The two men — Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz — took center stage Monday night at the 13th annual dinner of the Aleph Society, created in 1988 to raise funds for the rabbi’s activities. And although their exchange seemed blunt at times, reflecting the wit of both men and the directness and irreverence often associated with Steinhardt, both men seemed to enjoy the dialogue, which was sprinkled with humor and words like “respectfully.”
Yeshiva University President Richard Joel moderated the event, held at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, and helped frame the discussion. Joel called both men “major influences” on world Jewry and “not a shabby group with which to have a conversation,” the first of many comments to draw laughter from the audience. He then asked Steinhardt, a self-professed atheist, why he believes Jews, having achieved so much success, shouldn’t simply “go out of business.”
Steinhardt referred to a set of Jewish values that, alone, would justify Jewish continuity. Those values, he said later in the exchange, involve the pursuit of education, tzedakah, a belief in the here and now, and the notion that Jews have developed themselves as “outsiders,” which, in turn, has created a certain empathy, creativity and vigor. Two of those points were challenged by Rabbi Steinsaltz, who argued that other groups also value education and charity.
The rabbi, answering the same question, said Jews are basically a family and that his desire is “to keep the family intact.” But the philanthropist sought to quash that idea, saying that Jews aren’t really such a family when a majority of them are now intermarrying.
Steinhardt, perhaps best known in the Jewish community for helping to launch birthright israel, the program that guarantees a free trip to Israel to every Jewish teen and young adult, also contended that Judaism could retain greater numbers of young people by creating a sense of “Jewish joy” — something to make adherents feel “elevated.”
But Joel stepped in at that point, asking Steinhardt how anyone could build Jewish joy in the face of Jewish ignorance, eliciting a confession from the former financier that he didn’t have any formula.