by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
When I first met Rabbi Zalman Schachter in the mid-1960s he certainly looked like an orthodox Jew, sporting a beard and sidelocks, and dressed in black. But even with his loyalty to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and his strict adherence to Jewish law, he was not a conventional hasid. In subsequent years Reb Zalman went through a host of inner changes, eventually bringing him to a place where he became the primary founder of the Jewish renewal movement. Reb Zalman’s break with orthodoxy came in large part out of his friendships with Christian, Muslim, and Eastern spiritual teachers. As he became intimate with these spiritual leaders he found that they were as deeply concerned about the Spirit as he was, and this opened his heart to a more universalistic understanding religion.
Zalman was strongly influenced by the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn. In his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn had argued that in the history of science, ongoing eras of scientific pursuit were interrupted by periods of revolutionary transformation. It was the discovery of new facts that deviated from what had been accepted as truth in the past that led to the development of new scientific paradigms. These paradigms would ask new questions of the old data and in this way change the rules of the game.
Zalman believed that Kuhn’s thesis could and should be applied to the study of Jewish history and thought as well, and to renewing Judaism so that our ancient religion could become spiritually relevant to our era. He believed that we live in a period of revolutionary transformation which requires Jewish spiritual teachers to account for new facts: First of all, most American Jews don’t live in isolation from non-Jews, as did our pre-modern forbearers. This requires us to think very differently about our own tradition and about our identities. Zalman taught that the new paradigm of Jewish living must move beyond the confines of chauvinistic tribalism and contribute to a new universal age.
Not only do we need to end our view of Judaism as the supreme religion, Reb Zalman taught, we also need to see ourselves as an integral part of the global community of spiritual seekers. In the same vein we Jews need to share our traditional wisdom with the world at large, and in this way help to build a new era of civilization. In Reb Zalman’s words, “What makes this [Neo-Hasidism] different from all the other Hasidisms that came before is that it is post-triumphalist. It is ecumenical, recognizing that there are other people who are ‘ovdey hashem [servants of God], from whom we can learn, and with whom we can have a shittuf p’ulah [action that is shared], and who also love God.”
All of the modern forms of Judaism—Reform, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionism—were attempts at reformulating Judaism for our age, but Reb Zalman sensed that they were missing something crucial. They modified traditional Judaism without emphasizing the importance of the Spirit, and they lacked the kind of ecstasy, joyousness and devotion found in Hasidic communities. Zalman did not seek to displace these different kinds of Judaism, but rather to bring a hasidic spiritual dimension to each of these movements.
Davening, the Jewish form of prayer, was central to Reb Zalman’s own religious life, and he saw that for large numbers of Jews worship had become formal, hollow and irrelevant. He began to look at ways in which Jewish worship could be renewed and deepened so that davening could actually enable people to experience the holiness and joy of existence. The key word here is experience.
“I believe that much of [Judaism] has become elite religion: highly prescriptive, oververbalized and intellectualized, and underexperienced. I first introduce young people to the meaning and experiences underlying Jewish rituals and observance, to their psychological and emotional intent rather than to their outward manifestations. People must realize that religious acts are no more than natural unfoldings of the human condition. In order to do this I show the person how to re-create these acts, beginning with his own experiences in living.”
In other words, bring back the intentionality, the spirituality, the joy, the ecstasy, the love, the body in motion, and the kind of devotional music that characterized Hasidic davening at its best. This is what Zalman modeled for his students when he led prayer. If you have participated in Kehilla’s High Holy Days worship, or our Shabbat services you will have an appreciation for the work initiated by Reb Zalman in renewing Jewish prayer.
Reb Zalman was an optimist. In the late 1960s I remember him saying that he believed it would be possible to change the very character of modern Judaism. I must say that I was skeptical. This was at the height of the “God is dead” movement, and many of us thought that religion itself was being defeated by secularism. But Zalman had an intuitive ability to see into the future, and so much of what he envisioned actually came to pass, in large part due to the ways in which he modeled and taught this new Judaism.