The Command is to Hear: An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This interview, conducted by Jean Sulzberger, is also featured in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Q: The call is a very great mystery. Could it be said that God’s call is a call to be here, present, in the moment? Is this why Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah all answered the voice of God with the same words: “Here am I,” “I am here,” as if the call was meant as a call to be, to be the “I am”?

Steinsaltz: The “I am” is sometimes as if you were answering “Hello” on the telephone. To a great extent, “I am here” just says “I am listening.” The call is directed and not directed; it goes everywhere, in every time, and never stops ? but most people don’t hear it. When you hear the call you say, “I’m here.” Just imagine a person sitting on a star, sending messages to other planets; he’s sending messages over and over. Now what will be the breakthrough point?The breakthrough point is when there is any answer. When at the end of nowhere, somebody answers.

Q: You mean the voice is always sounding?

Steinsaltz: Yes, but we are not listening. It even says so in the Bible. It is written that the voice on Sinai was a mighty voice that did not stop. Many years later this is repeated in much of the hasidic literature, that the voice giving the Law, the Ten Commandments, never stopped.It is still giving the Law, for ever and ever, for eternity. Put in another way, there is a very clear message that is always being transmitted. The thing that has changed is that we are no longer listening.

Q: And the command is “Hear, O Israel.”

Steinsaltz: The command is, first of all, to hear. If you don’t hear the Shema Yisrael, where are you? So you must first hear. Now, if you are listening, and answer, “Here I am. I am listening,” then perhaps a message can come through.

Q: The Talmud says: “If you listen below, you will deserve to hear from above.” So is it a question of our attention?

Steinsaltz: Yes. It is a question of our attention. I once wrote about it. There’s a saying in the Talmud that there are voices that are so resonant, they should be heard all over the world. One of them is the voice of a woman giving birth, and another is the voice of a snake getting out of its skin. These voices should be heard, but why aren’t they? Because the voice of Rome, the voice of the big, busy city, has so much power, it obliterates them.


Q: But what of a heavenly voice?

Steinsaltz: It’s what I’m saying. The voice of Rome obliterates almost everything. So the real point is about listening, not so much about the voice.

Q: When the voice calls, why is the name always repeated? God says “Abraham, Abraham,” “Moses, Moses,” “Jacob, Jacob.” Is there a meaning to this?

Steinsaltz: I suppose that it’s possible that one time is not enough. It is like shaking somebody who’s asleep. At a deeper level, the double call is uplifting, causing the person to move from one level (the name) of his existence to a higher level of the same person. In the Bible, in the first prophecy of Samuel, he hears a voice, but he thinks that it’s something else.He needs to wake up. The waking up is a process, and it’s a process that has to go through different levels. On one level – again, a quote from the Talmud – “Every day there is a voice coming from Mount Sinai that says ‘Repent, errant children!” Now the Baal Shem Tov is quoted as saying, “There is a basic question: If there is such a voice, why don’t I hear it?” And his answer was that those thoughts that come to a person from nowhere somehow call him to repent, to change something in his life. These are the echoes of the voice.

Q: Can the hearer know whether the voice is the voice of God, or whether the voice is the voice of an angel?

Steinsaltz: This is basically what I would call the human problem. You see, the Divine problem is to call. The human problem is to know who is calling. You find it throughout the Bible and later, the constant question: Whose voice is it? Some people think that the mere fact of having a supernatural parapsychological experience is meaningful. But such an experience is just that: a parapsychological experience, and that’s the end of it. Merely hearing voices does not mean that one has heard the voice of God, and that is always the big temptation and the downfall of quite a number of people. There are some who are cheats, meaning people who never had an experience, and are just imitating. But there are many people who really heard something, and their very big mistake was that they didn’t identify the voice. There is another biblical quotation: When Gideon has his experience, he hears a voice and he says, “God, how shall I know that you are speaking to me?” This is in many ways the most pertinent question. “Give me a sign that it is You who are speaking to me” (Judges 6:17).

Q: It’s an accepted teaching that Muhammad was called by an angel, not by God. What is the role of angels?

Steinsaltz: We usually say that it depends on the degree. Some people hear a voice directly.Some people hear a voice of an angel. And some people don’t even hear that. You know, in Jewish parlance, we speak about something that is called bat kol. Bat kol means an echo, but it is not an echo of the mountains. Translated literally it means daughter of a voice. You don’t hear the voice itself; you hear only the child of the voice. You don’t hear the origin of the voice; you hear it only on the second level. In the Book of Isaiah, in one of the prophesies about the future, it says, “And you shall hear a voice behind you, telling you go left or go right.” Now this is a voice, but some people don’t hear it. They hear what they call an echo, a daughter of a voice. It was again written that in the time of the First Temple, people got calls directly. The prophets of the time of the Second Temple all talked with angels. Later on, we don’t hear the voice any more; instead, we have the bat kol, the daughter of the voice.

