Last Thursday, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, passed away, leaving his bodily existence for…well, for whatever comes next.
Reb Zalman, a creative and challenging teacher with a twinkle in his eye, was a tremendous pastoral presence for many people, who adopted him as a spiritual father or grandfather. His influence is reflected in our approaches to tikkun olam, prayer, study, meditation, music, gender equality, spirituality, environmentalism, interfaith outreach and more.
When people ask me to summarize the Jewish Renewal movement al regel achat, (literally, “while standing on one foot,”) i.e., in one sentence, I usually say, “It’s liberal Judaism with an emphasis on spirituality.” Fifty years into our founding, we have more than forty affiliated synagogues, in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and, of course, Israel. We have a seminary, a retreat center, a rabbinic association, a publishing project and more. Our umbrella organization is the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
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. We are only 70 years—less than one lifetime—past the end of World War II, only 70 years past the murder of six million European Jews, only 70 years past the destruction of a huge cultural infrastructure: Jewish schools, libraries, printing presses, synagogues, social centers, towns and neighborhoods where parents passed on traditions to their children simply by practicing them together. Or, to put it positively, we are 70 years into the project of renewing Judaism.
After the Holocaust, it took several decades just for survivors to come back from the brink: to count their losses, to find their way, as many did, to the newly established state of Israel, to North America and South America, and to build new lives in alien cultures. The re-establishment of our cultural institutions has fallen largely to our generation. Many of my age-peers (I’m in my fifties) have been asking, “How does one practice Judaism? How do I reconnect with my historical traditions?”
Many answers have been offered, and here I will contrast only two of them. Yes, of course it is an oversimplification, but perhaps one that will provide helpful categories for understanding contemporary Judaism and the Jewish choices each of us makes.
Some religious leaders have said, “How does one practice Judaism? Here are the guidelines. Follow this checklist of holidays, prayers, foods, clothing, and more.” Many people find it reassuring to have a clear set of guidelines; they buy guidebooks, learn from teachers and peers, and they practice with passion. This is a popular path. Jewish Orthodoxy is on the rise.
Some religious leaders give a different answer to the question, “How does one practice Judaism?” They say, “Awaken your spirit! Ask your questions, share your yearnings, and find out how traditional teachings and practices can speak to your deepest needs.” This is a more challenging path. After inter-generational trauma, it may not be easy to open to spiritual questions. Yet we know that when a person is ready, this opening is a gateway to healing. The Jewish Renewal movement emphasizes this second path.
Reb Zalman taught that the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Both are traditional. And both are needed to activate the whole human being. Drawing on kabbalistic language, Reb Zalman spoke often of four worlds of human consciousness. Simultaneously, we are involved in action, feeling, thought, and spiritual being. Ritual practices ground us in action; recognition of our yearning for meaning activates our emotion; intellectual study shapes our questions; God answers by moving us spiritually.
Sometimes Jewish movements argue fiercely over which approach will best renew and re-establish our religious culture. But for me, the best conclusion is Reb Zalman’s: each individual is unique; we need to reach all souls, at all levels; and every entry point is a holy one.
Rest in peace, my teacher and spiritual zayde, and travel with joy.
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A business leader exclaimed: “How can groups of different religions dialogue, when denominations within the same religion won’t talk to each other!”
A good will ambassador said sadly: “I’ve been attacked many times for my views.”
An activist declared: “Talking about our views and doing nothing together is a waste of time.”
A rabbi complained: “Usually, we just talk about our commonalities, and gloss over the important differences.”
A Holocaust survivor said with a heavy heart: “The ones who want to dialogue aren’t the ones we need to worry about.”
Call me idealistic, but I think interfaith dialogue can save lives. My favorite example comes from the memoir of Zivia Lubetkin, the only woman on the command staff of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1940, Lubetkin and fellow youth leaders took in the orphaned teens arriving in the Warsaw ghetto. In response to dehumanization of Jews, they organized underground schools for their teens. In response to scarcity, they organized work permits. When scarcity progressed to starvation, they put the teens to work in soup kitchens. When they learned of the death camps, they armed the teens, fought alongside them, and helped survivors escape. At every step on the way, they worked with contacts outside the ghetto: their friends from interfaith summer camp.
Why am I so idealistic when others are so cynical? Why do I hold out high hopes when others lose faith in dialogue? Perhaps it’s partly my open-ended view of what counts as interfaith “dialogue.” Dialogue is conversation, communication, an exchange of speech. Speech comes in many forms, some nonverbal; communication can come simply through shared experience.
Reflecting on the many modes of dialogue, I am reminded of the Kabbalistic concept of four worlds of consciousness. Simultaneously, we live in worlds of action, feeling, thought, and being. Under the rubric of interfaith dialogue, I have participated in projects touching all four worlds.
In the world of action, Ahavat Olam, a Vancouver havurah, has organized a Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry project. Together, Jews and Muslims serve meals at a Christian-sponsored homeless shelter. Discussion of religious differences is not the point. Instead, participants focus on the familiar comfort of working with the same people month after month. Communication about shared values happens in the doing.
In the world of feeling, our regional Christian seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, hosts an annual concert “Musical and Sonic Landscapes in Islam.” Contemporary Islamic composers lead the students in exploring the role of sound in spirituality. Students move, sing, speak – and are surprised by their own confusion, laughter, and mixed feelings. Emotions are aroused, and their meanings discussed. Music communicates by stimulating emotion, which in turn stimulates conversation. This, too, is dialogue.
In the world of intellect, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community organizes interfaith dialogue panel discussions. Religious teachers and leaders representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups speak to a deep existential question, such as “How does my religious tradition address suffering?” During the Q & A that follows, attendees ask questions in the language of their own tradition. Sometimes this mismatch of language is strikingly odd, requiring presenters to re-frame teachings most familiar to them. This awkward conversation, too, is dialogue; thoughts are stimulated, and curiosities sparked.
In the world of being, the Vancouver Multi-Faith action society recently hosted an ecstatic “Sacred Earth Celebration.” This interfaith service raised awareness about a shared human concern: the health of our planet. Its intent was not, like so many interfaith services, to declare each community’s commitment or show how each community prays. It was to unite us for an evening into a single community, brought to heightened awareness through music, poetry, images and food. No information about different religious traditions was shared, though elements of all were woven into the service. Just being together in altered consciousness was a kind of soul-to-communication; this, too, was interfaith dialogue.
I agree with the cynics, just a little bit: if you try to reach people by speaking only to one dimension of their experience, you may well find ill-will, ignorance, inaction, fear and disunity. But if you reach out on every level, sharing action, feeling, thoughts and being—as many youth do at summer camp—you just might find one harmonic convergence that grows into a reliable connection.
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