of these particular instances, the person doing the spitting (or cursing, etc) is a Jew who believes that his/her application of Judaism is the only sole application and that all others, by definition, are contemptible. While I would not suggest that such people are in the majority (far from it!), I would expect to start seeing a whole lot more of them around if the start were to operate under their interpretations of religious law.

    It is a basic reality of human existence that, where everybody is religious, those with a drive towards being “religious by comparison” strive towards greater and more excessive forms of religiosity. In a theocratic state, these are the people who end up holding the reins of power in the fullness of time, and I wouldn’t trust them for an instant. So long as this is hypothetical, I am happy to argue back and forth on that point. When it starts to become practical, I will struggle with all that I have to prevent its success.

    As for the Temple Institute, Yitzchak, you are entirely correct in everything that you say. Nonetheless, I do not share your opinions. We have no extra-biblical sources at our disposal for life during the period of the first temple, so we can only speculate on the basis of faith. For life during the second temple, we have copious documentation to testify to powerful tensions between the temple establishment and those other sectors of society (at one point, the Sanhedrin) who were also, ostensibly, in control over the people. I am all for a separation of “church and state”, but I like my “churches” to be significantly less powerful than the states that they are separated from!

    I would also consider any attempt to rebuild the temple an act of war. The first rule of starting wars is not to do it when you cannot possibly win. If an organisation in Israel were to preside over the demolition of the al-Aqsa mosque, you can be most assured that this is a war that Israel will lose. It won’t only ensure that future generations continue to pine for the temple either; it will ensure that future generations pine also for a return to the city of Tel-Aviv.

  • Simon,

    I accept your cautionary words and would like to point out that the Temple Institute does not advocate the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque or the Dome of the Rock. In fact, the Temple Institute does not deal with the issue of how the historical conditions which will precipitate the building of the Holy Temple will come about, as this would be speculative, and is beyond the role of the Institute. The Temple Institute’s role is simply to educate Jews and non-Jews alike as to the significance of the Temple. It is our fervent hope that with greater knowledge of the Holy Temple, the nation of Israel and the nations of the world, (yes, even the Moslem nations), will acknowledge the importance of the Temple and maybe, just maybe, this most volatile spot on earth will become the place which will facilitate the reconciliation of all mankind, as the prophet Haggai says, “And in this place I will grant peace, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Haggai 2:9) Are we dreaming? Perhaps. But is this not the hope which informs Zionism? Is this not the central pillar of Judaism? Can we afford to aspire to less?

  • Dov Meir says:

    In addition to Yitzchak Reuvenws say, It will be very important to emphasize that the Existing Muslims on Temple Mount as the owners of the place is contradict the Jewish faith. The Muslims robed the place and they should leave it or being expelled from the place. The secular government of the state of Israel gave the key of the place to the Muslims an act of traitors. The reasons for this stupid act were:
    a. The political growing power the Muslim citizens of Israel have.
    b. The secular part of the Jews understands that rebuilding of the Temple will decrease drastically the support of the Jewish population in the Secular parties. Which means a state according the Bible.
    c. No trust of the secular leaders in G-D if international pressure will be affected.

    The result is, As written and expected by our ancient scholars, that warned that every place in Israel is under risk if we have not first of all, definitely, the Temple mount, in our hands.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Simon, thanks for your response. I think many of your points are valid, in particular the one about widespread religiosity causing the “chumra of the month club” to become more extreme.

    Can I assume from what you have written, though, that your opposition to a Jewish theocracy stems more from general scepticism that a peaceful and respectful theocracy is ever possible in reality, rather than from specific halachic principles which make such a concept impossible?

    What did you mean by being “condemned in such a state to being a criminal by virtue of my unbelief”? Where a Jewish theocracy might demand something of its citizens, this would presumably be limited to the realm of practice. I don’t think it would attempt, or even want, to police anyone’s thoughts. If you meant that your unbelief would translate into actions which would render you a criminal, then that is a different matter.

