Rabbi Frank Stern of Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Ana, California is a tall, confident man with a resonant voice. He has dark, curly, thinning hair, a moustache and short beard — like a Vandyke but rounded under his chin — and appears to be in his forties. He was dressed casually, gray slacks and a white shirt, with the top button open.
Rabbi Stern is an attentive man with intense concentration. His speech quickly reveals his keen mind and his deep dedication to his values. He walked down the corridor of the synagogue with my assistant and me and showed us into his large office. Light streamed into the office through a big window as we pulled our chairs near one another.
I explained my book, along with its concept of higher consciousness and told him what my main questions would be:
What is Judaism? What is the goal of Judaism? How does a Jew become fulfilled? What are the levels or states of this fulfillment?
RA: What is the goal of Judaism?
“I’m going to answer that in just a moment,” Rabbi Stern replied. “But since you were kind enough to share the questions with me beforehand, I would like to make a few comments on your questions. The first is, while you’re asking all of these questions of each religious group — and that’s an appropriate way of dealing with these issues so you can have a process of comparison — the fact is that what you’re doing is boxing every religion into the same mold. I want to make you aware of the fact, from the outset, that Judaism doesn’t quite fit the box you’ve put out.”
“That’s fine,” I said, and encouraged him to help me find a better way to proceed.
“I will answer your questions and try to give you the areas of comparison,” Rabbi Stern went on, “but I want you to understand from the outset that what will emerge will be a stilted configuration of Judaism.”
“Would you prefer this interview go another way?” I asked.
“Not at all,” Rabbi Stern replied. “No matter how we proceed we’re going to run into some of the same kinds of problems.”
RA: Would you give me an example of this problem?
“For example, you talk about levels of religious consciousness. That’s not in Jewish tradition. There are different kinds of experiences within Judaism which you might characterize as ‘levels of consciousness’ but it’s not like rungs of a ladder.”
RA: How would you prefer to characterize these experiences?
“I’ll be happy to answer that when we get into this area. And one more thing I want you to know is that personally I accept the notion that there are many roads up the mountain and I see Judaism as one of these roads. I see there are lots of other roads which are appropriate also, so I want you to be assured that I’m happy to cooperate in this kind of endeavor in which you’re involved.
“Further, I also sense that in Judaism there are many ways in which one can experience God, and when you talk about the term ‘higher consciousness,’ I’m not sure whether that’s God himself, or whether that’s a consequence of your experience with God.”
“I understand.” I agreed with his concerns.
“My own personal belief,” said Rabbi Stern, “as opposed to any kind of authoritative Jewish position — because there is no such animal and I will talk about that if you want me to — but my own personal belief is that our experience of God does something to us as individuals, and ‘higher consciousness’ might be a way to describe what happens to us. To apprehend, to understand God’s characteristics or qualities, or Her characteristics or qualities, or however you want to describe it, that’s just beyond human ability, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like trying to describe infinity. You know, you can approach it, but you can never comprehend it.”
“Right,” I said.
“But there are things that happen to us that we cannot comprehend. In my own mind, that’s what I would understand by ‘higher consciousness.’ It’s not that somehow we understand God and we now can comprehend him, but that whatever it is of God that we experience affects our lives in some way. But I’m not sure there are levels that build one upon the other. It’s not like Maslow’s hierarchy of consciousness, you know. I’m not sure that I personally buy the kind of an image that you start off at one level and then you achieve or fulfill that level and suddenly you’re open to another level. Rather, I think people can have peak experiences without being prepared for them. I think it helps if you’re prepared for them in your knowledge and background, but I think people can be transformed by experiences they’re entirely unprepared for. Having a child can be that kind of experience in our lives. So, it doesn’t have to be a mountaintop experience, but it can nevertheless be a peak experience.
RA: What are some of the ways in which Jews have peak experiences and mountaintop experiences?
“I think that there are many ways of experiencing God, and in my own teachings I’ve looked in at least four directions that I find quite natural. I see God as a force which operates within nature, not as an extra-natural phenomenon which somehow interrupts nature to make himself visible or vivid. So I see the God force operating in nature and I see us able to apprehend that force or become one with that force in at least four different ways.
“The first way, and perhaps the most obvious to people who are part of a religious tradition, is to plumb the depths of what you’ve been given — in the traditional sense. We have a vast literature: we have the experiences of our forefathers, of the sages, of other people of Jewish tradition. We can read their accounts; we can understand their ideas. We can plumb the experience of God through the traditions to which we are heir. Study then becomes one pathway to God.
