A Time to Speak
Conversational Essays that can Change your Life
By Martin Stern
Devora Publishing, 2010, 274 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 20, 2011
Martin Stern, the author of over 600 publications, is described as a prolific provocative polemicist for his understanding of Orthodox Judaism. He opposes liberal Jewish denominations and states that God allows non-Orthodox "movements to grow as a warning to us to mend our ways." He doesn't to mince words or bow to political correctness. His works are also described as innovative, entertaining, and informative. Some readers agree with his views with passion, while others disagree with equal zeal. He writes: "As will be clear to the reader, I tend to be rather controversial, though I hope not offensive, and this is quite intentional since I hope to make the reader think more deeply about the issues discussed."
He addresses subjects such as how to read between the lines of prayers, why prayers are not as simple as people imagine, the lack of proper decorum and etiquette during and after Orthodox Jewish services, how to respond to Christian missionaries, what is real piety and when are people over-pious, what are the biblical cantillation signs, and the secrets revealed by using the numerical values of Hebrew letters, called gemmatria. He is fervent in his belief that God revealed the Torah to Moses and in his opposition to "higher biblical criticism," which insists that the Bible was composed over an extended period of time. He discusses how Orthodoxy maintains that the Torah must not be taken literally, but understood as interpreted by the Oral Torah; "there are many instances where the apparent plain meaning is known to be incorrect."
He believes in Jewish mysticism. He is convinced that the composers of the first prayer introduced around 200 BCE "undoubtedly included deep mystical meaning in their composition, these are beyond the knowledge of most ordinary persons who have not been initiated into the chochmat hanistar, the "wisdom of the secret things." He discusses how God functions through a pipeline of ten sefirot, divine emanations, and that God acts in the world daily, although in a concealed fashion, what mystics call hester panim. Unlike rationalists who insist that humans can't affect the all-powerful God, he feels that praying the prayer Shema alters the divine sefirot in a positive manner. The recital also aids the Jew for when he recites the "Shema morning and evening then he would be saved from all enemies." He is convinced that one must pray carefully articulating every Hebrew letter because the numerical values of the letters – gemmatria - change the person who recites them. Beside the mystical effect of the numerical values, the Hebrew letters of the prayers teach lessons. For example, "the letters bet and mem of the word bam in vedibarta bam (in the Shema) refer to the" written and the oral Torah, reminding Jews that both are from God.
In summary, Martin Stern offers readers a mystical approach to Orthodox Judaism combined with non-mystical lessons on how to understand Orthodox Judaism better and how to improve one's behavior in and out of the synagogue.