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Scholar? Polymath? Renaissance Man?

Scholar? Polymath? Renaissance man?

Rabbi Prof. Dr. Avraham Steinberg

One struggles to come up with a word that encapsulates Rabbi Dr. Professor Avraham Steinberg. A growing number of people today are interdisciplinary, such that a rabbi-doctor or rabbi-professor no longer raises eyebrows as it once did. Thus, it can be missed just how unusual Rabbi Dr. Prof. Steinberg really is.

For simplicity’s sake, I will generally refer to him as Rabbi Steinberg, but each title of his is wholly deserved and independent of the other two.

Most medical doctors who are professors teach in their field of medical expertise; e.g, a cardiologist is a professor of cardiology. Not Dr. Professor Steinberg. Medically, he practices pediatric neurology — serving as the senior pediatric neurologist at Shaarei Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem. Professorially, his professorial duties are in the field of medical ethics. And he does not just teach medical ethics, he has written the decisive Jewish work in the field (more below).

Rabbinically, he is a rabbi’s rabbi. Not only is he a leading authority on medical issues in Jewish law, but, as the director of the Encyclopedia Talmudit, he oversees a team whose every contributor needs to be a senior Torah scholar, intimately familiar with the entire Talmud and its commentaries.

A legendary figure such as Rabbi Steinberg is worth reading about any day of the year, but there is special significance to the work of the Encyclopedia Talmudit during this war. Though popularity does not naturally jibe with a project of deep scholarship, Rabbi Steinberg has endeavored to make the encyclopedia relevant. Soon after Oct. 7, the encyclopedia began a unique volume dedicated to the laws of wartime.

Released just a couple weeks ago, relevant entries were culled from throughout the encyclopedia, with the result being the only book of Jewish law providing an in-depth, yet concise presentation of all the sources on war in Jewish law from the times of Talmud some 2,000 years ago through history up until today.

Such a volume is a boon for teachers and congregational rabbis worldwide, but it is of utmost importance to those doing the fighting themselves.

The good news is that when the IDF rabbinate heard about this, it requested 2,500 copies for distribution not only to IDF rabbis but to army bases. With so many learned hesder yeshiva students and alumni in combat (including the rabbi of my shul!), the demand is great among all army ranks.

The bad news is that the IDF did not find this special volume valuable enough to buy, leaving the encyclopedia staff to raise the funds necessary for the extra printing.

The volume is now being dedicated in memory of Col. Yehonatan Steinberg, a religious officer, and the highest-ranking officer killed on Oct. 7.

Identifying the mutilated

My first question to Rabbi Steinberg was whether our post-Oct. 7 reality has brought him new questions.

His response was to sharpen the distinction between medical ethics and Jewish medical law, or medical Halachah. Rabbi Steinberg illustrated the distinction via specific cases, but perhaps the distinction is best demonstrated as follows:

Being a lecturer on medical ethics to hundreds of non-Jewish medical professionals in California is one thing. It does not necessarily correlate with being a confidant of the major decisors of Jewish law, such as the late Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (d. 1995) and Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (d. 2012). Rabbi Steinberg is both.

The cases Rabbi Steinberg shared are tragic.

He had never seen difficulties in identifying the dead — both quantitatively and qualitatively — as he did after Oct. 7. Different thresholds for identification carry serious implications for questions such as when a family will start sitting shiva or whether one’s spouse is considered a widow or widower.

Many victims were mutilated so brutally that the only hope of identifying them was DNA testing. Even so, some victims’ homes were burned so completely that there was nothing there to match the DNA material with. In such cases, Rabbi Steinberg says, first-degree relatives can be asked to provide DNA material (which can be a strand of hair).

Even worse are situations where there is no body at all because it was kidnapped to Gaza. Can someone be identified via video? Can one be identified via certain bones without which one cannot live? These are qualitatively different, painfully new questions in medical Halachah in the wake of Oct. 7.

Organ donation

Following Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Ovadia Yosef and other major decisors of Jewish law that brain death determines and defines the cessation of life, Rabbi Steinberg allows for organ donation after brain death.

His position is one side of a debate in the halachic world, in which encouraging organ donation is debated.

