Prof. Mark Steiner, z”l
One of the gems lost to Klal Yisrael during this plague was Prof. Mark Steiner, who was niftar yesterday.
The first notices and appreciations focused on his important contributions to the philosophy of mathematics in general, and its relationship to Jewish thought in particular. While the accolades are well-deserved, I knew a somewhat different side of him, albeit only recently. (We lived close by. When I moved to Israel and the Katamon neighborhood, my friend yblvtv”a Prof. Barry Simon introduced us. That resulted in sharing a few long Shabbos meals.
While his genius was apparent, his enthusiasm for divrei Torah was even more in evidence. At his table, it was hard to get a word in edge-wise, he had so much to share, and yielded the speaker’s role only begrudgingly. In a word, I’m penning these few paragraphs – despite not having known him as well or as long as others – because I don’t want the world to forget for a moment that we have unique individuals who climbed to the top of the secular intellectual Pantheon, but who went through life with the love and thirst for Torah of a rosh Kollel.
Prof. Steiner did not just show the connection between his subdiscipline in philosophy and the Jewish spirit, as the Hebrew U. release correctly noted. He insisted on elevating the status of Chazal themselves. He swam against the current of secular philosophy in insisting that the decidedly non-systematic thought of Chazal should nonetheless be regarded fully as philosophy. He was very proud of his paper on the subject. Here, too, his ahavas ha-Torah was in evidence.
Anyone listening to his zemiros knew that the lev was there as well, not just the mo’ach.
It is difficult to see how this kind of Renaissance personality can ever be replaced.
Yehi zicro baruch.
BDE. He was a professor of mine in Columbia University many years ago. Brilliant mind.
Rav Adlerstein, I never met the late Prof. Steiner but I have quoted his insights often. His knowledge encompassed an impressive breadth of areas. My favorite, understandably :), was his reference from a time when Rav Moshe Sofer used his bon mot, Hadash assur min ha’ Torah, le’kulah to oppose those who wanted to passel very small etrogim that were being used. They were smaller than the shiurim the HatamSofer himself observed, but met the size normally used in the community.
We had a dispute in a halakhic area where I have unique expertise. After criticizing what I wrote, he very publically penned an apology after he consulted with Prof. Shlomo Sternberg, who confirmed what I had written. His intellectual honestly left a lasting impression. Yehi zikhroh barukh.
Thank you, Rabbi Adlerstein, for this lovely hesped.
It is also worth noting that Prof. Steiner was the translator of the philosophical works of Rabbi Reuven Agushewitz.
A brief review of two of the volumes appeared in Hakirah.
Marc Z”L brought his accordion to play at our younger son’s sheva berachos in Indy, making the simcha even more special. Alongside his many professional achievements, he was the opposite of pompous and had a great sense of humor.
FYI, other online outlets spell his name Mark.
I think some might appreciate this eulogy of Prof Steiner from the Leiter blog:
Philosopher Curtis Franks (Notre Dame) kindly shared this remembrance of Professor Steiner with me:
There’s an often repeated joke in the “Torah world” that goes like this: If the Brisker Rav had gone to America and Rav Moshe Feinstein had gone to the Holy Land, neither of them would have accomplished anything. The people who tell this joke know that it’s obviously false, because the two phenomenal 20th century rabbis mentioned were so brilliant and of such exceptional character that they were destined to greatness in any circumstance. But the point that is supposed to be conveyed, the deeper truth, is that great people seem to appear just where they need to be. The style of Reb Moshe’s genius was particularly suited to his American post-war audience, just as the Brisker Rav’s very contrary style resonated precisely with the culture of Jewish Palestine.
I keep thinking of Mark Steiner in these terms. It seems almost fated that Mark would attend Columbia and study with Sydney Morgenbesser. I’m lucky to know a few philosophers from Columbia who were influenced by Morgenbesser and still refer to his insights, antics, and wit. But everyone who knew him will agree that Mark was the student who seemed to internalize Morgenbesser’s whole philosophical outlook. He didn’t just recall and quote him. He looked at problems and posed questions the same way. He didn’t just have a rich sense of humor that philosophy could trigger. Like Morgengesser, he knew how to use humor to bore into phenomena, trace their contours, and draw conclusions.
Being at Columbia also gave Mark the opportunity to study with Rabbi Menachem Gettinger. I think that Mark attributed his affinity for the thought of Yisroel Salanter to Rabbi Gettinger’s influence in his student days. And I recall how present, decades later, Rabbi Gettinger was in Mark’s thought. During the academic year he spent at Notre Dame, I had nearly daily reminders. To make a point about the inconvenience of the office space on campus, or about the difference between small towns in Indiana vs. Israel, or about what led Wittgenstein to change his mind about some aspect of mathematics, Mark would routinely draw a completely unexpected analogy with a legal ruling from a celebrated rabbi like the Chasam Sofer or, most frequently, the Chazon Ish (whose writings are the texts that I believe Mark knew the best). But nearly as often, the analogy would be with a teaching from Rabbi Gettinger. Again, Mark seemed to have been, not only taught, but formed by his teacher.
