Aug. 11, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL—Reading Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s popular work on Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, not only changed Murray Dalfen’s relationship to Judaism, but led to a treasured friendship with the author that lasted three decades until the eminent scholar’s death this month.
Dalfen, head of a major North American commercial real estate company, described his awe at the late rabbi’s intellect, astonishing capacity for work, and genuine love of people at a virtual tribute to Rabbi Steinsaltz held by Chabad of Westmount on Aug. 9.
Rabbi Steinsaltz, best known for his monumental lifelong project of translating the entire Babylonian Talmud into modern Hebrew, making it more accessible even to the lay person, died in his native Jerusalem on Aug. 7 at age 83.
He visited Chabad of Westmount on three occasions, most recently in 2013, giving memorable lectures and leading joyous farbrengen (gatherings) each time, said the centre’s director, Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz.
“He had a profound impact on everyone there, people from all walks of life,” Rabbi Shanowitz recalled. “He took lofty concepts and communicated them to people of all levels, getting to the essence of the matter.”
Born into a secular family and later trained as a scientist, Rabbi Steinsaltz became religious as a youth and was affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch community.
Dalfen, a leading benefactor of Chabad of Westmount, said that after reading The Thirteen Petalled Rose, first published in 1989, he was determined to meet its author. The slim volume, which aimed to make esoteric Jewish mysticism intelligible and relevant, was life-altering for Dalfen.
Getting a personal audience with this towering sage was not so simple, but Dalfen managed to meet Rabbi Steinsaltz in Israel. He would visit him there numerous times over the ensuing years. “I find it unbelievable that I was able to know him for 25 or 30 years on a close level.”
Dalfen later sponsored and raised money for the publication of several of the rabbi’s many books, including one of the more than 40 volumes of the translated Talmud.
Dalfen provided some insights: “He was not humble, but was approachable. He had strong opinions and expressed them.” But he was also kind and had a great sense of humour.
Rabbi Steinsaltz had an “extraordinary memory and knowledge, it was limitless,” and even a stroke in 2016 that robbed him of his speech did not impede his ability to think and continue to write, Dalfen recounted.
Whenever he was in Jerusalem, Dalfen was sure to find a seat opposite Rabbi Steinsaltz at the shul he attended near the Kotel. What surprised him is how the rabbi would reach out to everyone there, even interrupting prayers to speak to someone who needed him.
“I only saw him lose his temper once,” Dalfen recalled. “It was at my home. Someone criticized one of his books on the Talmud. That person got quiet quickly.”
He recalled a bit of wisdom the rabbi imparted once when they were walking the streets of Westmount. “He said: ‘If one changes their direction even one degree, one ends at a different destination.’”
Chabad of Westmount Rebbetzin Devorah Shanowitz, who emceed the tribute, also had an indirect connection to Rabbi Steinsaltz: They shared a sister-in-law. Prior to the Zoom event, Shanowitz spoke to her to gain a glimpse into the man, whom she called “the Rashi of his generation,” whose work will endure forever.
Observing that his impact was felt beyond the Jewish world, Shanowitz cited Time magazine’s description of Rabbi Steinsaltz as “a once in a millennium” figure.
The tribute heard that he never went to bed before three or four in the morning because he was so engrossed in study and writing, despite health challenges he had for years. Yet at the end of his life, Rabbi Steinsaltz regretted that he had accomplished only a fraction of what he had wanted in unlocking seminal Jewish texts for the benefit of all.
Shanowitz also learned that Rabbi Steinsaltz, on a visit to Eastern Europe, was made aware of the existence of a grave of an ancestor. Time was limited and he was scheduled to speak to a group of young people. “He vacillated, but decided the living take precedence and forwent going to the cemetery.”
Connecting with young people was important for him. Shanowitz related that years ago, he was disappointed and a little angry that only a handful of students showed up for a lecture he was to give in Minnesota because it conflicted with final exams.
Long after, Rabbi Steinsaltz was approached at the Kotel one day by a young man. “He told him he had been among those few students [who attended the lecture] and that hearing Rabbi Steinsaltz had transformed his life, and that is why he was there (praying).”
The tribute concluded with an excerpt from a conversation between Rabbi Steinsaltz and Dalfen during the 2013 visit to Chabad of Westmount. Dalfen asked what the mood in Israel was during that violent and turbulent period. “Do you want to hear propaganda or the truth?” Rabbi Steinsaltz answered without missing a beat.
Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael Steinsaltz sat down for a conversation at Chabad of Westmount in Montreal, Canada. In this frank and informal discussion, he talks about politics, love, family, and more with Murray Dalfen.
The content in this video is produced by Chabad.org, and is copyrighted by the author and/or Chabad.org.