by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
In these monthly articles I have been offering readers some background history on the Jewish sources of the values and ideals that motivated me to develop the vision that became Kehilla Community Synagogue. In this six-part series, I turn to the legacy of Reb Zalman for our community.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was the primary founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, of which Kehilla was a founding community. Reb Zalman, as he was affectionately called, arguably had more of an impact on the development of the spiritual aspect of Kehilla Community Synagogue than any of the Neo-Hasidic spiritual teachers I have profiled in this column, with the possible exception of Abraham Joshua Heschel. More than any other teacher, it was Reb Zalman who brought Jewish spirituality back to life in the United States.
When I first met him in 1964, Reb Zalman was still orthodox, but he was warm and open. He gave me a little book he had written and self-published called The First Step. It was a manual for how to become a spiritual Jew. I’d never seen anything like it. None of my instructors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, with the sole exception of Abraham Joshua Heschel, had ever used the word “spiritual.”
What impressed me most about the The First Step was something that Zalman called “meditation.” I’d never heard the word before. What was meditation? Reb Zalman offered several possible ways of understanding Jewish meditation. The definition that spoke most to me was the following:
Perhaps it is standing back with the whole of the cosmos before one’s mind’s eye as one’s heart is being filled with the sheer joy of seeing the balance of the All and one’s own self as part of it.
Zalman wrote that in 1959, a long time before meditation became popular in the United States! Among his many other achievements, then, Reb Zalman was the teacher who first brought meditation to modern Judaism.
Reb Zalman was born in Zholkiew, Poland in 1924. Both of his parents’ families were affiliated with the Belzer Hasidic community. Less than a year after his birth, the family moved to Vienna, where Zalman received a traditional Jewish education, including the study of Talmud. But he also studied secular subjects, and he became especially interested in chemistry, thinking he might eventually become a chemist.
When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Jewish life in Vienna deteriorated drastically. The Schachter family was able to escape to Belgium. In Antwerp, Zalman began studying with a kind and gentle Chabad hasid named Baruch Metzl, who invited him to join a diamond-cutting enterprise and study Hasidism with the diamond cutters. Zalman joined the group and came to love these men.
Reb Zalman describes a religious experience he had at that time. He was filled with a mood of exaltation. Everything in the world seemed profoundly connected.
A luminous brightness surrounded me . . . I felt exhilarated and suffused with a wonderful sense of wholeness and unshakable faith. At that moment, I prayed with all my soul that God should not let me lose this insight. In a real sense, that epiphany in Antwerp has stayed with me ever since.
And then, in 1940, just as his family was about to leave for the U.S., the Germans attacked Belgium. The Schachters attempted to flee to France, but they were caught and incarcerated in two different French internment camps. They finally received visas in March, 1941 and they emigrated to the United States. It was his faith that got Zalman through the vicissitudes of the Holocaust.
Once they were settled, Zalman found his way to Lubavitch in Brooklyn, and there he met the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson face to face. Zalman describes the rebbe:
He was outwardly frail, but an indefinable strength was immediately apparent in his demeanor. I felt nervous but excited . . . at the age of sixteen, I had only meager awareness of and insight into how my encounter with the Lubavitcher was transforming me spiritually. Though this may sound sacrilegious, I had the unspoken feeling that if God had taken human form, He would be like Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson. I wanted to learn from this holy man and to be whatever he wanted me to be . . .
In an interview toward the end of his life, Zalman stated that it was the love he received that bonded him to the Rebbe. “I could talk to him about my inner life, and he would give me directions. He made me a Hasid. When he’d sing or pray, I could attune to his heart.”
As a student in the Lubavitcher yeshivah, Zalman focused on deepening his practice of prayer, developing his soul life, and coming close to God. “You can’t imagine how much in love with God I was,” he wrote. Together with other young hasidim, he engaged in outreach to help American Jews become more religiously observant. At that time he was passionately opposed to non-Hasidic forms of Judaism; nevertheless, he was slowly becoming aware of truths found in religious traditions other than Judaism. Ordained as a rabbi in 1947, Zalman served as a Jewish educator and rabbi in several cities in the northeast.
Zalman had met Shlomo Carlebach at Lubavitch. In 1949, the Rebbe—Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson—asked Shlomo and Zalman to become his emissaries to the world of secular universities, in order to draw young Jews back to their ancestral religion. The first campuses they visited were Brandeis University and Boston University.
Also, during that time, Zalman struck up a friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who became an important mentor to the young man, exposing him to a broader understanding of Hasidism. Zalman once said that Heschel brought heart back into American Judaism. Later, Zalman would translate Heschel’s early volume of Yiddish poetry into English. Here is Zalman’s translation of a few lines from Heschel’s poem, “Help!”
It is Your
Task to help,
But You keep still
Amidst human cries;
So help me
Your duty God;