Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and one of the most creative and impactful Jewish theologians of the last forty years, died today (July 3rd). 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 51 years that I knew him.
Zalman was born in Europe and barely escaped the Nazis when he was able to flee from France to the U.S. He became a Lubavitcher Hasid and Rabbi in Brooklyn, and was chosen by the rebbe along with his friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to reach out to the generation of Jews coming of age on college campuses in the 1950 and 1960s. Zalman served as a campus Hillel rabbi, and there tapped into the emerging new consciousness that we subsequently called “the counter-culture.” His experience with LSD and other hallucinogens opened for him a deeper level of experience that fortified rather than undermined the spirituality that had always sung to his heart and which had been the inspiration for much of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic movements. Like his friend Shlomo Carlebach, Zalman’s teachings and his approach to prayer (davvening) excited young Jews whose experience in the established synagogues of mainstream American Judaism was fast alienating a whole generation from the spiritual deadness, materialism, and fearfulness (which often translated into a kind of idolatry of Israel as the only savior assimilated American Jews could believe in) that was at the time parading as “Judaism.”
I was first introduced to Zalman by my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and am forever grateful for the relationship that we developed after that. As a counselor at Camp Ramah, I invited Zalman to teach my campers some of the ways to pray the “Shma” prayer—and these 13 year olds were mesmerized by Zalman’s ability to translate deep spiritual truths into a language they could understand, and then to embody his teachings in the way he actually led the davvening. So it was no surprise to me that after Heschel died, Zalman became the de facto leader (or perhaps co-leader with Shlomo Carelebach) for all those Jews seeking a spiritually alive Judaism.
To develop that approach more fully than he could in academia (he had been teaching at a college in Philadelphia), Zalman helped create the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley, and then in Philadelphia he developed B’ney Or with its attempts to spread the kind of spiritual vision he had developed. Unlike Shlomo Carlebach and many of his colleagues in Chabad, Zalman became a champion of a creative approach to Halakhah, always asking what was the goal of the Halakhic injunctions, and then finding creative ways to make those goals come alive in the experience and imagination of those he was teaching. Yet at the same time, he was strongly attached to the orthodoxy of his mentors in the Chabad movement, and the wisdom of the Tanakh, Talmud, Kabbalah, and Hasidut. When he began ordaining rabbis as part of the new Jewish Renewal movement he was creating, he insisted that we observe the mitzvot, particularly those regarding personal status (birth, marriage, conversion to Judaism, and death). He wanted to be sure that his ordinations were recognized in Israel and in the orthodox communities of the U.S. in order to ensure that he wasn’t participating in further splitting the Jewish people.
Zalman quickly became a champion of women’s voices and the centrality of women’s experience and wisdom in Judaism, and not long later a champion of equality of treatment for homosexuals in Judaism. He was in the vanguard of giving rabbinic ordination to women and gays. Not surprisingly, his experimentation with drugs plus his deep feminism and support for equality of treatment for gays caused Chabad to break from him.
I started studying with Zalman in 1975 as one of his students and then later as an official rabbinic student, and he picked two other orthodox rabbis to be among the five rabbis who would eventually give me smicha (Jewish rabbinic ordination). What was striking to me was how important it was to him that I be able to pass the tests that any orthodox kolel (rabbinic supervision group) would put to their own rabbinic students. By the time he gave me rabbinic ordination in 1995, I had written my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, which became a national best-seller and brought much of Zalman’s sensibilities to a larger audience than had heard his teachings before or after. Zalman was a founding member of the Editorial Board of Tikkun magazine, which was and is the only national magazine that actively identifies with the Jewish Renewal movement. Tikkun became the one Jewish publication that he could count on to print his prayers, his translation of psalms, his own essays, and to promote many of those to whom he had given smicka (rabbinic ordination). He performed the wedding ceremony for me and the co-founder of Tikkun Nan Fink Gefen in an orthodox shul in Oakland, Ca.
What was most amazing about Zalman was that he continued to grow throughout his life both intellectually and spiritually. I remember countless discussions with him on topics ranging from advice about how to deal with issues in Hallakhah that rose in my congregation Beyt Tikkun to how best to ensure that his legacy would retain the integrity of his message after he died; from current developments in Israel (he shared the pain I felt about the direction of policies that did not respect the Palestinian people, but felt unhappy that we at Tikkun were so “out there” in reporting the details of how oppressive the Occupation had become), to discussions we had about Levinas, Heschel, Buber, and even about Ken Wilber and the limits of his world view that was sweeping some people off their feet in the 1990s. What was always remarkable was how sweet he was, how caring, how he would make himself accessible to so many people, and how sophisticated his psychological insights and spiritual depth remained right till now, just a month before the Jewish Renewal movement was to celebrate with him his 90th birthday (though he told me that he had only reluctantly agreed to this celebration in order to help Aleph, the organization that was now the official voice of Jewish Renewal); and he often shared with me his disappointment that the movement he had founded and led for so long was not giving more attention to tikkun olam and more support for Tikkun magazine, and so he mentioned in his last talk to Jewish Renewal rabbis (at Ohalah January, 2014) that they should give more attention to the ideas that Arthur Waskow and I have been putting out in the past years, and he told me he wanted to convince the rabbinic training program of Aleph to make a ‘tikkun olam’ track along the lines that Waskow and I have helped develop into a mandatory part of rabbinic training the way the davvening track is mandatory. Sad for our Jewish Renewal movement that his sickness interfered with his following through on these directions.
It’s hard to sum up how impactful Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s message has become. The spiritual aliveness and creativity that he pioneered shaped the thinking of Rabbi Marshall Meyer who turned a failing conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York, Bnai Jeshurun, into a cauldron of spiritual energy in the 1980s and 1990s. His teachings and approach to prayer has seeped into the Reconstructionist movement (he sometimes taught at their rabbinic training program in a suburb of Philadelphia) and into the Reform movement and parts of the Conservative movement as well (sadly, many of those who have now adopted some of the approaches to prayer or theology that he pioneered learned it from others and are not even aware of how much they are defacto students of Zalman and perpetuating his legacy; but in any event he was not locked into ego, and it gladdened him when others followed his path without even knowing that that was what they were doing).