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Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz speaks in special forum to Oxford University Chabad Society at Inspire Conference, London, Nov, 2007 

Chaired by Rabbi Eli Brackman & edited by Philippe Petrov, Linacre Colege, Oxford

To hear the audio of the forum click here.

Student: What are the current challenges facing science, and what are the common points, where Torah and science converge?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: The challenges facing science is in biology, which is currently the cutting edge of science. One simple thing that can happen over the next decade is the development of a brain-computer link, which may revolutionise our existence, far more than what has been done before. Imagine having unlimited memory with accessibility to everything. This would present a profound change and it is frightening to think that we are not that far from it.

The novelty that the Torah represents is the ability for a person to say ‘no’ and challenge certain areas of scientific development, which goes contrary to human ethics. We derive this characteristic from the patriarch Abraham who challenged the trends in his time and had the courage to say ‘no’.

If we don’t have the ability to resist certain areas of scientific development, when it goes contrary to our value system, and instead we find all kinds of ways of compromising to the dictates of science, we will lose the sense of truth, integrity and sincerity that we have been imbued with by the Torah and our forefather Abraham. The novelty of the Torah is its ability to say ‘no’ to the many things that are happening today and may happen in the future.

Student: What about empirical scientific proof, when it goes against the Torah? How can that be disproved?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: A theory that simply cannot be negated does not necessarily make it a true statement. If you cannot prove a particular theory and it goes contrary to the Torah, the Torah has the ability to say ‘no’. It is understandable that at university it is very hard not to become a part of its mindset and environment. I wrote a book about the special Jewish ability of being a chameleon. This is the worst danger. We tend very easily to blend in, not only by appearance, but also intellectually, with the dominant society. It is important to sometimes resist even when it’s unpopular.

Student: Shall we try to concentrate more on healing diseases from medical point of view, or to improve the body and mind?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: The problem about healing diseases is that, although people have written a lot about it, it is not clear whether we are on the winning side. The mutations among bacteria and viruses are so fast, is it possible to catch up with them? The real question should be whether we can create a comprehensive immunity for ourselves? Can we change strategically, not only tactically, the relationship between us and the biological world? Most of what research is currently developing is tactical, rather than essential and strategic. I concede that I just don’t know what we have the ability to do, but if we can do something, it should be aimed at something far reaching.

Student: What is your opinion of stem cell research?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: Regarding biology and science in general, I support progress. Although it is presumed religious people are stuck in the mud and think yesterday was always better than today and the day before was even better, I am not like that and I believe in progress. I think stem cell research is positive. I had a conversation with a senior official in the American health system pointing out that one has to be very careful about trying not to do something which has uncertainty where it will end up. An example is the development of the atom bomb. Humanity created something that has given man enough killing power to destroy the world a hundred times. The only thing that has stopped this from happening is fear.

We should be very concerned regarding stem cell research. We are opening vistas into things that we don’t really know where they will end up. On the other hand humanity can benefit in all kinds of ways with its potential to improve the human condition.

One potential of stem cell research is the possibility to create more angelic human beings. The concern, however, is that it can likewise create worse “devils”. There is need for much caution. This is one of the areas that one has to consult the Torah so that we won’t end up creating more devils in the world. To be true, there seems to be enough devils in the world without us having to create new ones.

Student: What is your opinion about the Torah’s six days of creation, contrary to science which claims the world to have evolved into its current state over billions of years?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: Time has meaning only when there are human beings to observe it. When there are no human beings, time is only an extrapolation. When we speak about pre-human times, we are really speaking about something which is an extrapolation. This problem has been discussed many times from a philosophical point of view, whether time has any real meaning before the existence of human beings. I can call it by any name I want, because it only depends on the person’s scale of reference.

Student: Is it not, according to the Torah, six days as we count days?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: The day that we count as days needs some method of counting. Although one believes that the six days of Creation were the same as our days, it is however impossible to prove, and has no meaning. The definition of a day is measured by movement of something. When nothing moved comparable to our notion of movement, the concept of a day is just a metaphysical statement. What is time without any way of measuring it?

I am not trying to defend any particular view, but rather attempting to put forward points for consideration.

Alice in Wonderland

There is one beautiful thing in Oxford, which is a garden that still exists in Christ Church College, where Alice used to play. It is possibly one of the nicest, most intelligent things they have there.

Liddell, the father of Alice, wrote something which is still considered the best Greek dictionary that exists, Liddell-Scott Dictionary. The Oxford students who are here seem to be from the sciences but if one consults somebody in humanities, they will confirm this. In fact, some of the stories of Alice are really on the same kind of level of intelligence. Just as I don’t understand Greek, how am I meant to understand those stories?