“A second way would be to look at the resources we have within ourselves as persons. I think we can become conscious of God because of what we find within ourselves. For example, the kind of awe we feel at times, the sense of goodness we feel within ourselves, the outreach we have, the sense of dignity and worth that we feel within ourselves. In other words, there are things within us that are beautiful, special, and precious. These inner qualities somehow move us to some kind of higher form of behavior, higher consciousness, whatever you want to call it. So another pathway to God is to somehow get in touch with and express the finest qualities we find within ourselves.
“A third pathway to God is to do precisely the same with respect to others. I find God — I recognize God — in other people. And I can come into contact with God through my relationships with other people. If they are loving, if they are supportive relationships, if they are relationships that achieve some kind of joy, if I see other people blossoming as a consequence of our relationship, somehow I experience the presence of God. So another path to God is through other human beings.
“And then the fourth way would be the natural world. There are times in our experiences with the world around us that we become aware of forces for good, and beauty, and harmony — and whatever other adjectives you want to use — but we call those forces a name: God.
“It’s not that one pathway is somehow better than the other,” the Rabbi added. “They are all pathways. Like opening one of four doors and that door gets you ultimately to the same conclusion. They are all available pathways to us. What I find is that some people are more receptive to one pathway and some people are more receptive to another, and they should journey on their particular pathway.”
I found his straightforward answer very inspiring. I continued.
RA: Please tell us, what is the goal of Judaism?
“The goal of Judaism,” he answered, “is to somehow carry out the ideals — the values — which man apprehends to be godly in our lives. So the goal of Judaism is to live lives in harmony with God.”
RA: And how do you do that? I recognize you have these four pathways.
“That’s right,” he said. “What Jewish tradition and experience has offered us are insights into all four pathways. Ultimately, belief is not the significant achievement or criterion of Jewish consciousness. The ultimate criterion is: what impact does one of these four pathways have on your behavior, how do you live your life as a consequence of whatever experience you have had? The Jewish concept of love, for example, is a good image in that regard. Love as a feeling is not enough in Jewish tradition. If you sit in your living room in front of the fireplace and you extol and exalt about how you love God but that love does not implore you to go out and do anything about your relationships with your fellow man or the world in which you live, or in developing your own talents and abilities, then somehow that love is insufficient. Spiritual experience has to somehow create differences in your behavior, have an effect on the way you live.
“And the same thing is true regarding love for your fellow man. If you say to your child, ‘I love you and I am compassionate,’ but you don’t listen to what that child has to say, or you don’t go out of your way to help the child, or you pay no attention to the child’s desires and wishes, you are really not showing love. You may feel the feeling of love but somehow it doesn’t translate. It’s when love translates into behavior that it becomes love fulfilled — or love in any real sense. So, loving your fellow man means you behave toward other people — members of your family, your neighbors, members of your community — in certain kinds of ways that express these godly inspirations. And it’s not just a feeling or just a sense or just a belief.
“So,” the Rabbi concluded, “Judaism translates, ultimately, less into a system of belief than a system of behavior.”
RA: And you get the appropriate behavior through these four pathways?
“Through your apprehension of God,” the Rabbi responded.
“Through your apprehension of God,” I repeated. ”
RA: But what part does faith play?
“Faith is one way. See, it’s interesting that in Jewish tradition there is no Hebrew word for religion! The reason for this is there isn’t such a concept. If there were a concept, there would be a word for it. We’ve been around a long time. We’ve got words for everything else. We are very articulate peoples. We had no word for religion because that’s not a concept in Jewish tradition. That’s a Hellenistic notion.”
What a thunderous idea, I thought, no Hebrew word for religion?
“You see,” he said, “everything in life is under religion because everything is impacted by your experiences in this world. So, Judaism makes laws about sexual conduct, relationships of parents to children, business relationships, how to plow your fields, what are the proper clothes to wear, how you observe holy days, when you should sleep, when you should bathe. There isn’t an area of life that isn’t touched in some way by these ideals — ideals of faith.”
RA: As a consequence of knowing how to treat your children, when to bathe, and various observances, what happens?
The Rabbi paused and thought. “I pause because this question isn’t Jewish. The presumption that something is supposed to happen is an interesting presumption.
“Then you don’t have to answer it,” I said in surprise.
“I’m not sure that I can.”
RA: When I ask about the goal of Judaism, I mean is it not also Jewish to think of some realization of the reality or presence of God? As a very distinct experience which does occur? I endeavored to reach toward a Jewish question.
