On the Life of Rabbi Chaim Stern. (Religion)

By Stern, Philip | Midstream, April 2002 | Go to article overview

On the Life of Rabbi Chaim Stern. (Religion)


Stern, Philip, Midstream


The untimely death of my father, Rabbi Chaim Stern, due to brain cancer at age 71, represents not only a sad occasion for the Reform movement for which he labored but a loss for contemporary Judaism as a whole. He represented the highest aspirations of the Jewish people when he fought bigotry and prejudice as a Freedom Rider in the early 1960s (narrowly escaping a lynching in Little Rock). Yet it was for his career as a liturgist, an author and editor of prayerbooks, that he will be most remembered.

It happened almost accidentally. Rabbi Stern and the "wife of his youth," Susan, decided to move to London in 1962. As a result of that move, Rabbi Stern got involved in the writing of a prayerbook for the English Liberal Movement, the ULPS (Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues). Together with John Rayner, an eminent English rabbi (who, in an e-mail elegy, called my father a "soulmate"), Rabbi Stern produced a prayerbook called Service of the Heart. This prayerbook filled the ULPS's liturgical void very nicely. Then when we returned to the United States for a second time--my father took a pulpit at Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, NY, in the fall of 1968--it wasn't too long before Rabbi Stern was approached about producing a new prayerbook for the Reform movement. He tackled the project with enthusiasm. Here is how he opened his introduction to the work, entitled Shaarei Tefillah ("Gates of Prayer").

   In the liturgy of the synagogue, the Jewish people has written its
   spiritual autobiography. For a score of centuries each generation has, in
   turn, added its own distinctive chapter to this book, which contains
   memories of time past and promises for the future, praise and lamentation,
   ethical teaching, and mystical vision. A people possessed by its God is the
   author of this book.

Here is how he ends the introduction:

   We have called the volume Shaarei Tefillah, mindful of the Rabbinic dictum
   that the gates of prayer are never barred. We feel privileged to present
   this prayerbook to the House of Israel, and pray that many will seek to
   enter the gates, to find their way to the presence of the Eternal.

So my father saw the prayerbook in the broadest of terms, as an offering to the entire House of Israel. Of course, it incorporates material from many sources, ancient, medieval, and modern. Yet Rabbi Stern wrote many original prayers and translations for the volume. For some years I attended an Orthodox synagogue, and when at length I ventured to bring a copy of "Gates of Prayer" to the rabbi, he said, "Of course I have it. I keep it in my private library. We don't need a copy in the congregational library." Naturally, I felt that there should be a copy in the general library of the synagogue, but, nonetheless, I was thrilled that even this rabbi, a scholar and a strict adherent of Orthodoxy, was familiar with Shaarei Tefillah!

The prayerbook was adopted by the vast majority of American Reform congregations. It replaced the old Union Prayerbook, with its "thees" and "thous," and its anti-Zionist leanings. The old Union Prayerbook was once trampled on in the Knesset, a distinction that, as far as I know, "Gates of Prayer" never earned.

The new prayerbook (published in 1975), allowed for the great diversity present in the Reform movement. Thus it had ten different Sabbath evening services!

If we go directly to the Shema and its blessings, here is how Rabbi Stern translated one of the most beautiful prayers in the Jewish prayerbook:

   Praised be the Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose word brings on
   the evening. His wisdom opens heavens' gates; his understanding makes the
   ages pass and the seasons alternate, and His will controls the stars as
   they travel through the skies. He is Creator of day and night, rolling
   light away from darkness and darkness from light. He sets day and night
   apart. … 

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