Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi passed away peacefully on July 3. I’d planned to go to his 90th birthday celebration in Boulder, Colorado, in August, though I heard that he was weakening. And now he’s gone.
Two months after my Zen teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, died in 1995, I drove over to see Zalman at the Jewish retreat center of Eilat Chayim, in Accord, New York, where he was teaching for a week. I told him of my strong feelings that one should always have a teacher, and since Maezumi Roshi had passed I wondered if he would now become my teacher. He agreed, adding the condition that I serve as his Zen teacher.
Indeed, often when I would visit him and his wife, Eve (both our wives’ names are Eve), he would greet me at the door with a grin and an invitation: “Hit me with a koan!” He felt that koans would be an excellent study for rabbis and encouraged me to help develop a Jewish koan curriculum.
On that same visit in 1995 I told him I’d like to do a bearing witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau and asked for his advice. He was completely in favor of it, said it was something he’d wished to do himself, especially as his family had come from the town of Oświęcim, where the camps were located. He also added that it was most important to do the retreat for the benefit of the souls that are still there, not at rest, and I evoke those words at the orientation to every retreat that we’ve done there over the years.
Photos of Zalman often show him with different religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama or Ram Dass. Indeed, his wonderful spiritual memoir, My Life in Jewish Renewal, is that rare story of a man who loved meeting his peers and allies from other spiritual traditions, not to convince them of anything or to be superficially amiable, but to learn their practices and study together. One of the most heartwarming chapters there tells of how he got high with Timothy Leary. He was the one, I believe, who first coined the term triumphalism, that covert feeling many people have, even as they cultivate friends from other religions and participate in interfaith events, that while other spiritual traditions are fine in their way, basically theirs is the right one and will ultimately triumph.
I told him more than once that had I met him as a young man, my spiritual path would probably have followed his rather than Zen Buddhism. In this time of fear and fragmentation, when the practice of building bridges is needed more than ever, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was a true vessel for Tikkum Olam, making the world whole, bringing all the pieces back together again.
May his name be blessed.