“I think the experience of God is a very distinct and concrete experience. Yes, it’s something you can sense that happens to you, and it’s even something you could attempt to talk about.” He smiled.
“Would you, please?”
“Obviously, the more you talk about it, the less it becomes. Coming from a mystic tradition, you understand that kind of a concept. There is a whole stream of Jewish philosophy that says you can say nothing about God — because the minute you try to say something about God you categorize, constrain or confine God, and you’ve lost whatever it is you want to talk about. Jewish religious experience is not like talking about ‘X-ism.’ The minute you start talking about it, you don’t have the same thing anymore.
“You see,” he went on, “I personally had experiences where I felt the presence of God. I know members of my family have had those experiences. We have an adult education study program where just a week ago the whole theme of the get-together was personal experiences of God and how a person can share these experiences with others. There were thirty people attending the discussion and I was amazed that not one of them said they had not had these special kinds of experiences. Every single person there had some kind of personal experience of God — of different sorts and different natures. But not all of them translated their experiences in the same vocabulary: ‘I felt the presence of God’ or ‘Some special course opened in my life. I felt the Divine Presence,’ or ecstasy, or whatever it might be.”
RA: What are some of the common attributes of these varied experiences? For example, you mentioned the word ecstasy.
“I think ecstasy is one of those attributes of the experience, or one of the consequences of the experience,” Rabbi Stern replied. “I think the heightened awareness of abilities, skills, potentials, that exist within persons is one of the consequences. I think often a new sense of priorities and values is a consequence. Very frequently a person’s life direction is changed from such an experience, and he begins to do things he wasn’t doing previously — or he re-focuses his life.
“There is a kind of consciousness of being chosen, of being special in some regard, also. There’s a sense of awe and wonder, too. There’s a sense of purposefulness in terms of the order and harmony of the universe, usually. Perhaps there is also a sense of special relatedness between yourself and other people — and other things.
“But, yet, when you begin to tear it apart this way, all of these are but parts of the same experience. However, these are some of the ways a person can try to start talking about spiritual experiences.”
RA: In striving to talk about these experiences, what phrases are often used? What do people coming from this experience say?
“Well, you see, again, your question is not quite a non-Jewish question. You’re asking a perfectly legitimate Jewish question except not many Jews ask it,” he laughed. “Judaism has a mystical tradition but it’s a minority tradition and suspect, to some degree, historically. So, most people haven’t talked about these experiences. To this day, most people don’t. All of the people who were with me at that study program last week had probably never shared their peak and mountaintop experiences before because this is simply not the kind of thing one goes around talking about in Jewish tradition. It’s not that it’s forbidden to do so, it’s just not our way.
“For the most part, the experience is left as an eternal, individual kind of thing. It is the behavior which becomes articulated.
“So, when you ask me what most Jews say about these experiences, most Jews don’t say anything!” The Rabbi shrugged.
RA: What do those Jews who do talk about it say?
“There are some Jews who do talk about these things,” Rabbi Stern responded. “One of the most articulate modern philosophers of Jewish mysticism was Martin Buber, of whom I’m sure you’re aware. His most vocal American exponent was a man by the name of Maurice Friedman who translated many or most of his books from German into English, and who had them published in the United States. Most of what we read of Buber today translates through Maurice Friedman.
“Maurice Friedman tells a story of a student who came to his New York apartment and asked Dr. Friedman to explain Buber’s ‘I/Thou’ relationship. Maurice Friedman said, ‘I’d be happy to do so,’ and took the student for a walk in the park. They walked side by side for quite some time — quietly. It was a lovely day. Eventually they meandered their way through the park and finally, as they were nearing the edge of the park, the student turned to Dr. Friedman and said, ‘Well, I’m waiting for your response.’ Dr. Friedman said, ‘I’ve been answering you for half an hour now.
“That’s very profound,” I said.
“So, Friedman obviously comes from the school that said you can’t talk about these things, you can only experience this reality. But Dr. Friedman also said, ‘Maybe I can help you experience it. Come, take a walk with me.’ Okay?” the Rabbi gazed back at me.
“Others, who are modern in their point of view,” Rabbi Stern continued, “would use contemporary fulfillment kinds of terms — self-fulfillment terms, authenticity terms, peak experience terms — the kind of jargon that has grown out of Gardner and Maslow — some of these kinds of people.