    By the way – “Like Muslims who aspire to life under a new and global caliphate, or like Catholics who yearn for a society ruled over by the church” – I hope this analogy of yours served only to point out the common tendency to see the past through rose coloured glasses. I hope you were not attempting to draw an analogy between a Muslim or Catholic theocracy and a Jewish one, as the difference between missionary and non-missionary religions, with the consequent difference in the way in which they view non-believers, makes for a very different type of society.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Yitzchak Reuven – where did you find the statistic that “a majority of Jewish Israelis consistently express their desire for a rebuilt Holy Temple”?
    Is it based on the fact that we say “sheyibaneh beit hamikdash” three times a day (which I doubt the majority of Jewish Israelis do), or has a poll of peoples’ stated opinions been conducted, and if so, among which communities?

  • If the Temple Institute is, as Yitzchak says, a purely preparatory endeavour, without any expectation of the temple being rebuilt beyond the philosophical, then it is a completely benign enterprise. But just as the man who keeps hesitating closer and closer towards the fulfilment of his fantasy is, sooner or later, going to cross the final gap that bridges ideation from actuality, so too is every intimation in the direction of the temple’s reconstruction leading inexorably closer to the point when something is actually done. That point may never come (I hope that it doesn’t), but its practicality is beside the point. If I would strenuously oppose its reconstruction as an actual event, then surely it befits me to mirror any step towards its reconstruction (however small) with steps towards its opposition?

    So far as the nature of my opposition is concerned, Shira has hit the nail on the head. It is in principal, in other words, and not informed by the halakha. I simply do not believe that Judaism is any different in this regard from any other religion. That a comparison to Christianity and Islam should offend you (although I suspect that “offend” is too strong a word) surprises me. From the inside – the inside of any of them – the differences between them deny comparison. But on the outside, are they so different as all that? Judaism is very much a proselytising religion; for historical reasons, we just don’t proselytise outside the faith. But you cannot tell me that what Chabad does within the Jewish community (to pick just one prominent example) is not proselytising. Or that what Aish does (to pick just another) is not the same.

    In reality, Judaism doesn’t actually exist. What we have, as with any religion, is a plurality of Judaisms. Many of them proselytise amongst the others, which is a perspective born of the idea that there is only one real Judaism, and a number of deviations from the norm. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Judaism is one such Judaism, as was the Judaism of Rabbi Meir Kahane (a man whose politics I found most repugnant, but a highly underrated intellectual). I am a fan of pluralism, and of Judaism in all of its variegated complexity. The thought of one form of Judaism ruling over all others, in a land that operates according to their interpretations of the texts that they prioritise is terrifying to me. I would be a criminal in such a society, in every sense of the word. Mostly, deliberately.

  • Shira, I am referring specifically to two polls conducted in the past two years. In the summer of 2009 the Gesher organization published a poll in which 64% of the Jewish population of Israel, (and this included people who defined themselves as ultra-orthodox, religious, traditional and secular), answered positively to the question, “do you want to see the Holy Temple rebuilt?” A similar poll conducted this past summer, and I don’t remember by whom, registered a 50% positive response, still a significant number. (A similar poll conducted in the early 1990’s registered a positive response in the teens. Clearly interest is growing.)

    Simon, the Temple Institute, (much to your chagrin, I assume), very much believes and wants and desires and works toward the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, but again, we do so through education. The recreation of the vessels serves a two-fold purpose. First, as they are built according to the halachic requirements first set out in Torah, and expanded upon in the Talmudic literature and codified by the Rambam, (Mishneh Torah), they are, in fact, suitable and ready to be used in the Temple service. Secondly, their reconstruction dispels the oft-held erroneous notion that either we no longer possess the knowledge of how they are to be built, or that we no longer enjoy the spiritual enlightenment necessary to rebuild them. Clearly all Torah commandments are by definition achievable by man. To think differently would imply that G-d has a very cruel sense of humor, indeed.

    However, concerning the charged geo-political reality which currently exists regarding the Temple Mount, and what measures the people of Israel should take to change this unstable and dangerous situation, this is a decision that can only be made responsibly by the nation as a whole, preferably through the democratic means at hand.

    As Simon has pointed out, there are many different types of Judaism being practiced today. The Holy Temple is not the property of this group or that group, but it should belong to all of Israel, to the exclusion of none. This privilege, of course, like liberty itself, can only be acquired with eternal vigilance.

