Like Jews in about 300 communities around the world, people in the Central community last Sunday got a brief taste of the scholarly guidance offered by Israeli philosopher, social critic, and author Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who marked the completion of his monumental, 45-volume translation of the Babylonian Talmud.
About 100 adults and at least 50 children gathered Nov. 7 at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains to join in the Global Day of Jewish Learning, to celebrate the completion of his 45-year undertaking, meant to render the Aramaic original into accessible modern Hebrew.
(An English version grew to 22 volumes before its American publisher drew the project to a close.)
In a video shown at the start of the program, Steinsaltz explained what had motivated him to take on — at the age of 28 — such a monumental task. “How many things have the smell of eternity?” he asked.
He described the Talmud as “the very center pillar — not just of Judaism, but of Jewish existence.” Seen clearly, “it is like looking into a mirror of our inner existence,” he said, but in its ancient form, it was “like someone else’s notes for a lecture you didn’t attend.”
He said he hadn’t been sure he would be able to complete the work, but undertook to do it, “if God gave me the energy and the time.” That has been granted to him. The 73-year-old sage completed the task on Sunday in Jerusalem, with a live broadcast of the writing of his final words transmitted around the globe.
The event at the Wilf campus was organized by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, in coordination with the JCC of Central New Jersey, the Aleph Society — the organization founded by Steinsaltz to promote Jewish education internationally — and a cluster of other organizations. Stacie Friedman and Scott Lazar headed up the planning committee of rabbinic and lay leaders, working with federation Jewish education director Linda Poleyeff.
The organizers were delighted with the turnout. “It was great,” Poleyeff said, “though, of course, I’d have loved to see even more people.” The “falling back” of clocks that morning made it easier for people to turn up at 10 a.m. but the big attraction — according to many — was the idea of taking part in something that linked them with Global Day gatherings in so many other places.
The keynote speaker on Sunday was Rabbi Reuven Kimelman. He took the already upbeat atmosphere and lifted it higher with a discussion about pleasure, and the way the blessings prescribed by Judaism integrate delight with awareness and appreciation of God. He elicited roars of laughter with examples of when blessings should be said and often aren’t — as with “a first legitimate experience of sexual delight” — but he was also serious in his explanation of their importance.
He likened the opening formula of the brachot to the connecting power of a cell phone: Just as the electronic instrument picks up invisible waves all around us, the blessings are an instrument to capture what is sacred. That integration of pleasure and solemnity, he said, is one of Judaism’s great contributions to humanity.
Following his talk, the crowd divided into separate groups around six community rabbis, each tackling a different topic. There were enthusiastic discussions under way in the different rooms of the JCC’s early education wing, covering miracles and love and music and good deeds.
With Sunday classes at most synagogues cancelled for the day for teacher conferences, many youngsters were free to come with their parents. Two area Chabad centers brought their students to the gathering. The youngsters gathered in their own groups, the little ones doing art projects, the slightly older ones treated to Jewish-themed puppet shows, and the big kids actually trying their hands at making wine, squishing grapes and mixing the juice with sugar.
Everyone came together in the JCC gym for music and refreshments and entertainment offered by the “Ballooner Rebbe,” Moshe Finer. Undaunted by the pop-ability of his medium, he gave the children — and a few adults — pleasure definitely worthy of a bracha, with inflated flowers and weird creatures, and even a bride and a groom complete with a black balloon hat.
As Steinsaltz had said on the video, what matters in one’s connection with Jewishness “isn’t the level of intellectual comprehension, but the purity of the relationship.”