Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Steinhardt vs. Steinsaltz: Believer and non-believer face off

Jerusalem Post:

'In the last 300 years, the Jewish religion as it is generally practiced has failed the Jewish people,' said Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt at the opening of a dialogue with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Monday night about the future of the Jewish people.

Steinhardt, a prominent philanthropist dedicated to the preservation of non-Orthodox Judaism, was noticeably on edge during this opening exchange, as he was at many points during the evening as he went head to head with Steinsaltz, one of today's greatest Talmud scholars.

The two were brought together at New York's St. Regis Hotel for the annual dinner of the Aleph Society, an organization dedicated to promoting Steinsaltz's efforts worldwide to address what can be done to help invigorate Jewish growth and unity, given the current state of fractured ideologies and beliefs.

Though they approach the subject from opposite ends of the spectrum, both Steinhardt and Steinsaltz have, in their own right, been revolutionary in their efforts to make Judaism more accessible to the masses. "...

Steinhardt, a self-declared atheist, has grown increasingly alarmed over the erosion of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, and the threat to non-Orthodox Jewish continuity. In 1995, he closed his lucrative hedge fund to devote his time and fortune to the Jewish world. He is one of the principal investors in Birthright.

Though Steinhardt and Steinsaltz represent, respectively, the secular and religious approaches to Jewish continuity, those lines were blurred several times throughout the evening. Early on, Steinsaltz rejected the idea that Steinhardt was "secular," arguing that someone who has devoted himself to the continuation of the Jewish people is a believer of sorts.

Steinsaltz insisted that there was something religious inside Steinhardt, struggling to get out. Steinhardt replied: "I'll risk the wrath of your God by saying it doesn't exist."...

Steinhardt argued that the Jewish people should continue in order to preserve "Jewish values," which he distinguished from Judaism's religious aspects. "The overwhelming number of Jews alive today have no serious interest in their religion," said Steinhardt. He said that could change if Jewish values were substituted for "that which is called religion today." He mentioned education and tzedaka (charity) as examples....

Two very interesting human beings, having the kind of conversation that doesn't happen very often. Bravo.

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