Reb Zalman Was A Gracious Man

We are only a few days shy of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s first yahrtzeit, and I miss him. To honor him I share this memory of our first meeting and what I learned about him and from him in that very brief encounter.

I came from a family milieu that disparaged Reb Zalman for his experimental modalities, my father having published a serious critique of his free thinking. I entered the ALEPH rabbinic program with trepidation of meeting Reb Zalman; who was I to heal the gap between one great rabbi and another? I felt pain knowing that my presence surely brought with it memory of public rejection, and I did not want to be perceived as embodying an attitude so far from my own admiration.

But I did not yet know anything of Reb Zalman’s capacity to delve beneath dogma, his capacity to raise up his students, or his incomparable sense of what needed to be acknowledged in a given moment. He had the ability to communicate faith in the oneness of all things as he plainly named the complexity of a situation. Later, I would turn to him when the disparate strands of my life seemed impossible to interweave and each time he smiled at all I laid out, spoke whatever it was the worst of it, what I feared to say, and then, in the most matter-of-fact way, reframed what I experienced to be unbridgeable voids as the loving spaciousness that allows differences to co-exist, even within the self.

I was introduced to Reb Zalman by my teacher Reb Shohama Wiener as we passed the table at which he sat, dining. She presented me, saying: “Reb Zalman, I want to introduce Hannah Dresner, a new talmid (a new student).” It was a frail year of his life, but he rose, clasped my hand, and said in a grave tone, “I have read your spiritual autobiography and I welcome you. I stand with respect for your father, with whom I had machlokes (with whom I had ‘issues’).”

Tears of relief sprang to my eyes. What I heard in these two sentences was that, first and foremost, my arrival on this scene was welcome. I am my own person with my own story and valued as such. And I heard direct acknowledgment that what discomfited me was real. But I also heard respect for the Other. Reb Zalman stood in honor of my father because the disagreement between them was l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven), expressive of two paths up the same mountain. I also believe that Reb Zalman stood in honor of my father because he was my father and Reb Zalman wanted me to be at peace in this nexus of my rabbinic heritage and my rabbinic path. So, in two sentences Reb Zalman enacted the gambit of teshuvah and set us in right relationship as teacher and student.

Over time, Reb Zalman continued to help me with the details of melding my worlds. But in that first moment, even as he set me at ease, he also offered a touchstone for my own rabbinate, modeling receptivity, modeling humility, and modeling social grace.

May his memory be for a blessing.

You can learn more about Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and his legacy in this obituary.

Find out more about Jewish Renewal, here


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