Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Former Winnipeg rabbi's quest entertains, but fails to enlighten

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ACCOUNTS of spiritual journeys can be as fascinating and edifying for readers as they were for those who engaged in the quests.

They can also be self-serving and inaccessible, leaving the reader in the dark about the writer's enlightenment.

In this detailed memoir, his first published prose book, Canadian rabbi Jerry Steinberg mostly avoids the second pitfall.

He comes off as an engaging and sincere religious leader, favouring increased "camaraderie across religious lines."

His openness to other religious traditions and numinous phenomena, such as psychic events, past-life regression, and even astrology make for an interesting life.

Saskatchewan-born and raised, Steinberg, now 77, lives happily in Toronto, but claims a spiritual connection to the Canadian Prairies. He spent some of his early life in Winnipeg, where his parents bought a clothing store in the 1950s.

Steinberg published a book of poetry, Melting: Poems of a Frozen Man, in 1992. Rogue Rabbi contains examples of his poetry, which feature effective use of language, spaced on the page with sometimes annoying randomness.

At the University of Manitoba, Steinberg found that medical studies did not suit him. Counselled by an Orthodox rabbi and mentor to try Reform Judaism, he switched to rabbinical studies at the University of Cleveland.

While he claims "it took me many years to come to terms with my average intellect and to realize that I had other qualities to compensate," Steinberg's writing reveals him to be anything but intellectually challenged.

Chronicling his early life, academic years, and time spent in Israel and studying to become a rabbi, Steinberg is matter-of-fact about supernatural phenomena.

Before taking a pulpit, he and his wife, Shula, spent two years at an ashram in B.C., a crucial time that informs his account of life both before and after that central and formative experience.

While Steinberg describes many different spiritual encounters and forms of religion and mysticism, he mentions some terms and terms and ideas without explanation. He describes the swamis at the ashram, with little elaboration about swamis, one of whom is identified as a devout Roman Catholic.

Steinberg's employment included a small Winnipeg Reform congregation, work for the federal government and later private practice in psychotherapy, including use of past-life regression, yoga, meditation and Jewish mysticism.

Brief explanations or a glossary of terms like chakra, gestalt therapy, Hakomi, biofeedback and bioenergetics would have enhanced the uninitiated reader's understanding of Steinberg's work.

Steinberg mentions several published and unpublished works on Kabbalah, which he defines as "the essence of Judaism." However, there is almost no explanation of this arcane Jewish melding of the finite and infinite aspects of experience, and no details about how his interest in Kabbalah came about.

Sometimes, Rogue Rabbi becomes too detailed. It can also skip from thought to thought in a way that is disorienting. Stricter editing might have resulted in a book with more for the uninitiated about the subtitle's "spiritual quest."

Steinberg is frank, but not bitter, about anti-Semitic experiences in his youth, and celebrates his mostly cordial relationships with believers in many other religions.

This account of his spiritual journey is refreshingly honest; his reminiscences are fun to spend time with. However, those searching for deeper understanding of religious mysticism may find these memoirs unsatisfying.

Manitoba teacher Bill Rambo is the American-born son of Protestant missionaries.

 

Rogue Rabbi

A Spiritual Quest -- from Seminary to Ashram and Beyond

By Jerry Steinberg

ECW Press, 425 pages, $25

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J8

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