How can I begin to write about Reb Zalman?
So many others knew him longer than I did. And so many others have written, and will write, about how his extraordinary life and work have shaped Jewish life today. I only knew his work for the last twenty years; I only knew him in person for ten years. Many of his students, colleagues, and friends spent a lifetime with him.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written, “No one else in the 20th/ 21st century brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited –- and transformed.” (Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried Like A Seed — To Sprout.)
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan has written, “Reb Zalman was an extraordinary individual who appeared at an extraordinary moment in time, and helped shape a response. In many ways, all of Judaism today is a renewed Judaism.” (A Special Person at a Special Time: Reb Zalman’s Jewish Renewal.)
Rabbi Jay Michaelson has written, “Hundreds of teachers, rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders found in Reb Zalman’s ‘translation’ of traditional Judaism into contemporary life a way to savor the blessings of Jewish life and practice, while consciously confronting those aspects of Jewish tradition which needed to be renewed — or discarded outright.” (Reb Zalman, the Prophet of Both-And)
Other people have written about him wisely and well, is what I’m saying. But his teachings and his life have been so foundational to my sense of what Judaism is and can be — I can’t let his passing elapse without writing something here. Writing is how I remember, and I want to remember him. Have you ever been around someone who — the moment you enter into their presence — you can just feel that they really have it together, that they’re tapped into something deep? Reb Zalman was one of those people.
I said last week that Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. And he is. I became a rabbi because I wanted to serve God and the Jewish people. But for many years I thought that was a yearning which would go unfulfilled. I found my teachers, my community, and ultimately my rabbinic lineage through Reb Zalman.
And I found Reb Zalman through Rodger Kamenetz.
In 1994, my dear friend David (who is now soon to be ordained a rabbi himself) gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz’s book The Jew in the Lotus. The story it tells is a true one: about the delegation of rabbis spanning the breadth of Judaism and Jewish practice who went together to Dharamsala, India to meet with the Dalai Lama and answer his question of how the Jewish poeple had survived 2000 years of Diaspora.
I remember reading that book — I was in college at the time — and being deeply moved by Rodger’s descriptions of Reb Zalman. I remember in particular the scene where Reb Zalman goes to daven alongside Sikhs at prayer in their temple. Rodger writes:
Reb Zalman’s spontaneous davening in a Sikh temple had placed him squarely on the side of total immersion dialogue. Explaining to me later, he quoted from the Psalms, “I am a friend to all who respect you, O Lord.” The Sikh guru and he are “in the same business, struggling to see holy values don’t get lost. I see every other practitioner as organically doing in his bailiwick what I am doing in mine. When a non-Jewish person affirms me, I feel strengthened in my work. When I affirm a non-Jewish person, he or she feels strengthened in their work.” Zalman also cited Isaiah’s prophecy, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
…I was electrified by his joyous crossing of boundaries, his davening chutzpah. It broke through my own neat categories. I associated Orthodox practice with insularity. Yet here was Zalman, making contact with another religion by davening maariv.
I read that and I thought: holy wow — his roots are so deep, and his wings are so broad.
Here’s another scene from that book which moved me profoundly:
The morning [Reb Zalman] led the davening, he came up to me during the last part of the Shema, touched me on the shoulder, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “Your God is a true God.” I found that a powerful challenge.
I usually felt as I prayed in a group that I was assenting to ideas and images that were very foreign to me or that I didn’t have time to check out. Zalman’s gesture had cut through that in a very personal way…. My God is a true God? Whch God was he talking about? Long white beard, old Daddy in the sky? Autocrat, general, father, king? Master of the Universe, doyen of regulations and punishments? These were the images that made me reject the very idea of God.
But in a funny mental jujitsu, the more I struggled with these images, the more what Zalman said came through. “Your God is a true God” meant to me that the images and the language weren’t going to be supplied in advance. I would have to find them for myself out of my own experience….
I think of that scene every time I daven the words Adonai eloheichem emet, “your God is a true God.” What does it mean to assert that my God is true? Perhaps that I am ready and willing to continue engaging with the tradition, with God, with our central stories and beliefs, in order to wrestle forth from all of those things a true relationship with the Holy One of Blessing. One way or another, Reb Zalman’s challenge to Rodger continues to resonate in me.
And, of course, there’s the chapter where the angel of the Jews meets on a high plane with the angel of Tibet. (If you’ve read the book, you know the one I mean. If you haven’t, I won’t spoil you — it’s worth reading in context. Trust me, this book is incredible.)