A recent article reported that 30 lives have been saved due to multiple organs donated by seven IDF soldiers killed in Gaza. This report came at a time when more than 190 soldiers had already been killed, indicating that less than 5% of soldiers agreed to have their organs donated. It seems that everyone is reluctant, religious or secular.

Rabbi Steinberg says that if a person has not signed an agreement to be an organ donor, the decision passes to their loved ones. He pointed to a recent study’s finding that, indeed, over 50% of trauma victims’ families do not approve for their loved one’s organs being donated.

For some, it appears there are emotional obstacles; for others, if even only one family member is opposed, the matter is not worth risking a family rift.

If the deceased made it clear before death that he or she is a willing donor, however, Rabbi Steinberg emphasizes that the family almost always respects the request, even if they personally would have been opposed.

Biography

In our post-Covid world, sometimes people still wonder, “Why bother traveling to meet in person? This interview could just as well be done over Zoom!”

Sitting face-to-face for two hours with someone who measures his time in minutes was rewarding enough, but my travels on a rainy day were rewarded further still. At one point, a book on his shelf suddenly caught my eye. It turned out to be a festschrift presented to Rabbi Steinberg in honor of a milestone birthday.

Commonly, such commemorative volumes are put together for someone’s 70th, 75th or 80th birthdays, after a lifetime of accomplishment. This one was Rabbi Steinberg’s 60th, by which point he already accomplished more than most people could in 120 years.

The volume is graced by in-depth essays from leading lights across Israeli society, including Supreme Court justices, former chief rabbis, rabbinical judgs (dayanim) on Israel’s highest religious court and first-rank decisors of Jewish law.

Spearheaded by his son Rav Yitzchak Steinberg — dean of the Eretz Hemda Kollel in Ra’anana and a scholar and humble spirit in his own right — the festschrift includes a beautiful, personal aspect. An entire section is devoted to Rabbi Steinberg’s ancestors, providing a brief biographical sketch of each of their lives and bringing their own Torah novella to modern print for the first time.

Like former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Avraham Steinberg was born into a family of illustrious rabbinic lineage. His father, Rabbi Moshe, was a communal rabbi in Galicia before the Holocaust. After he and his wife were relocated to a Displaced Persons camp after WW II, he became the de facto rabbi there as well.

It was in the DP camp that Avraham, an only child of Holocaust survivors, was born. Rabbi Steinberg’s grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak (after whom Rabbi Avraham’s son is named), was the longtime rabbi of a prominent city in Galicia, Yaroslav. Rabbi Steinbergnamesake, his great-grandfather Rabbi Avraham, was one of Galicia’s leading rabbis after WW I.

Writing and publishing

While Rabbi Steinberg charted his own path, pursuing a career in medicine, the deeply rooted tradition of Torah study remained a mainstay in his life. It was the unprecedented synthesis of the two fields that warranted a festschrift at age 60.

When Rabbi Steinberg began his medical career, a yeshiva student turned doctor was a rarity. Even basic questions — such as Shabbat observance — about how to practice medicine in a modern hospital as a religious Jew were barely addressed.

The dawn of groundbreaking medical technologies such as organ transplants, respirators, IVF and artificial insemination meant that the interface of medicine and Jewish law needed serious attention, and a young Rabbi Dr. Steinberg dove in.

As a fifth-year medical student, he founded Assia, a quarterly journal devoted to medical-halachic issues that is still publishing. I remember being introduced to it when learning the laws of niddah (ritual purity) as part of my rabbinical studies with Rabbi Mordechai Willig.

That same year, Rabbi Steinberg was chosen to head the Schlesinger Institute, a first-ever research program in medicine and Jewish law. He developed close relationships with the leading halachic scholars of the generation, discussing case after case. As the years went on, he began writing. And writing. And writing.

Rabbi Steinberg wrote the definitive work on medical Halachah, Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Law, a seven-volume treatise in Hebrew spanning 3,400 pages of original scholarship.

It received such high acclaim that in 1999 he was awarded Israel’s most prestigious prize, the Israel Prize, in the category of original rabbinical literature.

This work became known to Anglos as the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, a condensed version translated by Dr. Fred Rosner.

Given Rabbi Steinberg’s insistence in the beginning of our conversation that medical ethics and medical Halachah are distinct fields, how was the title from “medical law” to “medical ethics?”

