Our teacher, our friend, our rabbi, our exemplar, “the one who walked before the camp,” who was always ahead of us in everything, our father, sometimes even our mother, R’ Meshullam Zalman ben Shlomo ha-Kohen ve-Hayyah Gitl, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, is no longer with us on this earth. God willing, those of you who were privileged to know Zalman in your youth, including his beloved children and grandchildren, will carry that living memory forward with you for another half century or more. Then he, along with the six million others of his generation to whom he felt so deeply attached – among them the uncle and his family who chose to go east instead of west from Vienna, the Lubavitcher diamond workers in Antwerp among whom he first became truly alive to spiritual quest – he along with them will pass into history and legend, as will we all.
How he would have loved to be here today, hearing what everyone had to say. So much more fun than the taharah, the preparation for burial that he tried on for size! I’m sure he thought often about what we would all have to say today. I will confess that I had thought of it too. My guess is that he saw this planned 90th birthday bash partly as a dress rehearsal for the funeral. And I’m sure he would have said in a stage whisper to someone giving a very complimentary speech: “Hey! Save something for the eulogy!” There is so much that Zalman gave us – we who were close to him but also our brothers and sisters the whole house of Israel. What would we say on this day to express our gratitude, he might have asked, to give some ease to the over-burdened sad fullness of our hearts? So, Reb Zalman, here it is.
In that eternal moment before the drop of individual soul, revealed in all its infinitesimal smallness because of the body’s passing, fell into the great vast ocean of universal spirit, the soul of Reb Zalman was not asked “Why were you not Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai – creating a new vessel for Judaism as the old one was about to break. He was not asked: “Why were you not the ARIZAL, greatest of all the Kabbalists, master of all the worlds, before whom no secret was held back, to whose mind no mystery was too profound. Nor was he asked: “Why were you not the Ba’al Shem Tov, healing all his people’s ills with kindness, with niggun, with storytelling, with deep teachings that uplifted fallen spirits. He was not even asked “Why were you not Reb Zusha,” God’s beloved fool. He was only asked: “Why were you not Reb Zalman?” And then we – his disciples, friends, lovers, students, children – all of us rose up as one and cried out: BUT HE WAS!!
Did you ever know anyone who was as comfortable in his own skin as was Zalman? He knew who he was and accepted who he was on more levels than most of us can even imagine. He delighted in every bit of it, a man who seemed like no other to know how to delight. He sought, discovered, and developed every bit of talent God had given him. That quick brain, above all, thinking on his feet faster than anyone we’d ever met, transforming the ordinary into the spectacular by a moment of insight that just came to him, then and there. But also the incredible instinct for music, the artistic, the flair for the dramatic, the eye for costume. Every seed of creativity he found God to have planted within him, Zalman was anxious and able to nourish, to grow, and to reap for the benefit of us all. He also knew how to foster and bring out creativity in others. Whatever you had to offer, Zalman was there to encourage you, to receive it and to help you celebrate it and make it grow.
As comfortable as he was with himself, so was Zalman at home and comfortable with his tradition. He felt and spoke like an insider to the Jewish world. The years in Vienna, Antwerp, and Brooklyn had all given him a deep sense that Yiddishkeyt, Judaism, thoroughly belonged to him and he to it. Because of this sense that he had both feet firmly planted in the soil of Jewish tradition, he felt able to stretch, lean forth, and experiment in all sorts of directions without ever fearing he would lose his own sense of self or authenticity. Yes, he was something of a junky for religious experience. To say it more graciously, he sought always to fulfill the Psalmist’s “Taste and see that the One is good” in as many ways as he could. He was the ideal Jewish seeker, going everywhere, tasting everything, but then bringing it all back home, rooting it in his native Jewish soil. Judaism was his own much-beloved spiritual language and he spoke it with great beauty and fluency. Concepts and attitudes had to be updated for this very new era, as he knew so well and said so often. But the language had to be preserved; that was the key to feeling at home in the tradition.
He helped us to become and speak like insiders as well. From the time I met him, when I was sixteen, he taught me to speak of God as the Ribboino shel Oilem (The Master of the Universe) or der Aybershter (The Most High), pronouncing them as terms of intimacy and endearment. He spoke about Avrohom Avinu rather than Father Abraham, about Shimenesrey rather than “The Silent Devotion” of our old liberal prayerbooks. Because his lineage was Hasidic, the Sabbath table ritual would begin each meal with askinu seudasa, “Prepare the feast.” I remember the gusto with which he told me that when they were teenagers his brother Joe would call out: “Here we go again – praying to ‘a skinny seducer’.”
Preserving the language was terribly important to him. In his original vision of Bnai Or as a Jewish monastic community, published as early as 1959, he saw one of its main tasks as preserving and renewing ancient versions of the liturgy and devotional praxis – darkhey ha-‘avodah – that had been lost due to the Holocaust and the dislocations of ancient communities. How much energy he devoted over the years to helping his students do what he named “breaking the sefer barrier,” being able pick up and read traditional sources, especially Hasidic teachings, in the original. While he taught us, more than anyone else, how to daven comfortably in English, indeed how to reshape English to make it a language of Jewish devotion, he knew well that ultimately Judaism doesn’t work in translation. If you wanted to “go native” in the tradition, following his example, you would have to do it in Hebrew – and with at least a little Yiddish as well.