I reached the end of that book and I thought, “Wow, that rabbi sounds amazing. I didn’t know you could be a rabbi like that.” He was so clearly erudite, grounded, rooted in Jewish tradition (ordained by Chabad, for heaven’s sake) — and also equally clearly open to the unique wisdom available in other spiritual traditions. Around that time, when my then-boyfriend, now my husband, asked me to help him understand what I loved about Judaism — what I dreamed Judaism could be; why I was attached to it; what I loved about it — I lent him Judith Plaskow’sStanding Again at Sinai and Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus. (It is a source of endless joy to me that I have now had the opportunity to get to know both Judith and Rodger!) Over the next several years I read what I could about, and by, Reb Zalman. His words and actions, in Rodger’s book, had touched something deep in me.
For personal reasons, in the years after college, I went through a period of painful alienation from Jewish community. What brought me back in? My first week at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center where I had my first living experiences of Jewish Renewal community, Jewish Renewal learning, and most importantly Jewish Renewal prayer.
For reasons I couldn’t consciously explain, despite feeling distant from Jewish community, I signed up for a week-long retreat at Elat Chayyim with Reb Zalman. I’d come away from The Jew In The Lotus wondering whether this guy could possibly be as wonderful as Rodger made him sound. I needed to know whether he was for real. Unfortunately that summer he needed surgery and wasn’t able to be at Elat Chayyim in person, but I’d already committed the money and planned to take a week there that summer, so I chose a different week-long retreat and took the plunge.
My first week at Elat Chayyim proved to me that there was more in Judaism than I had ever dreamed. I came home from that week and told Ethan that I had found my teachers — that I wanted to become a rabbi someday like these people were rabbis. I learned that week that not only was Reb Zalman “for real,” but he was part of an amazing community of teachers, learners, and fellow seekers. People who yearned as I yearned. People who had dedicated their lives to opening up the immeasurable treasures of Jewish tradition to we who were thirsty. Reb Zalman was in many ways the grandfather of Jewish Renewal — and has left behind an amazing legacy of students, and their students, and their students, and generations of seekers and learners to come.
Reb Zalman on dialogue with Bishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and others: “What cosmology is needed to heal the planet?”One of the things which drew me to Reb Zalman and to Jewish Renewal was what he called “deep ecumenism” — not merely interfaith conversations on a surface or superficial level, but the need to enter into deep conversations with other people of faith, not only for our own sakes, but for God’s sake, and for the sake of the planet:
I’d like us to enter into dialogue with devoutness, a dialogue of devoutness. There is a dialogue of theology, and that’s mostly futile. Why? Because it begins with what we should finish with. All theology is the afterthought of a believer. If we can’t get to the primary stuff of belief …how do you get to the primary stuff of belief? By simply talking about how do you davven? If you show me your way that works for you I’ll show you mine and we can share. (From Deep Ecumenism, the transcript of a weeklong workshop taught at Elat Chayyim in 1998.)
He taught that every religion is an organ in the body of humanity — that we need each one to be what it most uniquely is (after all, if the heart tried to do the liver’s work, we’d be in trouble) and we also need each one to be in conversation and connection with the others (if the heart stopped speaking to the lungs, that wouldn’t be so good either.) I’ve pointed many times before to the story of Reb Zalman among the Sufis of Hebron, which remains one of my favorite stories about him. I was drawn from the start to his post-triumphalism — the knowledge that ours isn’t the only legitimate path to the One.
Reb Zalman could be very serious when the moment demanded, but he was frequently merry when he taught or when he led davenen. His eyes twinkled. He laughed a big beautiful belly laugh. He sang often while teaching — lines of psalms or prayer, quotations, references, which were almost as likely to be in Arabic or Latin or Greek or Sanskrit as they were to be in Hebrew or Aramaic. He held an enormous wealth of kabbalistic and Hasidic teachings in his mind and was able to draw them forth and speak them in contemporary language, using metaphors which reached us where we are today.
He loved computer metaphors. He used to say that his first computer had only 36k of memory, and what he can do now on his computer he couldn’t have imagined then; just so, our increasing consciousness allows us to bring added holiness into the world in our generation. He taught us to think of the three words for “forgive us,” which we recite over and over on Yom Kippur, as “drag the sins into the trash; empty the trash; and wipe the hard drive clean.” I was always tickled when he pulled out science fiction metaphors, too. I remember hearing him teach about an imagined planet of two-headed beings; he used that story as a parable to explain the halakhic validity of counting those who are not men toward a minyan.