Rabbi Steinberg’s answer is twofold.

First, Jewish medical ethics and medical Halachah are essentially the same field, as Jewish ethics will be significantly informed by Torah and Halachah. Secular medical ethics, by contrast, is a separate field.

Second, in a play on the well-known maxim, don’t judge this book by its title! Both titles are correct, but even taken together they are only partially representative of the book’s contents. The book’s essence is medicine and Jewish law, but most entries have not only an ethical section, but also a historical background to the topic and, when relevant, a legal background to its place in Israeli law.

Expert witness

But Rabbi Steinberg’s work in these fields goes well beyond writing.

He has provided over 5,000 expert witness briefs in court cases involving pediatric neurology or medical ethics.

Perhaps the most impactful work of his career has been chairing government appointed committees on bioethics, directly influencing Israeli law on end-of-life issues, organ donation and circumcision. As such, Rabbi Steinberg is an exceedingly rare breed of intellectual whose work has positively impacted all sectors of Israeli society.

It is one thing to unify around a need-based organization, but to be a unifying force in the world of ideas, where ideological divisions are deeply rooted, is nearly impossible. Yet, Rabbi Steinberg transcends it all, with his respect, humility and compassion playing as important a role as his extensive knowledge.

I ask Rabbi Steinberg who he sees as the up and coming Jewish medical ethics experts in the younger generation. He didn’t name one. Instead, he passionately advocated that more professionals fuse their Torah study with their profession of choice.

“Today many doctors are religious and learned, yet very few of them go into medical Halachah or medical ethics, which I fail to understand.

“They learn other topics and that is nice, but what’s most relevant to them are the laws pertaining to the medical practice. If you are a businessman, learn business Halachah.”

In fact, he emphasizes, it is in the interface between Torah and one’s profession where one’s Torah knowledge is most valuable, because one is an expert in one’s field. If one isfamiliar with the Torah principles relevant to one’s profession, one’s input is especially valuable to a rabbi making a halachic decision on that subject!

Fourth life

At the time of the book’s publication, Rabbi Steinberg’s life was already full as a physician, rabbi, ethicist and author. But in 2007, his fourth life began, He took on a new mission directing the Encyclopedia Talmudit.

In under 20 years, he has again accomplished more than even great scholars do in a lifetime. Literally. The first half of this historic Torah project took 60 years, but the second half — under Rabbi Steinberg’s visionary watch — is slated to be completed in under 20 years, by the end of 2024.

I point out that the latest volume of the encyclopedia is still on the letter mem, leaving about 40% of the alphabet left to go. How does 40% of a 75-year old project get done in one year? Rabbi Steinberg proceeds to take me on a (verbal) historical tour of the Encyclopedia Talmudit.

Conceived of during the Holocaust and started shortly thereafter, its founding director was Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, a towering scholar of that era.

Under his stewardship, the entries were top-notch in quality but concise, with over 40% of the entries completed in 30 years. Upon his passing, though, the new editors took to adding much analytical discussion to each entry, and the work slowed.

Over the next 30 years, only about 15% was completed.

By the time Rabbi Steinberg came on board in 2007, new volumes barely received attention and the project was in danger of being shelved altogether.

Rabbi Steinberg endeavored to bring back Rabbi Zevin’s style, with more concise, focused entries, and would constantly tell the writers to cut this out, cut that out. It wasn’t always an easy transition.

Executive leadership

Then, in 2014, came the breakthrough.

The Toronto Foundation led by Dov Friedberg, which has also been a leading force for increasing access to licensed mental health professionals in Israel’s haredi community, agreed to provide a multi-million dollar grant toward completion of the encyclopedia’s remaining volumes.

On two conditions.

One, that the entire project be finished within ten years (2024).

Second, that the encyclopedia’s administration match his contribution by raising another few million dollars.

Rabbi Steinberg hired new writers, the pace of writing quickened from 15 entries per year to 100, and new volumes were published each year.

What about that 40% of the alphabet which remains to be done? It’s done, says Rabbi Steinberg . . . online! In a stroke of ingenuity spurred by the need to meet the 2024 deadline, Rabbi Steinberg restructured the entire process of entry writing.

Previously, a few entries were worked on at a time, and only once they went through an intensive editing process and received full approval were new entries begun.