  • That’s a beautiful quote that you ended with, Yitzchak, and it adorns many an RSL in this fine country :) While he wasn’t the fellow to first give it utterance, the man who popularised this saying was a 19th century English politician named Leonard Courtney. It might interest you to know that he deliberately resigned from office when it became apparant that his government’s Representation of the People Act in 1884 did not allow for proportional representation. I mention this because I suspect that Mr Courtney, like myself, might disagree with you as regards the definition of “liberty”.

    The temple is just an edifice. It neither confers power on some nor robs it from others. For that reason, I have little problem with the things that you are telling me about the institute for which you work. My concern is with the temple bureaucracy: the priesthood that, when they existed in the past, had a de facto rule over the population. I notice that the Temple Institute’s website (and please correct me if I have simply been unable to find the appropriate page) makes no mention of how priests are going to be selected to serve in this privilege. The whole enterprise of picking some families over others strikes me as a necessarily political one, and one can only imagine the problems that might be caused by those who are dissatisfied with having been pronounced “unfit”. I’m not just making up excuses, you’ll appreciate: these are all problems that were faced in the years that a temple stood in Jerusalem. Do you think that our species has improved over the last two millennia? Do people deal better with rejection today? Are there fewer allegations of corruption and nepotism amongst those in high office?

    And what about the Sanhedrin? Let’s not forget that with the reintroduction of animal sacrifice, we’ll also have the reintroduction of capital punishment. Will they likewise adhere to the biblical and rabbinic law as regards the execution of criminals? Will a person who violates Shabbat knowingly and willingly be put to death? And if not, why not? Will they execute homosexuals and adulterers? This is a clear biblical injunction, so they had better have a good reason for negating it! And will they reintroduce slavery? The Torah never says that you must own slaves, but then it also never says that there must be the institution of animal sacrifice either, only how such an institution must operate. As you are no doubt aware, the Rambam opposed the reintroduction of animal sacrifice in his Moreh haNevuchim, having viewed its original manifestation as a concession to idolatrous urges. (I am aware that this is not his halakhic opinion elsewhere.) If one authority wishes to reintroduce that institution, another authority might likewise wish to reintroduce the other.

    You can address any and all of these problems if you wish, and you will no doubt do so eloquently. At the end of the day, as I said before, it is less the actual halakha that concerns me as it is an abiding distrust of theocracy. I think that Islam is a beautiful religion, but the thought of living in a country ruled by religious Muslims gives me the willies. I think that Christianity is very nice too, but I wouldn’t want the church to have any say whatsoever in how I run my life. I think that Judaism is supremely beautiful (I am biased, although for obvious reasons), but the idea of living in a state that operates according to rabbinic law – whether or not there is a temple in Jerusalem – strikes me as a nasty sort of existence. There is no greater intellectual joy than the study of Torah, or so I have found. Let’s keep it in the literature, where anybody can express an opinion on it.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Thank you both for your answers. I am amazed at that statistic about the support for the rebuilding of the beit hamikdash!

    Simon, when discussing the effects of a Jewish theocracy and the experience of its citizens, I think it is important to distinguish between non-Jews and non-religious Jews.

    With regard to non-Jews, as you recognise, there is absolutely no mandate to proselytise – in fact, we discourage prospective converts until they have proven their dedication. Non-Jews living under a Jewish theocracy would be equal citizens with equal rights, as by living their lives the way they want, they would not be breaking a single halacha – as long as they kept the 7 Noahide laws, which are basically kept in every Western democracy anyway. (Even if they were to commence missionary actions of their own, they themselves would not be transgressing halacha.) Their status would be a far cry from that of a dhimmi, which is why I questioned your analogy to a Muslim caliphate.

    Certainly, a non-Jewish citizen of a Jewish theocracy would be aware of halacha, Jewish culture, festivals, etc by the effect they have on public life; but this would be fairly benign and not very different to what we minorities experience in Australia today. When I take my kids to the December Wiggles concert, I don’t get offended because they sing a few Christmas songs. And knowing that Santa will make a brief appearance on stage doesn’t stop me buying tickets. That’s life.