Or he would draw an analogy between how different religious traditions call on different names and faces of God, and “logging on” in different ways to the Cosmic life-source which we name as God. Our chants and prayers are the “password” which connect us with the Holy One of Blessing, and maybe our blessings connect us with this “port” and someone else’s words connect them with that “port,” but we’re all connecting with the same One. And, he would point out, in the past we saw a difference between praying, e.g., in the name of the God of Israel or praying Bismillah ir rahman ir rahim (in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate) or praying in Jesus’ name. But that kind of triumphalism is no longer fruitful. As he wrote in “An Empathic Ecumenism:”
In the past every religious community wanted to make the deposit in the God-field only in their own name. They even saw it as a great combat in Heaven. Which religion is going to win? Which are going to be the victors in the religious sphere? It may have been necessary at one time in our development that we have such an attitude. But, today, this attitude just doesn’t work. The question now is not who is going to be the champion of all religions, but how can we potentiate all the memory, all the energy, all the awareness, all the spirituality of all those forces in order to raise them?
The question isn’t who’s going to “win” — it’s how can we all bring our energy, our spiritual technologies, our hearts and souls, together in order to effectively transform the broken world? “The only way to get it together,” he used to say, “is together.”
Singing, Reb Zalman dons the Bnai Or rainbow tallit which he designed years ago.He taught about paradigm shift, and saw the great events of the 20th century (from the horrors of the Shoah to the wonder of seeing Earth from space) as part of a new paradigm shift, a new turning. He taught about the importance of integral thinking, of seeking to build change which could both include and transcend what had come before. (This very much shapes the way Jewish Renewal rabbis think about halakha.) He taught us new (old) ways of entering deeply into prayer. The words of prayer, he taught us, are like a recipe book — but in order to be sustained by the recipes, we have to enact them, to feel them in our hearts and souls.
In recent years he spoke to us frequently about how this “deployment” would someday end. I love that language: the sense that God had deployed his soul (indeed, has deployed all of our souls!) into this life to do particular work. He knew his time in this incarnation would not be forever. When he spoke to us in January at the OHALAH conference, he said:
It’s such a wonderful trip that the Ribbono Shel Olam put me on. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the movie in which I acted in life! It is so amazing. And yet. Movies come to an end too…
When my tour of duty is over, the One who deployed me will find others to deploy.
I posted not long ago about about the book The December Project, by Sara Davidson, which consists of interviews with Reb Zalman about death and dying and end-of-life work, framed by her experiences and her skepticism and her transformation. If you never had the blessing of being able to learn directly with Reb Zalman, this book is one way to get a glimpse of how he spoke. Another way, of course, is to dip into some of the wealth of material on YouTube. I am already finding sustenance in watching short YouTube videos — hearing his voice, seeing the sparkle in his eye, remembering that his teachings are alive even though his body has reached its rest. (I can also recommend his books — I frequently lend out my copy of Jewish With Feeling, and his recent book Davening: a Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer is terrific, and oh, his new edition of Psalms in a translation for praying…!)
He taught me to talk not about God but to God — which has deeply informed not only my prayer life but also the way I’m trying to teach our son about God. At OHALAH in January he remarked:
When I drive, I have a sense that the Ribbono Shel Olam in blue jeans is sitting in the passenger seat and I can just talk. Even that kind of thing, having a daily conversation with the holy Shekhinah in that way, is what keeps you on track…
I can’t tell you how often I have followed his example and spoken with God while driving alone on a quiet country road, or how frequently that practice has opened my heart and sustained me.
The last time he and I spoke was some months ago when I shared a post I’d been working on for a long time — abouttaharah before cremation. Once the post was online, I sent an email about it to the listserv for OHALAH, the association of Jewish Renewal clergy. Within an hour of my sending it, I got a call from Reb Zalman. “Reb Rachel lebn,” he said, “I want to talk with you about what you’ve written.” And we talked, and he clarified some things about his own thinking, and later that day I added an addendum to the post. He was actively engaged with thinking and teaching until the very end of his life — he had just completed a Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman a few weeks ago when he fell ill and was hospitalized.
I am even more grateful now that I took our infant son to a Shavuot retreat with Reb Zalman at Isabella Freedman the spring before I received smicha — and that I was privileged to hear in person the Torah he gave over at 4am that night, the last and most intense teaching of the tikkun which led us to the dawn. Someday I will be able to tell our son, “You don’t remember this, but your first Shavuot, I took you to a retreat with my rebbe, and it was amazing.”
