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Biblical Scholar’s Books Banned by Ultra-orthodox Rabbis

August 10, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

One of Israel’s best known and best loved rabbis, Adin Steinsaltz, has become the center of a medieval-type heresy controversy here as a number of ultra-Orthodox rabbis have publicly banned all of his books.

Among the leaders is the venerable Rabbi Eliezer Schach of Bnei Brak, leader of the mitnaged, or non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel.

Steinsaltz himself has issued a statement promising to amend certain specific passages in some of his books that have offended some people in ultra-Orthodox circles.

But Schach and his followers insisted in their bans that all of Steinsaltz’s books must be shunned “regardless of what he says or replies.”

Many observers link the controversy to Schach’s relentless battle against Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism, to which the scholarly and prolific Steinsaltz adheres.

(There have even been rumors recently in Orthodox circles that Steinsaltz might be considered as a possible successor to the childless, 87-year-old Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.)

The passages that apparently offend ultra-Orthodox circles occur in Steinsaltz’s “Dmuyot Bamikra,” or Personalities in the Bible, and its companion volume “Nashim Bamikra,” or Women in the Bible. These works include psychological studies of some biblical figures.

But Schach and other Bnei Brak rabbis, in their public bans, insist that all of Steinsaltz’s works — especially his monumental and still-uncompleted edition of the Talmud — are to be considered heretical.

“I say without a doubt a doubt that there is heresy and apikorsut (apostasy) in all of them,” Schach wrote.

The bans were carried on the front page of Monday’s Yated Neeman, the daily paper of the Degel Ha Torah party.


Among the other rabbis issuing comprehensive bans against Steinsaltz were Yosef Eliashiv, a retired member of the Supreme Religious Court, and Nissim Karelitz and Shmuel Wosner, both of Bnei Brak.

The Beth Din (religious court) of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit community, however, took a less extreme position, singling out only the two Bible studies for criticism.

Steinsaltz, for his part, in a statement in Monday’s Hamodia, the organ of the Agudat Yisrael party, undertook to abide by that Beth Din’s opinion.

He offered to return the purchase price of these books to any dissatisfied reader, and to amend future editions.

Steinsaltz is a winner of the coveted Israel Prize and recently gained international prominence when he opened a yeshiva in Moscow — the first officially sanctioned institution of Jewish learning there in decades.

His work in Russia includes research projects in previously unexplored archives and libraries, and is being carried out in cooperation with the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

His edition of the Talmud is a longtime best seller, with each new volume being snapped up by thousands of devotees as it rolls off the presses. Written in modern Hebrew, and including punctuation and Steinsaltz’s original, modern commentary, the revolutionary edition has helped open up the Talmud to first-time students, both religious and unobservant.

He recently concluded a contract with Random House to publish his Talmud in English.

In an open letter to Steinsaltz from the Beth Din of the Gur (Gerer) Hasidim, also carried in Monday’s Hamodia, Steinsaltz is referred to as “the Gaon (great scholar) who has given a boon (of Talmud study) to vast masses through his blessed works.”

The open letter congratulates him for accepting the amendments required by the Eda Haredit Beth Din regarding passages “which could have been misconstrued.” It encourages him to go forward with God’s help in his scholarly endeavors.

The mitnaged rabbis’ letters banning Steinsaltz works omit even the title “rabbi,” and some refer to him as “Mr. Adin Steinsaltz.”

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