    With regard to non-religious Jews, you are right in saying that Judaism does “proselytise”. I would not use that particular term because of its connotations to conversion, but I agree with you that Orthodox Judaism does practise kiruv. And I agree with this unapologetically. As an Orthodox Jew myself, I respect the autonomy of each person to choose how to live their lives, free from coercion, but I also believe that following halacha is the best way to live and I wish all Jews chose to live that way. Kiruv as such is not coercion – all the kiruv organisations I am familiar with (such as Chabad and Aish) attempt to spread Orthodoxy through inspiration and engendering a love for halacha observance, certainly not through fear or punishment; they also display a genuine love for all Jews, whatever their level of observance.

    True, there are extremists who actively look down on non-observant Jews, or even those frum Jews who they consider less observant than themselves. But let’s remember that a Jewish monarchy is a Messianic concept, with the king being a direct descendant of King David, not elected by Shas or UTJ. (Obviously a quick look through Melachim shows us that many of King David’s descendants were very poorly suited to the office, but my point is that it would be a divinely sanctioned dynasty in charge, however we are to understand that, not a purely political enterprise.)

    We can also look at how other sects of Jews fared under the Jewish Commonwealths in the past. Groups such as the Karaites, Essenes, etc were not persecuted. The impression I get is that they were just seen as a bit weird, with a distorted view of Torah; joining or marrying them would be strongly discouraged by mainstream Jews, but the people who did join those sects would be free to live their own lives as they liked. (I’m happy to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable though.) I’m not saying this is an ideal situation. Your analogy to a Muslim caliphate or Catholic theocracy is much more valid with regard to the way other members of the faith are seen. But there might be differences in how much pressure is put on other members of the faith to comply with the law in their private lives, if indeed any pressure is applied at all.

    A Jewish theocracy without the divinely-chosen monarchy could well be a frightening concept, in that it could end up being run by whoever is seen as the “frummest”, and all non-Charedi Jews could well end up feeling marginalised. This type of state would still have to have an elected leadership, and there are possibly ways to guard against extremism through legislation regarding the electoral system.

  • I fear that there is something obnoxious about me contributing so frequently to a comment thread beneath my own post, but I cannot help responding! Shira, you refer to Jewish commonwealths in the past, but you are no doubt aware that the period of the first temple (“Solomon’s temple”) lacks documentation outside of the biblical literature, and that the period of the second temple was only in possession of a monarchy for a short while. For most of its history (according to what we have at our disposal), the people were governed by the priesthood, who operated under the tolerance of a foreign power. Even the Hasmonean dynasty, while it provided an independent monarchic framework, was understood by later authors (Josephus and the authors of the books of Maccabees) as being of necessarily brief duration, given their non-Davidic heritage.

    When the Sanhedrin comes into existence (or, if you like, when we start getting historical documentation that pertains to the Sanhedrin) it is already at such a time as they wield no real power, the authority of Rome having divested the Jews of their ability to do many of the things that they wrote of their forefathers having done. So if the situation in Israel should correlate to that one, I have no issue with it. In other words, if the Sanhedrin should constitute the supreme bet din, rather than the supreme court, then their power is necessarily going to be limited by the Israeli Knesset. Let those who wish to follow the Sanhedrin’s authority within its own sphere of influence do so! You are aware, of course, that this is not what the Sanhedrin wants.

    As for whether or not Essenes and Karaites would have been persecuted in the past, we know nothing of the existence of the former save a few lines in Josephus (and even then, as a contrast to the Pharisees and the Sadducees), and the antiquity of the latter can be debated. That non-rabbinic Jews of other stripes were not persecuted does not demonstrate the tolerance of rabbinic Judaism at all, but its absolute powerlessness during the period under consideration. There are already measures in place today to prevent non-orthodox prayer services at the Kotel (despite Yitzchak’s assurances that “the Holy Temple is not the property of this group or that group”), and you will pardon me if I expect that situation to only worsen with an increase of power to the Haredi sector.

