This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
Like a cross between the voice of God and a vintage radio broadcast full of pop and hiss, the disembodied sound of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi filled the sanctuary of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.
It was a Shabbat celebration of the 75th birthday of Schachter-Shalomi, the rebbe of the Jewish Renewal movement, who is nearly universally known as Reb Zalman. For four decades, he has been considered by many to be a marginal figure but has, in fact, also breathed a spark of spirit into the inner life of mainstream Judaism.
He was supposed to have been on the Upper West Side that Saturday, surrounded by his students and followers. But instead, on April 8 he was home in Boulder, Colorado, recuperating from a hospitalization a week earlier when what should have been a routine angiogram led to an emergency surgery to remove a blood clot.
So Reb Zalman was hooked up to the proceedings by telephone, his thin, faintly accented voice amplified by speakers hidden above the Upper West Side synagogue’s soaring ark and its rafters. He was able to participate in the celebration and speak to his followers about the holiness of Shabbat and their mission by using technology, which departs from traditional observance’s prohibition against using electricity on the day of rest. It was a fitting illustration of the Jewish Renewal approach.
The celebratory Shabbat came as the Jewish Renewal movement—the network of roughly 50 congregations and havurahs (including one in Manhattan), 60 rabbis and several retreat centers—is trying to grow from a group of iconoclastic dissidents into a rooted, well-funded, established organization.
Three decades after Reb Zalman began reaching out to disenfranchised Jews with a hands-on, mystically inflected, radically egalitarian, liturgically inventive, neo-chasidic approach, many of the techniques he pioneered–from meditation to describing God in new terms–are widely employed in mainstream settings.
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