For most of the 20th century, liberal Judaism, proud of its rational, academic underpinnings, had distanced itself from — sometimes even disparaging — the mystical, fanciful chasidim of Eastern Europe. And yet, by the 1960s and increasingly with every decade since, Rabbi Zalman Schachter — or Reb Zalman as he preferred — mystical and fanciful, became the rebbe of the disconnected.
Considered the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, Reb Zalman thought of himself as building a Noah’s Ark for a Jewish lost generation that felt the flood waters rising. He was the rebbe for everyone with “post-traumatic God syndrome,” said Rabbi David Ingber, founder and spiritual director of Romemu, a leading Jewish Renewal congregation on the Upper West Side. And by the time Reb Zalman died last week in Boulder, Colo., at 89, there was just about no one who knew him that didn’t feel more healed for having done so.
He would laugh about his transformation from a passionate chasid and emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe, before breaking with the movement over his wild mustang inclinations; they led him to LSD trips with Timothy Leary, trying unsuccessfully to get the Lubavitcher rebbe to try it (“It’s better than schnapps,” said Reb Zalman); they led him through four marriages and 10 children; and to intense soul sessions with Hindus, Sufis and Buddhists, even becoming an honorary sheik. He’d say that Christian monks helped him to daven. Now, said Reb Zalman, “one of my deepest practices is I sit and let God love me.”
Judaism was changing. More people wanted a spirituality that was more poetry than prose, more musical than mathematical, more Reb Zalman and Shlomo Carlebach in long hair and love beads than rabbis in suits and ties. Jewish Renewal emerged, a new age, neo-chasidic, non-traditional approach to spirituality and observance, and its innovations seeped into the wider Jewish world. Denominations began reaching out to him.
When the Reconstructionists invited him to be the keynote speaker at their plenary, he joked in 1981, “I felt like the gonif genshnitin fun der tliya — when you need a thief you cut him from the gallows.”
Few things seemed less likely than a shtetl boy learning from Sufis and monks when Meshullam Zalman HaKohen Schachter (the ‘Shalomi” was added many decades later) was born to Shlomo and Hayyah Gittel in the village of Zholkiew, Poland, in 1924. A year later they moved to Austria. One day, when Reb Zalman was around 11, Papa Schachter sent him to the rabbi with a chicken to be checked for kashrut. Upon meeting the boy, the rabbi thought he might like to meet the rabbi’s mischievous twins, Eli-Chaim and Shlomo Carlebach, the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Zalman and Shlomo, the Huck and Tom of post-war Judaism.
Reb Zalman’s father was a liberal Belzer chasid who didn’t daven in the chasidic shul. “Still, Papa taught me about davening. He was the first person I saw crying under a talis,” he told the New Jewish Times in 1981. Reb Zalman remembered a life “full of contradictions. I went to the yeshiva, and I went to secular high school. I went to Hashomer Hatzair (a Marxist-Zionist youth movement) and then I’d go to the Tzeiri Agudas Yisroel (an Orthodox anti-Zionist youth movement). So being stretched between two poles … all my life has been that way.”
One step ahead of the Nazis, the Shachters fled to Belgium in 1938, and then in 1940 to Vichy, France, where 16-year-old Zalman became enchanted by Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 10 years before he became the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe. Arriving in New York in 1941, Zalman was ordained by Lubavitch, and in 1950 the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, a perceptive evaluator of talent, called for Reb Zalman, 25, and Reb Shlomo, reunited in Brooklyn, to be the rebbe’s first shluchim (emissaries) to college campuses, a program that has since led Chabad to 210 campuses nationwide, even if Reb Zalman and Reb Shlomo would have a good laugh at how naïve and inexperienced they were during that first winter on the road.
In 1955, with the blessing of Rebbe Menachem Mendel (who became rebbe in 1951), Reb Zalman began studying towards a master’s degree in pastoral psychology and the psychology of religion at Boston University. In 1956 Reb Zalman moved to Winnipeg to be the rabbi of the Hillel at the University of Manitoba, and in summers he worked at Camp Ramah (Wisconsin). One night in 1962 he walked into the bunk where Michael Lerner, now a rabbi and editor of Tikkun, was the counselor, Reb Zalman was there to teach the 13-year-olds about Kriyat Shema Al-Hamita (the bedtime prayer). Rabbi Lerner recalled him teaching in the late-night shadows, “When you go to sleep,” said Reb Zalman, “and say the Kriyat Shema Al-Hamita, you are directing your unconscious to connect to the God of the universe, so even in your sleep you can be praying to God.”