Q: And that becomes ? again, according to the Talmud ? the sole means of communication between God and the humans.

Steinsaltz: Yes, that is the sole means of communication, which is directed to a single person or to many people. Sometimes this echo becomes thinned.

Q: How do you prepare to receive the echo?

Steinsaltz: Having the call at this level is a very great achievement, even if you hear the echo ? even if you hear, so to speak, the echo of the echo. In quite recent times, there was a hasidic rabbi who said that in order for a person to be not just a leader, but a guide of people, he has to have ruah hakodesh, a holy spirit. According to this rabbi, some people have a kind of a clarify of vision; they know how the vision comes and what it says. There are others who don’t have that clarify. What they will see doesn’t depend on them; they are, so to say, guided unknowingly.

Q: There are many different ways that the call can be received: an angel spoke to Jacob in a dream. Ezekiel felt a hand on his shoulder. What are the different forms the call can take?

Steinsaltz: We never know. One also has to remember that not everyone who has been called is telling us. Sometimes people get not just a call, but also a message. Sometimes the call may be completely person, so it’s nobody else’s business. How the call comes, from the descriptions we have received, is by means of what it is that makes a person attentive. It can be visual or auditory. It can be tactile, or it can be any other way that the person has of knowing.

Q: What is the effect of the call? Does a chance, an awakening, a reorientation occur?

Steinsaltz: I suppose that most of these calls, like God’s appearance in the world, leave it for me – for the other side – to act. And usually, I don’t think that the call really changes what I would call my free will.

Q: But surely when one feels something from above and is touched by it in some way, one must be changed.

Steinsaltz: Even when there is a change, it depends on how deep and how clear the message is. As I say, sometimes it comes loud and clear, sometimes it comes in a much more clouded way, and sometimes a person doesn’t even know. A person may receive a very clear message without knowing it; sometimes events, life or things converge upon a person, but that person doesn’t recognize that he is being called. You may have more than one call. Sometimes the call comes not through any kind of voice; sometimes the call comes because you are put into a position in which a choice is made for you that you never imaged. It may begin with anything from an accident to a disaster. And it may come through a chance meeting. Sometimes you ask a question at large, and you receive a very clear answer when the person who answered it, who was the instrument for answering it, didn’t ever know that he was giving you an answer.So what I’m saying is that the change, whatever the change is, seems to be that there is something that I now know. I know at a certain level that I am being told something. What I do with that knowledge is a completely different thing. It could even be that I will ignore it.

Q: There’s a whole history of people who refused the call. Jonah fled.

Steinsaltz: Yes, people refuse the call in different ways. Somebody said a prophet can refuse the call, but he will pay for it with his life. In Ezekiel there is the parable of the watchman who has to warn the people. Now, what happens if he doesn’t give the warning? If he tries to flee, or tries to ignore it, later he may pay for it very heavily.

Q: At the same time that God is addressing us, we are addressing God. Is prayer our side of the dialogue, or is there something else?

Steinsaltz: Well, prayer is clearly meant to be something like this. I’m very busy these days finishing a book about the Siddur [prayer book], a big book that will appear in English. One of the things that I say is that prayer is basically a kind of very direct talk. Prayer is “I am telling You,” and this is something that changes. Some prayers or blessings are just a few words saying, “Thank you. I just want to say thank you,” nothing else. In some prayers, I ask for something. In others I just complain: “It’s not just, it’s not fair. You dealt with me wrongly.” All of these are prayers, and they can range from a feeling of bliss to a feeling of extreme anger.

Q: When we pray, who is listening?

Steinsaltz: The fact that God is listening is no wonder. We want also, from time to time, to get some kind of a sign that our prayer has, at least, been received. I remember this feeling. It is like the times that I’ve been left alone in a radio booth. The people trust me not to botch it, so they go out for tea and leave me alone to broadcast. Then I feel: I am talking; is anybody listening? I want at least to get some kind of a confirmation that somebody is listening. As there is a command from the one side – Shema Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel” ?- so there is a petition from the other side in the Book of Psalms, or the prayer book – “Hear me. God, hear me, listen to me.” I want to know that somebody is hearing. As it is, except for perhaps a few people throughout history, nobody has this kind of an immediate response, the feeling that the message has been received. I’m not speaking about being answered favorably. I’m speaking about the message being received at the other end.

Q: How can we be better receivers?

Steinsaltz: We are not always well equipped for receiving. I hear a call, and I’m not equipped.Let’s take this room, for example. On a completely physical level, this room is full of voices and images. If I have a radio receiver I’ll hear voices, and if I have a television receiver I’ll see images. So the images are here, the voices are here. They are all over me, they are overwhelming, but I don’t see or hear them. But not everyone is so closed. A hasidic rabbi once said that he was prayer to have the voices a little bit dulled. He couldn’t rest, he couldn’t sleep, because he was hearing voices all the time. He was distraught from having a very broad range receiver.

