December 12, 2018

The “Encyclopedia Talmudit” is a monumental labor of love and learning

A vast body of Jewish writing rooted in distant antiquity is headed for cyberspace, thanks to the visionary efforts of an Israeli rabbi who comfortably straddles the worlds of science, faith and scholarship.

Rabbi Avraham Steinberg is chief executive officer of the “Encyclopedia Talmudit” (Talmudic Encyclopedia), a work-in-progress that began in 1942 as an audacious effort to rescue and preserve the writings of Jewish sages even as the Jewish people itself faced extinction at the hands of Nazi Germany and its allies. Thanks to the work of its founding editors, the Talmudic Encyclopedia now consists of 33 volumes and some 1,200 entries that summarize and explain the wisdom of the Talmud in a series of short topical entries.

Given the vast scope of the Talmud, it is not surprising that 33 volumes represent about half of the work in its entirety. Steinberg aspires to complete the print version of the Talmudic Encyclopedia within 10 years, which is why he is traveling widely in the United States to raise funds in support of the enterprise. The campaign was jump-started with a generous contribution from Dov Friedberg, whose matching gift is conditional on the publication of the Talmudic Encyclopedia in its entirety within a decade.

But Steinberg has an even grander vision — a series of interactive websites where the work of several generations of Jewish scholars can be made available for study and commentary by the widest possible readership, including a Wikipedia-style format where every reader can be a Rashi. Significantly, one of Steinberg’s goals is to translate the Talmudic Encyclopedia from Hebrew into English and other languages.

As ambitious as it sounds, Steinberg is clearly the right man for the job. He was born in 1947 in a displaced persons camp in Germany and arrived in Israel as an infant. Gentle, witty and deeply learned, he is a veteran of the Israeli Air Force, an Orthodox rabbi who commands the respect of the observant Jewish community around the world, and a distinguished medical doctor specializing in pediatric neurology at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. 

He is perhaps best known as an international authority in the cutting-edge field of medical ethics, and he is the author of the seven-volume Encyclopedia Hilchatit Refuit” (Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics), an achievement for which he received the Israel Prize in 1999. Such is his stature that Steinberg is an adviser to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Knesset.

Steinberg sat down with the Jewish Journal for a conversation about the Talmudic Encyclopedia and the other aspects of his unique career.

Jewish Journal: Your goal of finishing the Talmudic Encyclopedia in 10 years seems daunting. How can it be done?

Rabbi Avraham Steinberg: We have written so far about 1,300 entries. It took us, collectively, 70 years. We are left with about 950 entries to write. To write 950 additional entries would take normally 60 years, and to do it in 10 years is close to impossible. So, in order to do that, we had to increase the staff, but we didn’t want to cause any diminution in the quality of the writing. So we opened a special school to teach how to write. The Torah world has grown tremendously, and there are a lot of people who really know a lot, but their problem is they don’t how to write — or the way we want it to be written. In fact, their problem is they don’t know how to talk either, but that’s not my problem.

JJ:  How are contributors chosen? Do they come from particular yeshivas or belong to particular movements in Judaism? 

AS: They are strictly Orthodox, but within full Orthodoxy, it doesn’t matter if they belong to this party or that party. In the street they wouldn’t talk to each other, but they work very well together. They come from yeshivas where they have learned all their lives, and learning is important, but instead of learning without any outcome, they are doing something that is for posterity.

JJ: Are the entries written in modern Hebrew?

AS: It is something unique. It is not the talmudic language — it is not Aramaic. But it is not a newspaper Hebrew. It is a refined Hebrew, not poetic, not talmudic, but somewhere in between.

JJ: You advise the rabbinate and the Knesset. What are the differences in the advice that they seek from you?

AS: So there are a lot of issues today that bear on ethics and Jewish law, and what I am trying to do is combine an outlook that brings together the science, the general ethics and the Jewish ethics. For the rabbis, I can help with the scientific aspects. For the Knesset, I can help with the ethical and Jewish aspect. Many times, we can come to a conclusion that they agree on what is best, which very different from the United States.

JJ: Looking ahead to the future, and given the sheer volume of material in the Talmudic Encyclopedia, do you believe that it will ever be wholly digital?

AS: We expect to publish another 35 volumes, a total of 70 volumes. I don’t know anyone who will buy 70 volumes — you will need to buy a house in order to store it. For Shabbat purposes, someone might need a book rather than a computer. Or someone who still likes the touch of the paper wants to have a printed volume. But the print edition will be a small number of books, and everything will go digital. Once we have everything digitalized, we can work on it — add, subtract, change, correct. And that’s a whole new project for the generations.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.