by Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Kehilla Community Synagogue
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the chief founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, died peacefully, at age 89, in Boulder, Colorado on July 3, 2014. He had endured bouts with bladder cancer and pneumonia among other ailments.
Reb Zalman, as he was affectionately known, was born in Poland in 1924. Interned in detention camps under the Vichy French, he fled to the United States in 1941. He studied at the Chabad Lubavitch yeshiva under the leadership of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, and was ordained in 1947. He served several different Chabad congregations.
For a time, Reb Zalman continued to devote himself to spreading the teachings and practices of Hasidism to non-religious Jews. In 1955, enrolled in Boston University’s pastoral counseling program, he apprenticed himself to the African-American Christian theologian Rev. Howard Thurman. Zalman said that his encounter with Thurman, who became teacher, mentor and friend, was the first time he was sure that God was present in the soul of a non-Jewish religious individual. This realization required him to challenge the Jewish exclusivism that he had absorbed in his Hasidic milieu.
Reb Zalman’s curiosity and independence drew him in new directions. He sought out sages and teachers of different religious paths and participated in ecumenical dialogue. Learning more about the variety of paths to the Sacred, he came to see that Judaism was just one possible way of constructing a religious life. By the mid-1960s he had begun to craft a universal, post-denominational, and mystical version of Neo-Hasidic Judaism.
Reb Zalman earned a doctorate from Hebrew Union College and became a professor of religious studies at the University of Manitoba. In those same years he began traveling around the United States, introducing kabbalah and Hasidism to thousands of young Jews.
He was the principal inspiration for the founding of Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan. Locally, synagogues and havurot were also strongly influenced by his vision, including Kehilla Community Synagogue, Beyt Tikkun, Makom Ohr Shalom and Chochmat Halev.
Reb Zalman appeared in the Bay Area frequently before he became more infirm. On occasion, he led services at the Aquarian Minyan and at Kehilla. He read at the Afikomen store and led his own High Holyday services at Mount Madonna Center.
Reb Zalman taught that we are living in a transformative moment in which a new paradigm for spiritual life is being developed. We are called, he said, to seek a renewed relationship with God, the immanent reality that suffuses all creation. He unlocked and updated Hasidic spirituality for contemporary Jews, generating waves of innovation and fervor that have filtered into mainstream Jewish life.
Reb Zalman was convinced that the task for Jews in our time is to view ourselves as an integral part of the global community, sharing our traditional wisdom with the world at large, thus helping to construct a new era of civilization. His love for the Jewish people widened out to embrace all of human creativity, all peoples and religions. On the Dalai Lama’s invitation, he came to India with a delegation of rabbis and spiritual leaders to discuss what the Tibetans could learn from the Jews about survival in exile.
In later years, he held the World Wisdom Chair at the Nairopa Institute in Boulder. He had also served on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Omega Institute, and many other institutions. He inspired the creation of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the ALEPH Ordination Programs, and OHALAH, the association for Jewish Renewal clergy.
During the last two decades of his life, Reb Zalman became increasingly concerned with the plight of the earth. “More than I want to talk about avodat ha-Shem, serving God,” he wrote, “I want to talk about serving the planet . . . Strengthening this whole-Earth cooperation is to me the most urgent and important way we have of serving God, the holiest and most pressing invitation of our time . . . A vision of Earth that respects but transcends national and religious boundaries is part of the Torah of the future. We humans have the potential to be the global consciousness of a living planet, with every individual conscious cell and every group a contributing organ of . . . that vast living being. Now we have a choice: we can act like cancer cells, rogue cells sowing the seeds of the organism’s destruction, or we can become Gaia’s most flexible digits for healing Herself where she hurts.”
May Reb Zalman’s memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Burt Jacobson is the founding Rabbi of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. He has known and worked with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi for over 40 years.