On Thursday, I landed in San Francisco on the first day of a family vacation. As I turned my phone back on as we pulled into the gate, the first news I saw was the announcement of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s passing. On Monday, my colleague Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan wrote eloquently about Reb Zalman’s overall approach to Jewish life—an approach to renewing the spiritual heart of Jewish practice. That approach to renewal, while leading to the creation of an organized group of students, communities, a rabbinic program, and much more under the umbrella of ALEPH (Alliance for Jewish Renewal), reached far beyond any particular denomination. And that was of Reb Zalman’s design. His gift did not fit in just one vessel, and he was eager to see the wisdom and innovation shared widely. I’m not sure that I can identify another rabbinic figure whose teachings and wisdom have, in our time, shaped and inspired so many others in so many different parts of Jewish life.
While I am ordained by Hebrew Union College, and work under the auspices of the Reform movement for a Reform congregation, my soul has been and continues to be rooted in Renewal, the teachings of Reb Zalman and the many other teachers that he inspired and empowered to spread their light in the world. In much of my work in Jewish communal settings, my reputation is for bringing spiritual awareness and practice into mainstream settings in ways that are accessible and experiential. When I stop and think about what, specifically, people are drawn to and respond to, so much comes from all I learned from Jewish Renewal.
Once a month, I offer a creative service which borrows Hayyim Herring’s label (from his book Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today)—”Ritual Lab.” In fact, this forum, which allows us to deepen our experience of our worship together and the inner meanings of our prayers, is my own iteration of “Interpretive Davening”—a gift from Reb Zalman and his students. Sometimes these services include chanting—a gift shared by Rabbi Shefa Gold, whose chanting wisdom was blessed, appreciated and encouraged by Reb Zalman. In one service, my cantorial soloist and I modeled before the congregation how to take a psalm and, one line at a time ,taking turns, read and drash on that line to more deeply experience and connect to the verses. A gift from Reb Zalman. Sometimes, at a Torah service, I’ve invited people to see if they feel ‘called’ to the Torah for an Aliyah because there is a teaching from the week’s parsha that connects to the fabric of their lives. And every week that I bless a bar or bat mitzvah student with a Mi Shebeirach blessing, I trust that the spirit will inspire an appropriate, spontaneous blessing in the moment that recognizes that student’s spiritual link to the Torah they have just shared with us. All this, and so much more I learned from Reb Zalman or from one of the many students who were inspired by him.
There is so much more Jewish creativity and spiritual inspiration, today found in settings across all denominations and none, that owes, either consciously or unconsciously, a debt to the gifts that Reb Zalman either taught directly or encouraged and blessed in others. Take the success of Storahtelling and the wonderful work of Amichai Lau Levi. Inspired by the earlier work of the Institute for Contemporary Midrash—a part of the Jewish Renewal world. Ever sat in a Jewish meditation service? Many of the early teachers who brought forth a practice that, for centuries, was primarily only to be found in mystical or Hasidic contexts, did so first to a receptive community in Jewish Renewal. Ever been transformed by a niggun—a wordless melody—at a Shabbat gathering? These tunes, lying at the heart of Hasidic musical spirituality, were brought into the heart of communal gatherings in the context of Jewish Renewal. Not only there, but so many of those who learned melodies and shared them first learned them in a Jewish Renewal setting. I know that I did, and all of my early work in Jewish communities, focusing on spirituality through music, prior to entering rabbinic school, was inspired by those experiences.
And there’s more. A couple of years ago a young woman, now a Youth Advisor, and I got talking at Kutz Camp, the leadership camp for the Reform movement. It turned out that I had been her religious school teacher in the UK 20 years ago! She told me that there were two things that she specifically remembered about those classes (I was amazed; I don’t think I can recall anything from Religious school at the age of 10). She remembered being shown how all the festivals fit to the seasons and had a different emotional feel, presented in a big pie chart diagram on the wall. And she remembered our classes on Eco-Kashrut. I taught these things because I had been inspired by my teacher, Reb Arthur Waskow, one of Reb Zalman’s earliest students. How incredible – Reb Arthur and Reb Zalman were talking and writing about Eco-Kashrut decades before these topics entered the mainstream awareness in other branches of Jewish life.
As I approach every festival, consider how to invite a community into an experience that will translate ancient words and rituals into the hills and valleys of an inner landscape that we are called upon to explore and come to understand, Reb Zalman’s teachings and the teachings of those he inspired are my guides time and time again.
Reb Zalman cared passionately about a Judaism that would be deeply meaningful and spirituality inspiring. He is the source and the inspiration for so much; truly a gift to us all.
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.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.