I find myself thinking now about something else he said at OHALAH a few months ago: even as he was reminding us to hold fast to those things which are foundational and should not be changed, he also urged us to continue innovating and exploring. That was Reb Zalman in a nutshell: deeply rooted in the soil of our tradition, and also stretching branches out toward the highest heavens. He said:
Ours is the beta version of what klal Yisrael needs. And in a beta version, not everything that’s being tried is going to be finally adopted! But we have to continue to experiment, to experience, so that the things that come from the past, we can see how can they be updated and shaped. In this way the past can serve us in the present and in the future.
And when we realize that there are certain things that cannot be updated, and we open ourselves to theRuach haKodesh and ask ourselves what the future needs, then we learn to see in the present what we need to create.
That kind of openness is what led him to playfully experiment with so many different things: from recorded prayers designed to be heard on a walkman so that Hebrew would flow into one ear and English into the other, to bringing ancient Jewish meditation practices to the forefront of modern Jewish life, to workshops in “davenology,” to chanting English translations of Torah and haftarah to the ancient melodies of trope, symbolic rainbow-striped tallitot, calling people to the Torah in group aliyot and giving group blessings, eco-kashrut, and countless other ideas and innovations which have shaped Jewish life today across the denominations. As his official ALEPH obituary notes, “Where others saw walls, he saw doors.”
When I learned that Reb Zalman’s soul had left this earthly plane, I was at the synagogue preparing for Shabbat. One of my congregants, who was here that afternoon and saw me weeping, left a card for me on my desk. “How blessed we are if, in our lifetime, we meet someone whose guiding light leads us where we are meant to go,” she wrote. I am blessed indeed.
Photo by Dan Sieradski, 2007.
What makes a rebbe? One traditional answer is that “A rabbi answers questions; a rebbe answers people. A rabbi hears what you say with your mouth; a rebbe hears what you say with your soul.” Reb Zalman taught that “rebbe” is a role — not a specific person, necessarily, but a way of relating. He taught that we can be rebbeim for each other, that we can consciously choose to move in and out of the rebbe role. “Everyone should, for time to time, get the chance to sit in the master’s chair,” he said in 2013. “Just so that they can get attuned to what happens when you reach up and say, dear God, what would you like me to share with these people? And to see what comes; it’s very beautiful, very holy.” He used to do an actual exercise where everyone would sit at the table, with him in the rebbe’s chair at the head, and he would offer a teaching — and then instruct everyone to rise and shift over one chair, and whoever had moved into the rebbe’s chair would have the opportunity to be in that role for a little while. (In retrospect I see in that teaching yet another gentle way of reminding us that his deployment wouldn’t be forever.)
It seems to me that a rebbe is not only a pastoral caregiver but a spiritual conduit. The Zohar, a foundational work of Jewish mysticism, refers to Moses as the raaya meheimna of Israel — a phrase which can be translated both as “faithful shepherd” and “shepherd of faith.” A rebbe, like Moses, not only cares for his flock, but serves as a conduit for our faith, connecting us with God. The rebbe is never the object of that faith, the endpoint of the faith — God forbid we should worship a rebbe, even a great one! Rather, the rebbe opens the door and helps us connect with God. She is not the moon, but the finger pointing to the moon.
It is said of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, that “never again will there arise a prophet like Moshe.” And indeed there will not. Moshe led the people out of Egypt and into a new reality. Moshe spoke directly to God, face-to-face. And there are ways in which Reb Zalman feels to me like a Moshe — irreducible, irreplaceable. There will never be another one like him. No one will ever bridge between pre-Shoah Europe and postmodern America, between deep Hasidic immersion and far-flung spiritual influences, between kabbalah and Sufism and Native American shamanistic practice and Buddhism and integral theory and transpersonal psychology and Gaia theory and computer metaphors, the way that he did. Never again will there arise a teacher like Reb Zalman.
And at the same time, I think back to a Hasidic story I heard Reb Zalman tell many times, about the hasid who inherited his father’s Hasidic dynasty and promptly began doing things differently than his father had done. His followers complained, but he countered that he was doing precisely what his father had done — “my father was the rebbe in the way his heart called him to be, and I am the rebbe in the way my heart calls me to be.”
There will never be another Reb Zalman, but I hope that all of us who are his students, and the students of his students, and the students of his students of his students, will follow in his footsteps — not by mimicking his life and practice but by living out Jewish Renewal in the ways our hearts and souls call us to do, and the ways we perceive the Holy One is calling us to do. By serving the Holy One of Blessing as only we can. By doing the work of healing and bridge-building for which our souls were deployed in this world. That’s how we can honor his memory. And I feel certain that somewhere, somehow, in some ineffable way that I can’t intellectually understand, he is smiling at us still, and singing with us, andshepping naches to see us continuing the work of renewing Judaism and healing our earth.
