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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.

20 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing your story with Rabbi Zalman, Bernie. I only met him through his book “from age-ing to sage-ing”, and fell in love with the deep humanity, zest and his free spirit that oozed out of his words. May more blessing come from him.

  2. I was most moved by your comments, Bernie, but it leaves me with two questions. First, when Roshi died you turned to Reb Zalman. Now that he has died, to whom are you turning? Second, Reb Zalman was right when he said rabbis should study koan, and right again when he charged you will coming with a rabbinic koan study program: did you create it?

    Love, Brother,

    Rabbi Rami

  3. Thank you so much for sending this.
    I traveled with you on one of your trips
    And I also have a little cottage not far from Accord
    May the Rabbi’s soul rest with all the Holy men & women in heaven Amen..

  4. Thank you for this wonderful tribute. I recently interviewed 14 Jews who have become leaders in other spiritual paths or religious traditions. All mentioned Reb Zalman as a great teacher and one who honored their choice to wear a different set of garments than the traditional Jewish ones. His heart filled the room with love. He is now flying with the Angels.

  5. Beautiful words, Bernie. May all who loved him and his far reach stick together because we’ve lost the glue.

  6. Never met either you, Bernie, or Reb Zalman in real life, but feel very close to both of you! My interfaith work at Marin Interfaith Council involves many traditions, and we all feel similar to him, that we can celebrate our commonalities, without watering down our own practices.
    Hope to meet you in person, before we disappear!

  7. A truly great rebbe. Thankfully we can still experience his wisdom and compassion in our life.

    Didn’t Ikkiu say something like, “When I am dead, you can still speak to me. I won’t answer.”

    And thank you for your memories and pictures.

    With love,

  8. Bernie, I appreciate your sharing of how Reb Zalman touched your heart and mind. He remains a precious soul who was able to be the raft many of us needed to find and cultivate the rich spiritual practice that Judaism offered. His deep understanding of our yearning and his willingness to expand the confines of a more traditional Jewish model enabled me to also find a spiritual home as a Jew, not only as a Buddhist. I am grateful beyond measure. May his wisdom and compassion continue to inspire Tikkun.

  9. it’a a great personal loss for you,
    I’m sorry, bowing deeply and hugging from my heart

  10. Dear Bernies, it touches me so deep to read your newsletter. Thank you that you share with us your respect and love to your Rebbe. So great to know of this wonderful mensch. Thank you.

  11. Bernie we’ve never met, l’m a 67yr old Limey who’s been sitting zazen and trying to serve folks for fortyplus years. You’ve been a great teacher and inspiration to me from afar – THANK YOU SO MUCH
    Many blessings be upon you as you breathe through the passing of your wonderful Rebbe and friend.
    I’m leading a small zazen retreat next week in a West Country cottage and we shall dedicate our practice to the great man and to your good self.
    Much love – Michael Blyth

  12. I loved Reb Zalman, and I mean that in the very deepest, best sense. I heard him teach many times at Naropa. Each and every time he spoke, he seemed to touch everyone, to unlock everyone’s hearts regardless of religious affiliation, political point of view, psychological orientation or condition. How was this possible?

  13. Thank you Bernie, I never met your Rebbe Zalman, but always when you mentioned him, I felt your love for him like a warm wave.
    Trough your connection he was already a part of yourself.
    I always felt the same when you spoke about Koryu Roshi.
    Thank you so much for your lifelong practice to become a real Mensch and to share with us about your one way and what you learned in the relationship with your teachers.
    How beautiful to see the pictures of your Rebbe, happy to know that his teachings are very alive in his students, friends and teachers!

    1. Dearest Bernie, Thank you for sharing about your friend and teacher. Although I never met him in person, I felt I knew him through Ram Dass and my Rabbi David Ingber. (Temple Romemu in New York City), Reb Zalman was also his teacher. Your stories helped me to know him and you more deeply. Thank you. Sending love and big hug.

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