One moment sticks in my mind vividly. It was during another visit to Notre Dame, this time as an invited speaker to our annual Philosophy of Mathematics Workshop. Because Mark was speaking, the Sunday talks were all devoted to the topic of mathematical explanation. And of course, each speaker dutifully quoted, interpreted, applied, or criticized some passage from Mark’s work en route to their own thesis. Mark spoke last, and he began by explaining a Talmudic parable that I imagine was new to most of the audience. In the parable, God shows Moses a scholar named Akiva who would live centuries later and allows him to eavesdrop on that scholar’s discourses. Akiva is extracting laws and drawing conceptual distinctions based on technical nuances, deploying incredible textual ingenuity. Moses remarks to God that he is unable to understand what Akiva and his students are talking about and says, “If you have someone as great as this, why are you giving the Torah to me?” But God points out to Moses that Akiva attributes all his insights to Moses. Mark said, “I feel a bit like Moses today. One after another people come up here and talk about all these things they claim I taught, and I can hardly follow anything they say.” Was he saying that the earlier speakers had all misconstrued his work and stumbled into confusion? Was he saying that they were all his superiors and had left him far behind? Paradoxically, he was saying both. It was a classic Morgenbesser/Gettinger moment.
According to another old joke pattern, accumulating adjectives is the surest route to greatness. It must take a lot of work to become the greatest ball player, and there’s no guarantee the work will pay off anyway. On the other hand, you just need to think for a few minutes to become, say, the greatest nearsighted, vegetarian ball player in northwest Florida under the age of 12.
My own variation on this joke is that while I’m certainly not the rootinest-tootinest Jewish philosopher of mathematics and logic who also specializes in Wittgenstein, I am one of the five funniest. The competition is stiff, but Mark was the funniest. At the conference in Jerusalem on the occasion of his mandatory retirement (the only type of retirement possible for him), some of the great ones were there. Stewart Shapiro. Saul Kripke. But, of course, Mark stole the show with his impromptu closing remarks. He walked in front of the room, rehearsed a few old Sydney Morgenbesser lines and threw in, as he always did, a couple of new ones that hadn’t yet found their way onto the internet lists. He also cracked a few jokes of his own about being fired but being committed to “publishing until he perishes” all the same. And then he thanked the speakers by stepping through the highlights of the two dozen or so talks from the previous four days, one at a time, summing up the important parts of each one with a halachic analogy or joke, always with more punch and clarity than the speaker had managed. Everyone laughed and cried in turn, and we were out the door in half an hour.
He was also, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest. A memory from my graduate school days, before I’d ever met Mark, haunts me still many years later. A different senior philosophy professor saw me, and my yarkulke, at a conference, and introduced himself by saying, “I know what you’re trying to do, and the sooner you give it up the better. You can’t live in two worlds at once.” It is easy to recall this warning, when I feel that I’m compromising my Talmudic studies in order to maintain a career, or that I’m compromising my research and teaching in order to keep a schedule of prayer and study in the synagogue — to say nothing of the impact both have on family life, and vice versa. But who really lives in only one world? The person I think of is Mark. The grandfather, the father, the philosopher, the Torah scholar, the husband, the humorist. He was the greatest, not because he somehow overcame the demands all these roles placed on him, and not because the accumulation of adjectives paved the way to a cheap title. Mark was the greatest because gadlus is temimus. Because every facet of his life was active at all times, Mark made sure that no one of them could define his world, even momentarily. The uniqueness of his philosophical vision as well as the depth of his insight in Torah all derived from this.
This morning my student defended her dissertation on “The Explanatory Value of Category Theory.” Of course, she begins chapter 1 by pointing out something in Mark’s work. For so many people who met Mark, and now for many more who never did, he is there in chapter 1, just as Morgenbesser and Gettinger were for him.
Sixty years ago, I had the honor of being in the same high school (known then as MTA or Manhattan Talmudical Academy, a division of Yeshiva University) graduating class as the late Prof Steiner and even then I stood in awe of his great intellect. I don’t think he ever got less than an A in any of the courses he took. I thought that it might be instructive to read what was written about him in the 1960 issue of the high school yearbook, the Elchanite: “President, National Honor Society; Editor-in-Chief, Elchanite; Captain, Mathematics Team; Associate Editor, HATCHIAH; Chess Team; Intramurals: Publications; Committees. Yeshiva has always prided itself upon the excellence of its students and upon the many distinctions which they have achieved. During the past four years no one has done more to perpetuate this heritage than Mark Steiner. Mark has always excelled as a student both in Jewish and secular studies. His extra-curricular activities include the Math Team, the Elchanite, and the Academy News, all in executive positions. As a senior, Mark represented Yeshiva as a Merit Scholar and a General Motors winner. His academic achievements as a high school student are such that the permanence of his distinction is assured. In view of these accomplishments, it is paramount that Mark is also one of the best-liked members of his class We are proud of the honors which Mark Steiner will bring to his alma mater.” Needless to say, this prediction more than fulfilled. יהי זכרו ברוך.