Student: There is currently an important issue called climate change and global warming, which allegedly leads to the increase of natural disasters. How is this compatible with the coming of Messiah?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: If it would be known when and how the coming of Messiah will happen, I would not be wasting my time sitting here. Sitting here really seems inconsequential, had I the real answer for predicted natural disasters.

Regarding global warming, I prefer not to be obscurantist, but nevertheless one of the things that need to be checked is how much it has to do with natural cycles. This point is important because there are so many articles written on this subject and some are written by people who have biases influencing their views.

As someone who has no shares in the gasoline industry, I may question whether human beings have any effect on the environment. There is the theory that the major contributor is the natural emissions from animals. It is wonderful to be someone like Al Gore, a great man who thinks he will change the world; however, there is the possibility of greater forces at play than Al Gore.

This is just a note of caution about getting too involved in global warming. It ends up becoming a point of belief, when really it might not be so important.

According to Jewish teaching, the coming of Messiah is connected to some kind of crisis. Global warming is indeed a growing crisis, which might be a sign of the coming of Messiah. We can presently see in the world a crisis, which comes as a result of various effects that seem to converge. One cannot predict at what point they will converge, but I would say it appears that it might happen in the near future.

In the past, we would speak about the coming of Messiah in a rational way, when the contributing elements were fragmented. My opinion is that the coming of Messiah will be when there is some kind of ‘crack’ in the fabric of existence. It seems that we are approaching what can be called a ‘crack’ in one way or another. Global warming is one aspect of this concept, but there are also other things that are converging. We have for example the problem of draught, lack of sufficient water in places. We have all kinds of ways of getting oil or other energies, but there is less and less water for the world population. I can see many of these kinds of problems coming to a head, not in the unforeseeable future. Someone has to rectify these problems. This is the role of Messiah.

Student: Do you think Jews should be more persuasive in encouraging gentiles to observe the seven noahide laws?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: It is important that Jews do something about the observance of the seven noahide laws amongst the non-Jewish population, since, in addition to the fact that it might be a protection for Jews, it is necessary to live in an environment that is not antagonistic.

Those who know me are aware that when I come to America they think I am hired by foreign powers to besmirch them. I am offensive about American culture in almost every way. Nevertheless, America is the most religious country in the West. It is therefore easier for Jews to exist.

I’ve written many newspaper articles about the ‘paganisation’ of Europe. This ‘paganisation’ is not necessarily healthy for the Jews, because it’s very distant from our own beliefs and it is difficult to exist without reference points. In that sense, one can say, in addition to there being a general duty for Jews to positively influence humanity, through the noahide laws, it is also necessary for self-protection, as the Jews need some kind of familiar environment. This leads to the gentiles being able to understand Jewish existence or indeed, in the negative, due to their Christian beliefs, dispute Jewish teaching. However when one enters a pagan society, as most of the English, who, unlike America, don’t believe in Jesus, although they believe the Jews killed him, there is total lack of understanding and absence of any reference points between gentile and Jew.

Rabbi Eli Brackman: An Oxford professor was asked whether anyone in the academic world believes that Moses wrote the Torah. He responded that if a student would write it in an essay in Oxford, it would automatically be rejected. What are your thoughts on Biblical criticism?

Rabbi Steinsaltz: Science, in the past and especially today, has nothing to do with truth. It is built on consensus. It is like fashion. Who triggers change in fashion? A few years ago there was Gauthier. He decided to make a new fashion that was modelled on Jewish Hassidic dress. He made a whole line of clothing for girls. It consisted of fur hats (shtreimleh), long coats and so on. For some reason, it wasn’t accepted. I also remember fashions that were so terribly ugly, it is beyond belief how any sane girl could dress like that.

It is the same fashion that exists at universities. They are ‘blind powers’ that move from one place to another. What is accepted, nobody dares question. I once saw on the door of a professor a long list of some of the most important inventions in the world, while alongside it detailing the period that theory was condemned by outstanding scientists of the time. The purpose was to encourage the students to think on their own.

There is something called cryptography, which is a computer-based analysis of a text, which is quite reliable. One puts in a certain text and one is able to find out very subtle changes of syntax, which a human reader won’t detect. An old acquaintance of mine, who was Jewish, though non-observant, was a professor about twenty years ago in Computer Sciences at the Technion in Haifa. He researched texts with this method, putting the machine to use by inserting the Iliad, the Odyssey and all kinds of Shakespeare works, in order to find out the various different authors of these works.

