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The Jewish Roots of Kehilla’s Values: Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Part IV

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.

From the very beginning Kehilla’s vision of community has been characterized by the principles of inclusivity and equality. This was not necessarily the norm in other Jewish communities. The ancient notion of Jewish chosenness often combined with what I might call “anti-Gentilism” to create a sense of Jewish superiority. I found this repugnant and I wanted none of it for Kehilla.

But Jews were not entirely to blame for their anti-Gentilism. The history of Jewish-Christian relations during the last two millenia was, for the most part, exceedingly tragic. Christians held the power, Jews were forced to be subservient, and anti-Semitism was an almost constant fact of Jewish life. Throughout the Middle Ages tens of thousands of Jews died in pogroms at the hands of fanatic Christians. Adolf Hitler’s policies, which resulted in the slaughter of six million Jews, grew out of traditional Christian attitudes toward Jews. Most of the German soldiers and politicians who carried out Hitler’s so-called “final solution” grew up on the myth that the Jews had murdered Christ. Anti-Gentilism was, in large part, a Jewish response to anti-Semitism.

Reb Zalman had had a few Christian friends in Vienna while he was growing up, but his war experiences together with his hasidic education created a deep anti-Gentile sentiment in him. A singular event took place in 1955, however, that radically changed Zalman’s attitudes toward non-Jews.

With some trepidation Zalman enrolled in Boston University’s pastoral counseling program, apprenticing himself to Rev. Howard Thurman, an African-American Christian philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader and the dean of Marsh Chapel. Thurman’s theology of radical nonviolence influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists, and he was a key mentor to leaders within the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Imagine Zalman as a young hasid, dressed in black, with a dark beard and peyes, the traditional orthodox sidelocks, and with tzitzit, ritual tassels dangling at his sides, nervously entering Dean Thurman’s office for the first time. Here is how Reb Zalman describes the encounter:

Talking over coffee with the dean, I explained that I really wanted to take his course and learn from his experiential methods. But I also confessed that “I’m not sure if my anchor chains are long enough” to relinquish self-control and allow him, as a non-Jew, to guide me spiritually. With a pensive expression, he put down his coffee mug. His graceful hands went back and forth, as though mirroring my dilemma. Finally Howard Thurman looked right at me and said, “Don’t you trust the Ruach Hakodesh [holy spirit]? To hear a non-Jew speak these Hebrew words so eloquently shattered my composure . . .

Zalman agonized over his decision for three weeks, committed himself to be led by God, and registered for Thurman’s course. In that class he learned different techniques for making prayer come alive for himself and for those he was serving. (Howard Thurman is the origin of some of the approaches to prayer that we use at Kehilla!) Zalman has said that his encounter with Thurman 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 begin to challenge the Jewish exclusivism and the aversion to non-Jews that was part and parcel of his traditional Hasidic belief system.

Zalman’s connection with Thurman made him wonder about the ways in which members of other faith traditions related to the divine. His curiosity deepened. He began to seek out sages and teachers of different religious paths and participated in ecumenical dialogues with them. He also experimented with spiritual practices from different traditions, integrating what was good and useful into his Judaism. As he learned more about the various paths to the sacred, Zalman came to see that Judaism was just one possible way of constructing a religious life. By the mid-1960s he had begun to craft the universal, post-denominational, and mystical version of Neo-Hasidic Judaism that eventually became Jewish Renewal.

Reb Zalman explored Eastern mysticism, most especially Buddhism, sitting in meditation with Zen masters. He smoked the peace pipe with Native American elders. Drawn to Sufism, in 1975 Reb Zalman was initiated as a Sheikh in the Sufi Order of Hazrat Inayat Khan. He also delved into the various approaches to psychotherapy and personal growth that flowered in the 1970s and 1980s.

Zalman was influenced by his contact with the Carmelite monks in Winnipeg and by his friendship with the great Christian teacher, Thomas Merton. In the course of time, Zalman came to understand Jesus as a revelation of God, an incarnation of Torah. Just as the hasidim believed the words of the Ba’al Shem Tov and of their rebbes stemmed from God, so Zalman could write: “The words of Yeshua of Nazareth, after all, are the teachings of a rebbe to his Hasidim, all of whom lived and died as Jews.”

Zalman’s love for the Jewish people widened out to embrace all peoples and religions, in fact, all of human creativity. “If I believe in divine providence,” Zalman wrote, “then I cannot say that God was asleep when Jesus was born . . . nor slumbered when the Buddha came, and when Mohammed got his revelations. So there has to be an understanding that these different religions also represent God’s will, and altogether we are an aggregate faith community on this planet.”

In 1990, the Dalai Lama invited a delegation of rabbis and Jewish spiritual leaders, including Reb Zalman, to meet with him at his capital-in-exile, Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama wanted to find out what the Tibetans could learn from the Jews about how to survive as a community exiled from their native land. Zalman’s dialogue with the Dalai Lama was profound and joyous.

All of these experiences taught Zalman that Judaism needs to rid itself of triumphalism, the belief that Judaism is superior to all other religions, and that Jews are superior to non-Jews. And Zalman taught that we need to be open to and learn from other religions as well as offering insights from Judaism that might benefit the followers of other religious traditions.

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