    As for your final paragraph, Shira, I entirely agree. A Jewish theocracy without the divinely-chosen monarch would indeed be a frightening concept, but it is such a situation that the Sanhedrin is pushing for. Belief in eschatological salvation is all very fine but, if you will pardon my irreligious cynicism, is no more than a pious fancy. No two communities of Jews are likely to even agree on the Davidic lineage of one particular individual, so as long as this remains a political enterprise it is fated to be a frustrated one.

    One might believe that somebody is going to come along and do all of the things that the Rambam (to pick just one example) predicted, and that’s fine. But until this happens, if the aims of the nascent Sanhedrin are met, we have rule by religious Jews who are holding their positions of power until such a time as the Mashiach comes. And in such a situation, even I would be praying for his arrival!

  • beta says:

    AJN Watch has a post from a rabbi about the repeated nonsense of Steinsaltz being called a “once-in-a-millennium scholar”.


  • willy says:

    thanks beta.and have a look at the latest Kosherman post there. some good questions

  • I believe that our discussion must necessarily be limited to a pre-eschatological future, and, included in that future, I may add, is the (potential) building of the Holy Temple. (For the rebuilt Temple is not contingent on the appearance of a messianic figure.) But back to the discussion at hand, mainly the idea of a society based on Torah law that would include as its high court of justice a reconvened Sanhedrin.

    Allow me to preface the following with this statement: My opinions concerning the nature of the future of the state of Israel are my own, and do not reflect the policy of the Temple Institute, which doesn’t express itself on these issues. I would postulate that Judaism, (a word that to me doesn’t seem to quite grasp the breadth and depth of Torah informed civilization), is not, by its own self-defined nature, a theocratic construct. Torah law forms the basis of Jewish society both civil and religious. It is the nation’s “constitution” and as such “belongs” to the nation. This constitution is interpreted, defended and upheld according to the understanding of the high court of justice, as is the case in any constitutional democracy. Today in Israel the law of the land is based largely on British, Turkish and Jordanian precedent. It seems ludicrous that a Jewish society can exist under such conditions. In fact, it is impossible, as justice lies at the heart of Torah, and therefore at the heart of Jewish existence. A Jewish state with Jewish justice whose source is Torah, but lacking a Holy Temple will still be a Jewish society, even if limited in its scope. But a Jewish state with a Holy Temple, but no Torah justice will not embody a Jewish society.

    Today in Israel, where Jewish literacy and identification and practice is growing deeper and spreading across all facets of society, the Jewish nature of society is most threatened by the judicial system which is alien and even hostile to Torah understandings of justice. Now if we were to replace this system with a Torah based legal system, the following would likely occur: Torah law, at the very least, its civic aspects, rather than remaining the domain of a only certain sectors of the population, would become relevant to all sectors. Lawyers, instead of studying British legal precedent, would instead study 4000 years of Jewish legal precedent. This would not make the lawyers necessarily observant Jews, or even Jewish, for that matter, but simply experts in Jewish law who are legally committed to upholding that law. Just as the sages of old interpreted Torah law, and understood and employed it in the light of the society of their day, so too would Torah law today become reinvigorated and reinterpreted, based on precedent and tradition, in such a way as to reflect the needs and requirements of life today. We see that this kind of change exists and works reasonably well concerning issues of scientific, technological and health care advancement. Why not for issues of law and order, environment, education, social justice, etc? By reinstating Torah based law as the law of the land, its knowledge and practical expertise is transferred, at least in its civic aspects, from being the sole property of the rabbis, to being the property of Jewish society at large. As we know from our Talmudic sages, Torah law is only as effective as it is tolerable to the majority of the people.

