Is that an obituary?
–What do you think?
The Jewish habit of answering one question with another is not just a stereotype. It is a symbol, a way of life, an existential mark that is imprinted, both in the genotype and in the cultural tradition.
“Question, oh Israel!” it has been a motto of this people.
This is what Adin Steinsaltz, a chemist, rabbi, Talmudist, sociologist, educator, philosopher and many other attributes, tried to leave as a legacy.
Many would be impressed by its worldwide notoriety. Time magazine once classified him as “a scholar who is born every millennium” (in free translation). About 30 years ago, a dear close uncle pointed me to a newspaper article that commented on that article by the late “Jornal da Tarde” to draw attention to the importance of the phenomenon. Careless, I didn’t pay much attention.
In addition to photographic memory, translating – or, borrowing, the expression of Haroldo de Campos, ” transcribing ” – or turning the Talmud into contemporary Hebrew was considered an impossible task. And, for some, heretical. That’s what he was willing to do for 45 years. And this can be an indication of a spirit that transcends common scholarship: it is an obsessive intellectual perseverance.
We always think that encounters with people are long-lasting. Now I find that they don’t last. The duration can be of uncomfortable brevity, and is generally insufficient. And only retrospectively can we assess the density, quality and meaning of an interlocution. How many do not pass before us without the memory taking the trouble to fix the conversation, the presence, or both. In the extensive succession of moments of a lifetime only a few deserve recording. It happened in the four times that I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Adin Steinsaltz , thanks to the help of my great friend Isaac Michaan .
Someone has already called him a Renaissance man. This definition probably makes more sense, since Adin naturally and spontaneously gathered several fields of knowledge without worrying about reaffirming an expertise in any of them. In fact, it was sharp when it came to criticizing the limits of super specialized knowledge .
“Science works because it is limited to a small group of subjects. There is no capitalized science. Some of the scientists who deal with the big questions are accused by colleagues of practicing philosophy. I respect them and my original training is in chemistry, not in the humanities. I am much more happy to talk about a test tube and laboratory tests than philosophical subjects, but science is part of the insanity. It is part of the insanity when you assume that the issues are much bigger than they really are. When you talk to a scientist, you ask yourself questions, which if you are sincere you will answer: how can I know by God? Do you ask me about the fate of humanity? I wouldn’t know how to answer. If you ask me what will happen in two days, how will I know? I can answer about the few things I know now. I don’t try to make science a kind of pagan god. And in doing this, I’m doing science well because that’s what it is. When the sun is a god, it is a dangerous god, when the sun is just a star in the sky it is much easier to deal with. ”
His intelligence, unpredictable and analog, intrigued the interlocutors. And, at the same time, it boosted his own curiosity.
His way of looking into the minds of the men and women he spoke to was someone who started out of nowhere. It was in the open that he started his exploration. In the meetings I had, I could feel his investigative gaze, not exactly like that of a scientist, but that of someone who, even in the face of an intense intellectual life, did not lose the ability to be surprised.
He looked at me, as he repeatedly lit the smoke from the almost extinguished fire. And it was this fire, almost always extinguished, that kept it burning. It was more than a metaphor the ember he tried to keep in evidence.
When I remembered the lighter that pulled the flame to the center of the pipe, and the hiss that accompanied the aspiration of Dutch tobacco, it took me almost a decade to notice that his uninterrupted research was aimed at finding some trace of novelty in people. My impression is that he searched the haystack in search of the sparks that are scattered, he knew that it was necessary to collect them, but without unifying them. If they must be together, they can only exist as separate entities. For this reason, he always insisted on the scriptures that praised the action.
“I do” he insisted.
In some interviews, which can be found on YouTube and through its foundation the ” Aleph Society , it is possible to evaluate the myriad of subjects that he dominated and traveled with ease: from mystique to medicine, artificial intelligence and cloning, to the most delicate subjects of politics and philosophy.
My impression, listening to my recorded conversations with him, was that I sought to capture one or more nutrients that could be used to ask questions never asked before. He used the method to test the method. Not as a ready and crystallized instrument, but to find new ways to operate it. After all, this was his leitmotiv , as he expressed in several interviews when trying to justify his insistence and predilection for the book that compiled the oral tradition of Judaism:
“The Talmud is a unique book, there is nothing like it, it is a book of discussions, which does not teach sanity, but creates sanity”.
Why ? For the ability to instigate the continuous asking of questions. In this sense, it might seem like an anticipation of the modern scientific method of empirical induction , but it is not. It is not only that. There is, in the generous understanding that Adin brought – and anyone who can understand the unique expression that his eyes conveyed knows what I speak – an ultimate purpose, a teleology that generates the future, that improves discernment, that has the power to make people better than they are.
His conference at Oxford University a few years ago, as well as many other lectures he gave around the world, worked as a warning, optimistic, but still a warning, the same unified message that was in the title of the book he published in the 1960s: ” The sociology of ignorance “.
Making the world better is also demystifying it, and that is what contemporary civilization lacks in the end, where paganism and fanaticism nullify efforts to promote tikun olam , “fix the world”. And to fix it, you need to bewilder it. This does not mean to abolish symbols or individual mysticism itself, but to take special care not to make substitute gods holders.
–And the question that you do not want to answer?
–Adin, can you answer?