- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

It’s not often that I run into a rabbi who takes his spiritual inspiration from the martial arts, but not long ago, “The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior,” by Rabbi Niles E. Goldstein caught my eye.

A former FBI chaplain who holds a black belt in karate, he wrote about stuff I usually only see coming from contemplative Catholics or sophisticated evangelicals: How the use of religious ritual helps us through dry spiritual periods; how it’s foolish to expect great prayer results in a short period of time; how it takes a lot of work to get to know God.

So I contacted him and discovered a man whose idea of a fun vacation was visiting isolated Jewish communities in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan while studying for the rabbinate. His path less traveled involved embracing ideas including commitment, discipline and patience as vital to the spiritual path.

“I am throwing down the gauntlet and saying this is hard,” he said. “Like anything in life, if you don’t put out the commitment, you won’t get the benefit. There are certain spirituality authors who have titles like ‘Fifty Days to Enlightenment.’ People think they can read this at the beach and reach right away what it took people like [Catholic saint] Teresa of Avila a lifetime to find.”

Evangelical Christians talk about having a “personal relationship with Christ” as their lodestone; I asked him what the Jewish version of this would be.

“Jews in North America are not the most observant or committed of demographics, which has frustrated me in my rabbinate,” he said.

“Some of the great Hasidic mystics of the 18th and 19th centuries talk extensively in their writings about a direct personal relationship with God and they are plain about how hard it is. Nachman of Bratslav [a 19th-century Ukrainian rabbi] said sometimes we have to pray to have the ability to pray. Historically, our great sages understood that without discipline and commitment, nothing would happen.”

I asked him how he hears from God.

“Outside of the evangelical world, you rarely hear people — even clergy — talk about directly hearing from God,” he said. “But contact with Him is critical.”

He said he most often gets his impressions of the Almighty from being in the wilderness

“I have had several times when I have felt God’s presence that have been life-altering,” he said. “Once I was atop a mountain in the Cascades [in Washington state] and I felt this really intense sense of spirituality, transcendence and the Creator behind the creation. I said, ‘I feel lost, I need some guidance, what do I do next?’ No voice came from heaven, but that does not mean I will not get this guidance at a future date.”

He also suggests fasting as a way — albeit an unpopular one — to draw close to God; a timely remark for the day before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the year’s most sacred Jewish holiday.

“When it comes to religious rituals, we hit this wall,” he said. “We want everything to happen right now. We want double-digit returns every single year with no thought of lean years. And we have these unrealistic expectations of religion; that it can deliver life-altering experiences if we show up once a year. It does not work that way.”

He suggests the book of Psalms and prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and some of their confreres in 1 and 2 Kings as the best books to prime the spiritual pump.

“When we look at the obstacles those people had to fight against,” he said, “our problems fade in comparison.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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