    As for government structure, Torah seems to set out for us a basic separation of powers: an executive, either as in the days of the Book of Judges, which was a loose confederation of tribes united , (at times), by a single leader, or the monarchy, upon which Torah places serious limitations, (probably greater limitations of power than apply to the president of the United States); a Temple based priesthood, independent of the executive; and a judicial body, first named as the assembly of the elders, and later known as the Sanhedrin. While there existed co-dependence between these three bodies they still maintained a great degree of independence. The judiciary of old does seem to have been empowered to enact legislation in order to facilitate, but not contravene, Torah law. This would seem problematic in terms of a modern society, as this concentration of power could effectively strip the executive of its power and keep the legislative power at arms length from the people. In a modern context, the legislative power could be the domain of an independent “secular” parliament, which would be free to legislate to its heart’s content, (or more properly to the heart’s content of the citizens who elect this parliament). Laws, once passed, could be challenged as being “unconstitutional,” that is, not in keeping with Torah law. The case would be brought before the judiciary, and if determined that the law indeed contravenes Torah law, it would be nullified. If no contradiction exists between the legislation and Torah principles, the law stands. As for ritualistic law, this could not be legislated by the secular parliament, nor could it be enforced by the judiciary. Therefore it would remain in the private domain. In other words, individual choice.

    The judges would be elected or appointed, either by the citizens, directly, or by the legislature, or by the executive, or by a combination of all three. As in days of yore, it would consist of all types of experts, therefore being a heterogeneous body, and a fluid body, as well, as a different grouping of judges may sit for different cases.

    The executive, being a “pre-messianic” leader, would be elected periodically, an inherited monarchy being reserved for the Davidic dynasty.

    Is this a recipe for a perfect society? Hardly. But is there potential here for a vibrant and robust modern society, both democratic and Torah-centric in nature, in which all citizens would have a role, and each individual would maintain his personal freedom? I would maintain yes. Can the Jewish world, and the world according to the Jews reach new heights, unprecedented in the modern era? I do believe so. At the very least, I postulate that there exists no inherent contradiction between Torah, personal freedom and democratic systems of self-government.

  • Malki Rose says:

    While its certainly an interesting discussion that the thread has lapsed into, and messianic theocracy (or lack thereof?) is one of my favourites, I think the momentus nature of the event marked by tomorrows global siyummim is something worth a second look in.
    Rabbi Steinsaltz’s huge acheivement is worth much more discussion than commenters on this blog have allowed.

    While I agree Simon, that while I prefer ‘a pillar’ to ‘the pillar’, with regards the Talmud itself, I must say that although Steinsaltz’s take on Judaism seems anything but pluralistic, I have a feeling that by its very nature, him, his work and his approach allows for an enormous amount of pluralism, that perhaps he hasn’t quite envisioned himself.

    It’s Larry Stillman’s comment, the first on this thread, which gave me an enormous amount of yiddishe naches. The fact that regardless of the controversy surrounding the man, it is Steinsaltz’s Talmud that gave many an introduction to traditional interpretation that would have otherwise passed them by.

    What a wonderfully rare accomplishment.

    Has there ever really been another like Rabbi Steinsaltz?

  • DOVID SEGAL says:

    Simon halloway

    You wrote:

    “it is no surprise that it is being celebrated in so many locations around the world”

    you are not surprised that it is being celebrated in mumbai, but I am surprised that it is being celebrated in Melbourne.

    Do you know how many will be celebrating in mumbai?

  • beta says:

    from the LA Jewish Journal

    L.A.’s Global Day of Jewish Learning canceled
    By Jonah Lowenfeld

    On Sunday, Nov. 7, more than 350 communities around the world will take part in the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Due to low pre-registration numbers, Greater Los Angeles will not be among them.

    “We had a great program planned, and to do a quality program we needed more people, and we just didn’t have them,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which was one of the event’s local co-sponsors. LimmudLA, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Shalom Institute were also co-sponsors of the Los Angeles event, which was to have taken place at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu.

    In addition to affirming Jewish learning as a central part of Jewish life and culture, the Global Day of Jewish Learning is intended to celebrate Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s completion of his translation of and commentary on the Talmud, a project Steinsaltz started nearly five decades ago. The Aleph Society, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting Steinsaltz’s work and to making Jewish texts accessible to Jews around the world, is spearheading Sunday’s event along with about 40 major Jewish organizations.

    The Global Day of Jewish Learning was announced at last year’s General Assembly and has been advertised on a number of different Jewish news sites.

    Saying that the decision to cancel the event was made “with great regret,” Diamond was nevertheless certain that calling it off was the right way to go. “Sometimes you plan a great program and you don’t get the people necessary,” he said. “I’d rather admit that and move on rather than try to run a program for too few people.”


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