Q: Is there a finer energy that can connect us to a current of life from which the call from above comes?

Steinsaltz: I have always been very, very suspicious about finding artificial means – it doesn’t really matter whether it is a mantra or a drug. Do you know that book by Aldous Huxley about the gates of heaven and hell? One of his basic points (which I think was a mistake) was that he thought that somehow he had found the key to another realm. That was the basic notion, and he wrote very beautifully about it. Now, as more and more people that tried it found out, you don’t get a gateway to heaven. You get, at the most, a gateway into another chamber within yourself.

Q: Isn’t what we are searching for within ourselves?

Steinsaltz: No, that is not the real search. We may have wonderful experiences and clearly have within us more than we know, more than the eye catches, but we’re trying to pass over and through the self to the Other. Now I may find out lots of beautiful things or horrible things within my microcosms, and there may be ways and means and exercises to get there, but the real problem is that this is still my own realm, and what I really want is to go to the Other Side. There are, I think somewhere in the United States, a few miles of receiving antennas that are meant specifically to receive calls from outer space. Just imagine that you receive such a message ? you are overjoyed. You hear a voice, and it’s coming from a very small transmitter on the other side of the earth. It’s a wonderful discover, but that wasn’t what you were searching for. You were searching for something from the other side of nowhere. You didn’t want to find something within your realm.

Q: The sound of the shofar in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah seems to be a call. So in a sense the call doesn’t have to come from another world. There’s a certain sound of another world in the shofar. There’s a reminder in it, an awakener.

Steinsaltz: Yes, but it is like getting a beep before the news. That is what it says. It’s not the news, it’s just the beep telling you, I’m here tuned to the news.

Q: But at least it’s a reminder.

Steinsaltz: In many ways the religious life is supposed to be a reminder. Now, as it happens, people get accustomed even to the reminder. The alarm clock is ringing and you go on sleeping. You become so accustomed to these calls that you sleep through them, and just weave them into your dream.

Q: What could be an awakener?

Steinsaltz: If I may quote the Almighty, he says in the book of Deuteronomy: “Who will make them, or lead them, who will make them listen to Me as they are listening to Me now, that their heart will be ready for Me as it is now?” But people are not always willing to repeat this experience, because hearing such a voice is a terrible burden. It is always a shocking thing to have, so the notion of delegating it comes from a desire to protect myself from that pain, from the too-big experience. People are willing to have small adventures, small thrills, and small frights. But how many shocks can I have? Sometimes one is enough for a lifetime – I don’t want to repeat it. Sometimes you have experiences that you want to repeat, but you just don’t get the chance; and sometimes one is more than enough – it has been great, important, stirring, but one does not wish to go through it again. Some experiences are such that, if it is a real voice that has been heard, it is always connected and involved with either pain or very great suffering; what is called a dark, big fear is a part of it. You can see it in the biblical descriptions of the prophet. It is really suffering.

Q: Are you saying that we need to suffer?

Steinsaltz: I am not speaking about the need to suffer as cleansing. I am speaking about how the experience of getting such a transmission is on its own a very painful one, and that is why people subconsciously shy away from it.

Q: At the same time ? the call is maybe another word for grace, and we have the written experience of many people whose lives have been transformed by this touch from above.

Steinsaltz: Let me put it this way: There are some people who are blessed. They get a blessing, but they do not always get a call. To get a blessing is, in a certain way, a passive experience, and to hear a voice is a listening experience. This kind of listening, an active listening, demands a great effort from the listener.

Q: When Parabola interviewed you for the “Wholeness” issue (10:1 [1985]: 80-85), you said, “One of the first conditions is to listen. He is speaking all the time. The voice doesn’t stop; we just stopped hearing. It isn’t a phenomenon in time, but a phenomenon in eternity. It is our work to be ready to do the listening.”

Steinsaltz: So I didn’t change that much!

Q: It seems that really the most important thing for us is to listen.

Steinsaltz: To be able to listen.

Q: But how do we learn to hear?

Steinsaltz: We don’t learn to hear. The only thing that we can really learn is that something may happen, and when it comes, to listen. In the first revelation to Moses, he is not sure what has happened; he has to be given some kind of sign. There’s an immediate call to see a sign, the burning bush, just in order to come close, which is again the same thing: it’s like knocking on the door, like feeling a hand on your shoulder. It’s not in itself a message, but it is a kind of awakening. Moses hears it. The Midrash says that later, Moses says to God, “Reveal Yourself to me.” And God says, “You cannot see My face – I will cover you and you will see something anyway.” And the Midrash says that God told Moses: “When I wanted it, you didn’t want it. You hid your face. When you want, I don’t want it.” Sometimes the only thing to be learned is this: when the call comes, jump!