Some of the other posts I’ve found meaningful:
- Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi – Jewish, With Feeling (Rabbi Shulamit Thiede) “Reb Zalman reached out to the disaffected, to the secular Jew, the alienated Jew, to any Jew. You only needed to stop for a moment and he could hold you with a story – each blessed with an unforgettable punch line that always, inevitably, elicited a smile, outright laughter, a nod, or a tear. // This morning I told a friend, ‘He gave something to everyone.'”
- Rest in Peace Reb Zalman: My Rebbe Died Today (Amichai Lau-Lavie) “[T]he sacred master, holy fool, kindest soul, fierce teacher, visionary founding father and leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, the holy spark responsible for countless souls on fire all over the world, for a global spiritual revolution, for the revival of a Judaism that matters to the body, earth, soul and mind, the genius whose prophecy of paradigm shift was and still is ahead of its time – died in his sleep today, at 89 years old…Few could straddle the authentic hasidic and mystical path along with true devotion to the soul of the planet, and to every sacred path. None did it with such elegance and depth and grace.”
- Reb Zalman Married Counterculture to Hasidic Judaism (Shaul Magid) “Not since Mordecai Kaplan’s founding of the Reconstructionist movement has an American Jewish spiritual leader offered as detailed and as systematic a vision for Judaism in the twentieth century. Part of Schachter-Shalomi’s project is founded on his belief that exploring the untapped commonalities between religious traditions and spiritual practices would both enhance Judaism and move human civilization further toward overcoming oppositional barriers…”
- On the Death of Zalman Schachter Shalomi, z’l: A Great Jewish Teacher and the Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement (Rabbi Michael Lerner) “Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, [was] one of the most creative and impactful Jewish theologians of the last forty years… I write with tears in my eyes and love in my heart for this incredible teacher, a source of inspiration for literally hundreds of thousands. I loved this man very very deeply for the past fifty one years that I knew him… What was most amazing about Zalman was that he continued to grow throughout his life both intellectually and spiritually.”
- Laying Our Rebbe to Rest (Rabbi Marc Soloway) “So many of us feel like we are among the mourners in this loss…I think the thousands and thousands of people who have been touched by Reb Zalman each carry their own piece, their own story, their own holy sparks of this great man. My hope and prayer is that we can and will each make manifest these holy shards, so that Reb Zalman’s light continues to shine in this dark world and that we, collectively, can continue his paradigm-shifting work of inspiring and lifting up souls.”
- My mentor, my teacher, dear friend (Rabbi Art Green) “Our lives were dedicated to the very same question: How do we take this mystical Judaism we both love and make it alive and vital for the current era? Zalman was driven by that question, knowing how rich and deep the sources of that teaching are, and how alien and difficult their original garb is for those we teach. What should we keep of that tradition? What should we adapt? What should we lovingly leave behind? How do we figure out that balance, not “losing the baby with the bathwater,” as it were? We both have given our lives to that search. //…Zalman was my model of the contemporary Jewish seeker. That model means both feet firmly planted in the tradition; both eyes wide open to what’s happening in the world, both today and in anticipated tomorrow. Zalman PIONEERED this path; I was privileged to follow it, in my own way.”
- Fifty Year Tribute, Passed but Present (Morah Yehudis Fishman) “In one recent class, he referred to the movie,Her, and especially the line that the man says to his living computer- ‘Are you as intimate with anyone else as with me?’ And the answer came back- ‘multitudes.’ Reb Zalman said that’s the way it is with G-d. And I would like to add, that’s the way it was with Reb Zalman. So many people, men women, and children-here and around the world felt that hug of intimacy from Reb Zalman as if you were his ‘one and only love.’ And each of us was, because his heart was bigger than this whole world, and will continue to embrace us from wherever he is.”
- Obituary posted by Miles Netanel-Yepez, one of his dear collaborators: Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, Father of Jewish Renewal, Dies at 89. It’s an extraordinary obit, which explores (among other things) his legacy within Jewish Renewal, how he reached spiritual seekers who had been disaffected from Judaism, and his longtime friendship with spiritual leaders such as Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama. Also don’t miss the recent exhibit curated by the University of Colorado: Reb Zalman and the Origins of Post-Holocaust American Judaism.
Memorial contributions may be made to ALEPH’s Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Endowment for Jewish Renewal. Please give generously in his memory and to help sustain his legacy.