Rabbi Steinsaltz, who passed away August 7 in Jerusalem at the age of 83, was a rabbi in the most authentic meaning of the word: He was an educator. And the world was Rabbi Steinsaltz’s student body. He spent decades teaching, writing, publishing, lecturing, mentoring, and organizing, and all of this work was focused on bringing Jews closer to Judaism and Jewish sources.
But, I think what Rabbi Steinsaltz really was at his essence was a dreamer. Rabbi Steinsaltz dreamed of a world where Jews cared more about each other, where ancient Jewish wisdom was accessible to all Jews, and where Jerusalem regained its centrality in Jewish spiritual life for all Jews.
He was uniquely dedicated to creating a future where Jews, wherever they were and whatever their background, may develop a stronger attachment to Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish State. In 2007, Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote in Time Magazine, “The only way to ensure the state (of Israel) is, strangely enough, spiritual — by deciding that Israel is a Jewish State that has to find its strength in reconnecting to its past, to a feeling of a mission. Army and economy may help but the state can exist only when it is built on a dream.”
While this may not have made Rabbi Steinsaltz a seemingly conventional “Zionist” it does not matter. His life-long commitment to making Jewish unity marked him as a “Zionist.”
And his dreaming was clearly a Zionist trait as well.
From Herzl’s dream of a modern Jewish State, to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s single-minded devotion to bringing about the revival of spoken Hebrew, to the dream of Jewish self-defense brought into reality by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Yosef Trumpeldor, to Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook enunciating the theological imperative for a modern Zionist state, Israel exists because of dreamers who gave all they had to make sure that their dreams did not remain in the realm of dreams.
No one can question that Rabbi Steinsaltz was a mere dreamer: his prodigious writing alone proves that. But, Rabbi Steinsaltz did much more than just write; he led.
The Jewish people may not have his leadership now, but we do have the words he left us to help us move forward.
Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote the following in 1995: “We speak about continuity and about passing on our Judaism to the next generation. What is this Judaism? In many cases, it is an empty word that doesn’t contain anything at all.”
It is our duty and obligation to make sure that our Judaism has meaning. Rabbi Steinsaltz helped to open the path for Jews in our time to more easily understand what our Judaism is and what it can be.
One way we can fulfill this duty and obligation is to better comprehend the gift we have in a unified Jerusalem. Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote in 2011: “Everyone who lives in Jerusalem – especially those like me who were born here – is in love with the city, really in love. For us, it is not just a place, not just a house; it is a home.”
Jerusalem is a home for all Jews. Let us do our part to make sure it remains so and we should also strive to love her as much as its residents do even if we do not live there.
Rabbi Steinsaltz was the recipient of the Israel Prize in 1988 and was awarded the President’s Medal in 2012, and with these two distinctions he earned Israel’s highest civilian honors.
There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that Rabbi Steinsaltz would rather we forget the prizes that he was awarded and instead, we study his work and translate his teachings into everyday action to move ourselves closer to the greatest attachment to G-d, fellow Jews, Judaism, Jerusalem, and Israel that we can muster.
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division; Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education and is dedicated to the ideals of pre-World War Two Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Herut’s website is www.herutna.org.