He then did the same thing to the book of Genesis, the most important source for the theory of multi-authorship of the Bible. To anybody’s reading of the Book of Genesis it has clearly three or four sources. One can see very clearly the differences between the ‘j’ source, the ‘i’ source, the ‘p’ source and the ‘r’ source. One needs to be blind not to see it. The professor put the Book of Genesis into the machine and the result was that the book is written by a single author.

If scientists and heads of universities would be honest people, they would feel hit over the head by this result, especially since the research was done by machine, rather than a human being. A person has biases and subjective opinions, but a machine has no vested interested either way.

In fact, the machine wasn’t very orthodox. They put the book of Zachariah into it and the result was it was written by two authors. Neither the fellow, nor the machine, was orthodox. However, the result for the book of Genesis should have been a ‘disaster’ for the unquestionable theory of Biblical criticism.

However, the effect this research had on Biblical scholarship was inconsequential and was met with total silence. There was a small article that appeared in one or two international magazines, however, the Biblical studies departments round the world did not react. If they would have denied the validity of the research, saying that the machinery wasn’t accurate enough, that would have at least made a noise.

Bible Codes

There was once a wealthy American fellow who wrote a book on the Bible Codes and would phone me with his questions at the early hours of the morning having found out that I stay up very late. He had all kinds of inter-planetary conspiracy theories regarding external malevolent powers that influence the world. He wanted to know whether there were any sources for his theories in the Bible or Kabbala.

When he was working on the Bible Codes, I was glad to be able to direct him to a leading mathematician, who looked over his writings and he thought mathematically speaking it was good work. Indeed, the American author of the bible Codes became very wealthy from this.

When it was at an early stage of his involvement in the subject of Bible Codes, I asked him, if you find the Bible Codes are indeed true, will it cause you to observe the Torah? He responded, of course, although as of now, it still didn’t have any effect. There doesn’t seem to be any connection for these people who work on the Bible to the observances written inside it.

When speaking once on the Bible Codes in Singapore, I suggested to the audience that instead of going into all kind of complicated Biblical analysis such as whether the death of so and so is mentioned in a Biblical text or not, there are some very simple codes which are written, for example, don’t eat non-kosher foods, keep the Shabbat and so on, which are simple and easily understood.


Rabbi Reuven Leigh (Cambridge University): What is your opinion about students taking drugs and is there a difference between drugs and alcohol?

  Rabbi Steinsaltz: There is no real difference between taking alcohol and drugs, whether it marijuana, hashish, grass or whatever. I once heard from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a private audience, his view on the subject. Although people are unaware and don’t usually connect it with him, the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a great sense of humour. He may not have used it when giving his widely broadcasted talks and discourses, sometimes to five thousand people. However, in private he would use it.

He was speaking about the effect on a person taking drugs. He was, incidentally, very careful about saying anything negative about anybody. He said that the notion of the Torah in general is that the person should be the master over one self, and anything that the person is enslaved to, is wrong.

Therefore, there is no difference between smoking, drinking alcohol, smelling all kinds of, say, cocaine, heroin and so on, or injecting them. It’s basically all the same. The question is rather can the person still be the master over themselves when involved in these things? If one can, then it can be used and it should be taken, though very carefully.

There is a book on the effect of drugs by Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell (1954). He makes a mistake when he writes that the recreational drug mescaline opens gates to something objective. He thought that mescaline opens the way to see higher worlds. Drugs might open gates of perceptions, but the gates are inner gates. They open gates to see part of ones own psychic. One shouldn’t think that a person is able to see the beautiful images that the prophet Ezekiel saw. When taking drugs one does not see something real, outside oneself, but rather is an inside experience. It might be interesting, but it doesn’t take the person beyond the subject of the mind.

In conclusion the problem using any kinds of drugs or almost anything that has a little bit psychoactive material is the same. Indeed, almost everything is psychoactive, including bread. If one fasts and then takes a piece of bread, it is possible to see how many changes are made in ones psychic.

The problem, however, with most drugs is that people come relatively fast to a point of no return. To be true, there is never a point of no return, but one reaches quickly to a point at which it is very hard, almost impossible, to return. The person loses ones ability to have control over oneself. This is the negative side of drugs.

This is not the case with smoking tobacco. Indeed, there were the early Hassidim who would smoke tobacco extensively. There is a paper written by Steinshneider called Tobacco worship among the Hassidim. The founder of the Hassidic movement Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and many of his followers would smoke tobacco extensively, before the dangers were known.


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