“The only other group in contemporary Judaism that talks in terms of ecstasy would be the Hasidic Jews, and I’m just not familiar enough with their literature in that regard. I would suggest that you either talk with Hasidim or that you read their literature to see the kind of vocabulary they employ.”
The Rabbi sat back in his chair. He continued, “But the Hasidic Jews have a word in Hebrew tradition called Shekinah. Shekinah is a Hebrew word which means the presence of God, or God force— however you term it in English. Shekinah is that part of God which we apprehend in the course of our existence, and there are lots of lovely notions about man’s relationship to the Shekinah, how we experience the Shekinah and what that does to us, and so on.
I had wished he would discuss the Shekinah, but I saw he did not intend to so I asked…
RA: This is probably a non-Jewish question which I would like you to clarify, if you wish, or feel free to state the question in a different way, but how does a Jew become fulfilled?
“Fulfillment in Jewish tradition means carrying out God’s demands for your life as fully and as completely — and as joyfully — as you can,” the Rabbi answered.
RA: And you know these demands from the scriptures?
“Well, that’s one way to discover them,” he responded.
RA: You know these demands by the other pathways, also?
“That’s correct,” Rabbi Stern replied. “Obviously, if you look at human relationships and you sense what brings joy and fulfillment to other human beings, then you sense that that is what you ought to do and encourage. On the other hand, that which hurts and degrades or denies other human beings is not good. Or, when you talk about Jewish study, there is no one direction you would study. You’ve read enough of the Bible to know that there are large sections of the Bible that deal with communicable diseases. There are large sections of the Bible which deal with religious ceremony. Other large sections of the Bible deal with family relationships. Any one of those places are places to start, and if you begin to fill God’s demand in one area, this keeps leading you farther and farther and farther into an interconnected universe in some way.
RA: And would you call this carrying out of God’s demands a relationship with God? Would that be a fair term for this?
“That’s a very popular kind of term,” he said.
RA: But do you like it?
“I like it, yes,” he said, “except in my own philosophy or experience. I feel that God is a constant. So, my relationship with God is more up to me than it is up to God. God’s always there. I have to make my effort. I have to open myself and become, somehow, conscious. A rabbinic legend illustrates this.
“The story is told that the day Moses experienced the burning bush he was not alone on the mountaintop. There were other shepherds herding their flocks in the same area and the bush was burning. Any one of them that turned and looked would have had the same experience of God. But they didn’t turn and look. Moses was the only one who was open to that experience. And the conclusion is that the burning bush is burning still.” He smiled.
I thought about what he’d said. “That’s magnificent. So, you mean by fulfillment that a person, as much as possible, does the demand of God in a growing and developing way? Obviously, the term ‘demand of God’ is not a very popular phrase out there in much of religion — I’ve rarely heard anyone use the phrase ‘demand of God.’
RA: What do you mean by demand? And, how do you know this demand?
The Rabbi answered me with a question. “What is it that impels a mother to protect her child, or a father to guard his child against attack?”
RA This is what you mean by the ‘demand of God?’
“There is that sense that you don’t have any choices. You have this internal force that compels you to move in a certain direction. Now, there are some mothers who neglect their children, and some fathers who brutalize their children, and parents even abandon their children. So, it’s not automatic, and yet I think most parents can understand the feeling they have of wanting to respond if they feel their children are somehow endangered. In a sense, this is the same kind of push, the internal push,” the Rabbi explained.
“Or,” he continued, “how do you explain the feeling of ecstasy one achieves in a sexual relationship? Or the feeling of pride a parent has at a child’s accomplishment? Now, these are all very simple kinds of things we sense all the time. Most parents have had these experiences, but trying to put these things into words somehow doesn’t do them justice. However, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
“Well, God’s demand is much the same kind of thing. Feeling the presence of God or experiencing God in some way pushes you onward — whatever that push is.”
RA: And if one does not respond to that demand, what happens?
“That’s an interesting question,” he said. “I’m not sure that a person who is open to the experience of God can refrain from responding to the demand. I think a person who refrains from responding to the demand doesn’t experience God.”
RA: Then, suppose you are not experiencing God and you are not doing his demands.
“Let me give you an illustration,” he offered.
“Again, you know enough Old Testament tradition to know that almost all of the prophets who were called by God resisted.”
“Yes, even ran away!” I recalled.
“They didn’t want to do what they were called upon to do. Well, they had no choice. Ultimately, whatever it was that they felt inside compelled them to move in a certain direction. The demand of God is that kind of sense. Most people don’t even get to the point where they hear the voice of God — they’re so busy doing all kinds of other things.