Now, Rabbi Steinberg has many more scholars writing entries which are of good quality and are available online. Since the senior editors can only handle so much at once, their final approval and publication in book form will happen at a later stage.

This signifies an entirely new, unheralded field of excellence in Rabbi Steinberg’s repertoire, one heretofore missing from all that is written about him: business management.

Rabbi Steinberg is the CEO of a major nonprofit, demonstrating top-notch executive leadership and business saavy. He manages a multi-million dollar budget and has recruited a team of advanced-level professionals in their field. He has provided the right structure and motivation for them to turn in peak performance, for years on end, under the pressure of a “challenge grant.”

He oversaw a radical transformation of the workplace culture — when he joined in 2006, many team members were still using typewriters! — and needed to think creatively to come up with a methodology that would enable them to meet the challenge grant’s terms to increase quantitative output, but without sacrificing the quality that gives the Encyclopedia Talmudit its sterling reputation.

To borrow a term from the start-up world, Rabbi Steinberg has produced a unicorn — the completion of the Encyclopedia Talmudit is infinitely valuable to the world of Torah study, well beyond the $1 billion valuation that unicorn companies achieve. As King David famously said to G-d, “Your Torah teachings are more precious to me than thousands of (pieces of) gold and silver” (Psalms 119:72).

An added benefit of the project for Rabbi Steinberg is his relationship with Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, grandson of Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, who has been very supportive of the project. “I send him a Whatsapp and receive an answer immediately, as if he has nothing else to do!”

Respectful disagreement

Another benefit of meeting in person was that I could see a copy of the specially commissioned volume on the laws of wartime. As I leafed through it, the table of contents struck me as odd. Of three sections, the first two contain chapters about warfare. The third section has chapters such as “loving one’s fellow Jew” (ahavat Yisrael) and “disputes” (mahloket). As someone who has written in these pages about the need for, and the value of, unity and respectful disagreement, I was heartened to hear Rabbi Steinberg’s explanation of this section’s inclusion.

“The year before the war,” he shared, “there was such mahloket she’lo l’sheim shamayim (deep dispute) which brought hatred and almost divided our people.

“Now, it’s legitimate to think one way or the other. Do we need judicial reform or not? You can protest, you can argue about it. But to say that the other side has no basis? It turned into a situation of hatred, and we know from our history that pure hatred brings disasters. And quite possibly, this hatred is what brought this war.

“The lesson we have to learn from it is to disagree, sure, but in a friendly way. So we believed that improving in these areas is essential to the war’s success and included them in the volume.”

And what an inspiring role model for unity he is.

For the Encyclopedia Talmudit, he accepts writers of all stripes — Ashkenazi, Sephardi and beyond. The only criteria are to have complete mastery of the Talmud and its commentaries and to be a good writer.

Earlier, I had asked whether there is a particular part of the religious world he identifies with. On the one hand, he was a student in Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav, very much a Zionist institution, he was a medical officer in the Israel Air Force, and does not advocate for a Torah-only approach. On the other hand, his dress and lingo bespeak an affiliation with the haredi community.

“Today everyone is assigned,” he answers. “One belongs to this world or that world. I have my own world. I think there are very good things in the haredi world. There are very good things in the hardal [Merkaz HaRav-type] world. There are very good things in the Mizrachi [Religious Zionist] world. I’m trying to adapt what fits me best, as long as it doesn’t violate any Halachah.

“In fact, my being indifferent as far as defining myself belonging to this world or that world, has helped me very much with my work because I got access to all the gedolim, the greatest Talmud scholars, whether they are haredi, Mizrachi, hardal or Sephardi. I went to everyone and everyone accepted me equally.”

What a wonderfully harmonious approach to carry with us in a discordant world.

Copyright © 2024 by the Intermountain Jewish News



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Chaim Goldberg is a columnist with the IJN. He holds rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University and a graduate degree in psychology from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Currently, he lives in Jerusalem where he works as an educational psychologist and teaches at gap-year programs.


2 thoughts on “Scholar? Polymath? Renaissance Man?

  1. Anonymous

    Excellent interview. I know Dr, Steinberg when my wife and I attend the JME of TIM where Rabbi Dr. Steinberg is featured speaker.

    Barry Hartman

    Reply

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