Rabbi Arthur Green on Reb Zalman: “my mentor, teacher, dear friend”

A letter from Rabbi Arthur Green:

Dear friends in the world of Aleph and Pnai Or,

It is Sunday morning here in Jerusalem, where I am visiting briefly.

Awakening after a shabbat and a Melaveh Malkah filled with reminiscences and conversations about Zalman and how much he meant in all our lives. Then I start thinking about the large number of people with whom I share this loss and feel like I want or need to say something to you, especially those of you who joined with him in creating the renewal movement, which I, in a formal sense, did not.

Zalman has been my mentor, teacher, dear friend, for more than half a century. When I first met him in 1957, he was still a loyal Lubavitcher and I was a very impressionable 16 year old. We have been close since I was about 22, when I forced him into a friendship because I couldn’t handle having a rebbe. That did not mean, of course, refusing to learn from him.

I learned and grew tremendously in the course of the years and decades of that friendship. He was not rebbe to me, but he was mentor, always. (Yes, there have been many days when I envied you, having him as your rebbe!) The distinction is a very subtle one; this is not the place to discuss it.

Those of you reading this probably know that Zalman introduced my dear Kathy (“Sister Kreindel”) and me, first in the context of two people who sought to join Bnai Or, the Jewish monastic community he wanted to create back in the early ’60’s. That community never came to be, but Havurat Shalom, which I started in 1968, was a knock-off of it. We were terribly privileged to have Zalman join us in Boston for the first year of that wonderful community. You may also know that when Zalman created the existing Pnai Or, in the house around the corner from us in Philadelphia, which we had found for him, we just found that our styles had diverged enough that we did not join. Zalman was more new-age embracing than we were ready to be. I remember that Kathy and I formulated it then as “We want to be first cousins to that brother/sisterhood.”

So it developed over the years. We had great admiration for what Zalman was building, but somehow from the side. Of course we shared talmidim and dear friends, especially those of you to whom the note is first addressed.
Watching how much Zalman continued to create, how many people he taught and then empowered, through semikhah and otherwise, to become givers and leaders in Jewish life, was truly amazing. Yes, we continued to differ on some things; that’s no big secret. That is why we remained cousins to his enterprise. But two things were much bigger than all that. One was (and is!) the great love between us. The over-the-phone hugs every erev hag, including an annual erev-pesah reminder (“Remember: Fervor without Fanaticism!”) were terribly important to both of us. So were excited calls about texts we had discovered here and there in a Hasidic seforim. (This began as early as 1965, when we shared both Hasidut and LSD, a combination shared then by almost no one else….) The other bigger thing is that our lives were dedicated to the very same question: How do we take this mystical Judaism we both love and make it alive and vital for the current era?

Zalman was driven by that question, knowing how rich and deep the sources of that teaching are, and how alien and difficult their original garb is for those we teach. What should we keep of that tradition? What should we adapt? What should we lovingly leave behind? How do we figure out that balance, not “losing the baby with the bathwater,” as it were? We both have given our lives to that search.

Eddie Feld wrote me on Friday, saying very well that Zalman was my model of the contemporary Jewish seeker. Very true. That model means both feet firmly planted in the tradition; both eyes wide open to what’s happening in the world, both today and in anticipated tomorrow. Zalman PIONEERED this path; I was privileged to follow it, in my own way. He was — we were — a few decades ahead in the great rediscovery of mystical Judaism and how important it can be, both for revitalizing our own tradition and as a voice (never THE voice, as he knew so well) that the world in its contemporary morass needs so much to hear.

I guess I’m writing you all for two reasons. One is simply תנחומים, consolation. We cousins have lost our shared beloved father/uncle/teacher/friend. So I want to reach out and say that I feel your/our shared pain and wish us all healing from our great loss, a healing that will be ever so enriched by the tremendous legacy we share, from which we will all continue to learn and grow. But I also am writing to THANK you.

I thank you for being there to learn from Zalman for all these years. I thank you for all you did for him personally, in support both spiritual and material, much more than I did. I thank you for building Pnai Or, Aleph, Ohalah, and all that goes with them. You — He, of course, — but very much you, collectively as well, have created something of great beauty and importance, opening a welcoming channel for many Jews who would not have found their way either to Y-H-W-H or to Judaism without you. Kol ha-kavod, I want to say. I give you great honor for all you have built.

Sent you you from this broken city with a still-broken but healing heart. I am off to Meron today. I will certainly carry my love for Zalman to the grave and place of our teacher R. Shim’on bar Yohai.

Thanking of you with tearful love,

אברהם יצחק ישראל בן עטל

Art Green