And then, remembers Lerner (whom Reb Zalman would ordain many years later), “he starts talking about a Judaism that affirms the wisdom of women. That was unheard of at that time. The boys talked about it late into the night, and the next morning they were already questioning the leadership of the [Conservative] camp, why was it that only boys were leading services, while the girls would only tell you the page numbers in Hebrew?”
Rabbi Lerner pointed out that Reb Zalman was the first to reformulate the Amidah phrasing “Elokaynu v’Elokay Avotenu v’Emotenu,” the God of our Patriarchs, adding our Matriarchs. “That is now the standard in Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism. That wasn’t there [until] he started it in the 1960s.”
By the mid-1970s, Reb Zalman was a professor of Jewish Mysticism and the psychology of religion at Temple University. In 1981, Yossi Klein Halevi and Avram Malowicki profiled Reb Zalman for New Jewish Times, visiting him in Philadelphia: “Reb Zalman became the rebbe of the lost Jews,” they wrote. “He could talk to them because he, too, had been there. So they came to his living room/synagogue, with its Magen David mandalas and psychedelic drawings of chasidic masters, and a Torah ark upon whose curtain was pinned the button, ‘Love is the ultimate trip,’ and they sat cross-legged, played the dulcimer on Shabbos, rolled joints for sacraments, wore rainbow taleisim and white Sufi robes, prayed ecstatically and moaned like wounded children when confronted with their own fragility — the breakdown of America taking place in Reb Zalman’s living room, where the painful first steps of reconstruction were attempted.”
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In 1995, he became the World Wisdom chair holder at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, his home for the remainder of his life and where he is buried.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said, “I didn’t know Zalman in his wilder years, but he would take me out to daven when we were in Boulder, as soon as it was dawn, with the appreciation of the sun as it was rising. He did things that were there, in the sources, in the Birkot HaShachar [the morning blessings], but most of us say them so automatically we don’t really think about what their meaning is. He never stopped thinking about the meaning. Some people didn’t appreciate what a scholar Zalman was. He studied Tanya [Chabad’s most revered book of chasidic philosophy] every day. You spoke to him, he was always quoting to you [from the] sources, and in the original. He was very open to learning from other traditions, but he was always rooted in Jewish knowledge.”
“If I’m cut off from the Baal Shem Tov,” said Reb Zalman, “from the great rebbes of the past, I’m gonna be in trouble.”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center: A Prophetic Voice in Jewish, Multi-religious and American Life, told The Jewish Week, Reb Zalman “did not imagine and did not want a successor. What he wanted was a community of successors.” Rabbi Waskow tells the story of the young Zalman growing up in Lubavitch, where on special occasions the rebbe would gather all the men around him at a tisch, the rebbe’s table, where the rebbe would teach and offer a l’chaim. “And so, Reb Zalman would gather, women and men, at a tisch. He would sit in the rebbe’s chair, teaching Torah, and then would stand and say, ‘Everyone stand!’ So we stood. Then he would say, ‘Everybody move one chair to the left.’ And we did. So did he. Then he would say to the person who was now sitting in the rebbe’s chair: ‘Look inside for the rebbe-spark within you — and teach from there.’ And so we moved, person by person, through the night. [He] saw the possibility that in each of us was a channel for sacred Spirit. The chair was important. It called us into depth.” As he told us this story over the phone, Rabbi Waskow began crying, unable to speak any further.
Rabbi Ingber, of Romemu, told us by phone from Jerusalem, “Reb Zalman was indisputably the rebbe of Jewish Renewal,” and “so many things began with Zalman, whether it was group aliyot [call-ups to the Torah]; or women’s’ ordination — even before the Reform movement; or the introduction of contemporary melodies in davening.” Walk into any shul where they are singing, say, Adon Olam to ‘Shenandoah,’ or ‘Lecha Dodi’ to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’” Said Rabbi Ingber, “Zalman was the first person to innovate musically like that.
“A lot of his students here in Jerusalem sat a day of shiva for him, a kind of symbolic shiva where we all told stories and sang songs. I felt like my spiritual father passed away. He taught us how to heal and be back in a loving relationship with the One. I feel so blessed that I even held his hand.”