In the Library – Too Good to Miss (No. 3)
Contrary to popular belief or mythology, neither do I read every book that arrives at the Library nor do I know every book in the Library. But every now and again a book passes over my desk that makes me sit up and take notice. In that case I might skim it. If the skimming grabs my attention then I might read it. And if I am deeply impressed by it, I will go out of my way to bend every ear possible, to alert everyone to check this book out, for it is too good to miss.
This past weekend I read On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: Twenty-Five Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom, by Arthur Kurzweil (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2006).
From the outset I must say that Arthur Kurzweil and I have known each other for over twenty-five years, and he is a gentleman (in every sense of the word), a sharp mind, a Jew of impeccable piety, and a “sweet soul” (a zisse neshomeh), whom I hold in the highest regard (if you cannot already tell). Rabbi Steinsaltz is easily one of the greatest, if not the greatest rabbi of the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st.
The book itself is not large, only eight and one-half inches high and 287 pages in length (with pictures), but it has many layers and wonderful depth on every page. Kurzweil chronicles how he, a fellow from a non-observant background, came to Jewish tradition and “Orthodoxy” via the writings of Rabbi Steinsaltz, how he came to be Rabbi Steinsaltz’s driver in the Tri-State area, and what Rabbi Steinsaltz means to him.
But the book also contains a “tamtsit,” the quintessence, of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s teachings. Rabbi Steinsaltz is indeed a Hasid. One classic definition of “Hasid” is a person obsessed with the proper pursuit of only one Mitzvah; in the case of Rabbi Steinsaltz it is Ahavat Yisrael. Now, this is also held to be the underlying motivation and philosophy of Habad, and it is true that Rabbi Steinsaltz was a close friend of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, that his wife comes from a Lubavitcher background and that his sons were educated in Lubavitch yeshivot.
But Rabbi Steinsaltz is his own man, a teacher’s teacher, a rabbi’s rabbi. Yet for all my admiration of him, I cannot count myself among Rabbi Steinsaltz’s disciples. I know how and why I am not an Orthodox Jew, or perhaps better stated, I know what “flavor” of Judaism I am. (Rabbi Steinsaltz does not deal in “denominations.” For him Judaism goes beyond a label. Seeing it through his eyes, I might liken Judaism to coffee. There are many varieties, strengths and flavors to the beverage commonly called “coffee.”)
I would encourage any student and every student at the College-Institute who aspires to be a religious leader or teacher to read this book because I believe it will help them to define who they are, what “flavor” they are, but more importantly why they are.
Many books pass over my desk, and while I admit I do not read them all, I think this book qualifies as the Number One best Jewish book of 2006.
Philip E Miller
October 23, 2006
NB This notice is numbered #3. I have previously written two others that I circulated to the faculty. I shall try to recover (or rewrite) them and post here.