I began to be concerned about defining terms. ”
RA: What do you mean by ‘God’s voice?’ For example, do you have to be able to hear God’s voice before you know his demand?
“Only in the sense of Biblical prophets,” he answered. “If I were to ask you with which of your senses do you apprehend love… ?” He paused.
“I would say no sense and all senses, probably. I would say one loves with a deeper sense, something beyond the regular senses.”
“I accept that,” Rabbi Stern said. “Except that in Biblical terms they use words like ‘and God spoke,’ or they saw a ‘vision.’ I’m not sure that God’s speaking or a divine vision implies certain human-like qualities. In other words, this doesn’t mean that God had a body, you know, or that kind of thing. These terms are just the box that human beings are in when they try to articulate something in their language which is essentially emotional. Every word has constraints to it. The minute you give a word to something, you’ve also set its limits, and that’s the human box we’ re in.
I wanted to approach what he was saying another way.
RA: As a Jew, does one pray and seek to know God’s voice and God’s demand on oneself?
RA: Is that part of the way of a Jew?
“Yes, that’s one way,” he answered. “Study is another. Decent human behavior is another. Prayer isn’t any more a way — or prayer isn’t any more a demand — than any of the other ways. In fact, if anything, the Jewish concept of prayer is that prayer is directed toward oneself as much as it is directed toward God.”
RA: This is an intriguing idea. Would you please explain it?
I thought that I would love to spend all my afternoons talking with profound people like Rabbi Stern.
“Well, let me give you a couple illustrations and then I’ll explain the concept. Prayer is obviously directed outward toward God. One of the prayers that is recited frequently in the synagogue begins with, ‘Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.’ Well, it seems somewhat ludicrous to have to keep reminding God of that,” he smiled, and I laughed.
So, to whom are we articulating this prayer constantly? Obviously, we are articulating it aloud but we’re really talking to ourselves.
“Or, there’s a marvelous quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy which is found in almost all Jewish congregational worship services: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might,’ and so on. It goes on for several paragraphs. Well, are we really saying, ‘God, we want you to love yourself with all your heart… ?‘ What we are saying aloud to God is something we’re trying to remind ourselves to be doing!
“So, those are illustrations of typical prayers. Even the Hebrew word for ‘pray’ is a reflexive verb. A reflexive verb is a verb that acts upon the actor. The verb ‘pray’ says you pray and somehow it comes back and affects you. That’s the notion of Hebrew prayer. So, prayer is as much directed to us as we direct it to God.”
I felt very grateful he’d granted me the interview and said, “Rabbi, you’ve been very generous with your time. But you have fascinated me with an earlier point and I’d deeply appreciate your clarification. From what you were saying earlier, you have no term ‘religion’ in the Jewish vocabulary. Does this mean that you have the view that there is one religion — an individual’s relationship to God — and that religious groups and sects and schisms get in the way of that one religion?”
“There is no word for religion in Jewish tradition because every-thing is touched by religion. So, by talking about religion, you’re talking about everything. There’s no way to distinguish between religion and anything else.”
RA: Is there only one religion?
“The answer, historically, is probably no, but not on a philosophical level. Judaism, obviously, recognizes the reality of different religious systems and has gone so far as to say that while God makes certain demands of all beings — certain ways in which all human beings ought to behave in response to the best within them, or within God — those demands translate sometimes differently for Jews than for non-Jews. For example, Judaism does not believe that non-Jews have to keep kosher. Jews have to keep kosher. Judaism does not believe that non-Jews have to observe the Sabbath. Only Jews have to observe the Sabbath. Non-Jews don’t have to have a Passover; only Jews do.
“But all people have to treat each other decently. Nobody has the right to steal. Nobody has the right to commit murder. Nobody has the right to be adulterous. So, there are certain universal demands on everyone, and then there are other demands for us who are Jews because we have a particular tradition.”
RA: But those who are not Jewish, do they have equal access and opportunity to be with the Lord in every way?
“Absolutely,” Rabbi Stern said powerfully. “Noah wasn’t Jewish, although there are some people who make Noah Jewish according to their view. And certainly the Bible says that Noah walked with God. There is no problem.”
As we parted, Rabbi Stern smiled, took my hand, and said, “Good luck to you. God bless you.”
I left the Rabbi’s synagogue feeling truly blessed, and very happy. I asked myself, “When will the whole world listen to such men and, free of bias, take to heart the love and great help which is so sincere and abundant?”
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