That combination of helping us to become insiders to the tradition and at the same time working to update that tradition by at least two or three centuries, and achieving the proper balance between those, lies at the very core of Zalman’s legacy to us, his students. Zalman loved the Judaism he had inherited, both from his family and from the years in HaBaD, but he was not nostalgic, and he certainly didn’t want to recreate the past. “Even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” he liked to quote. Neither the shtetl nor the transplanted shtetl of the contemporary haredi world was his ideal; he fully understood that you do not build the future by going backwards. Unlike his onetime Lubavitch missionary buddy Shlomo, he could not send his favorite students off to an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva to immerse themselves in the “real” Judaism. He had to create a new setting for Jewish learning as well as for Jewish prayer, and that is what he did.
Yes, he wanted to empower us. The decision to start giving semichah, ordaining, taken in the 1970’s in the context of a dream he and I had shared with a few others, was a very important and bold move. He saw people with great spiritual insight and open hearts, loving Yiddishkeyt and wanting to know more. He knew how badly the Jewish people needed leaders and teachers like that, and how little existing programs were doing to cultivate them. So he went ahead and made rabbis, cantors, maggidim, and more, including many of you present and listening today. God bless all of you who merited to bask in his love and to give to new generations of Jews something of what you learned from being in his presence. Special blessings to Reb Marcia, who has taken that vision forward and shaped it into a full course of learning, guiding it with the same loving hand into which she received it from Reb Zalman.
I described him earlier as one “who walked before the camp.” He was always at least two and a half steps ahead of the rest of us, while we ran breathless beside him, trying to catch up. This was true first in the world of technology, computers, communication devices, where he chided me more than once for certain Luddite tendencies. Zalman’s spiritual life may have been lived based upon some 18th century teachings, but his digital life was in the 22nd. But this was true in the realm of what he was reading and thinking as well. The language of psychedelics and new-age consciousness in the sixties, humanistic psychology in the seventies, Marshall McLuhan in the eighties, Ken Wilbur and Integral Studies in the 90’s, environmentalism and Gayan language in the new century, more recently the latest studies in brain physiology and the relationship between brain, mind, and consciousness, which, for me at least, he was anxious translate back into our shared language of sekhel, maskil, and muskal. When was there ever a conversation with Zalman from which you did not come away learning something new, sometimes even with an exhilarating headache from thinking so hard, plus a reading list you knew you would probably never get around to?
He insisted on the wedding of his very rich and tradition-based Judaism with all this futuristic thinking. Of course you might say he had this in common with his fellow HaBaDniks, always so up on the latest devices and means of communication. But for him it was entirely different. They want to convey the old Torah by the fastest and most far-reaching tools, carrying their old u-faratsta message to more and more people. Perhaps the most open among them will opt for new metaphors in which to couch the old teachings. Zalman understood that the new media would shape a transformed message, one reshaped by the paradigm shift that became a household word among all those who heard him and took him seriously. This would mean a new Judaism for the emerging new age – the Age of Aquarius, the Third Era of Jewish history, the fourth turning of Hasidism – all depending on which year you happened to tune in. The point was to be bold, innovative, daring, creative – and yet never to lose that sense of authenticity, those two feet so deeply rooted in the tradition and its sources. He could do that, and doing that was precisely who he was. For those around him – less genius, less rooted – the challenge was a daunting one. He knew that and bemoaned it. All he could do in response was to give yet more: another teaching, another translation, another book. Thank God he found R Netanel and others who helped him get so much out – but it was never enough to close that gap between him and those who sought to dwell in his shadow.
Zalman understood and taught that Hasidism was primarily a devotional mysticism, and he made sure that neo-Hasidism was that as well.. Its focus, and his, was all on worship. Abstract truths, theological formulations, were all well and good. But then Zalman would ask: “But can you daven it?” By this he meant two things. First: Do you really mean it? Are you saying it with your whole heart? But beyond that: Does it have a devotional quality to it? Can you say it in a worshipful way? Can you serve God with it? Zalman, like Heschel and few others (I am so incredibly blessed to have had them both as teachers!), understood that Judaism is all about the devotional life. We are here to serve, and a teaching takes on real meaning only if it inspires you to that service.
Zalman was the best ba’al tefillah any of us had ever heard. He taught others how to lead worship beautifully, how to put heart and soul into the words and to bring a community along into that open-heartedness. But he was a “master of prayer” in a deeper sense as well. Inward prayer was the center of his Jewish life. He observed and was concerned with mitzvot, ritual forms, and offered some creativity there. He was committed to all kinds of good social justice issues and tried to be helpful in various ways. But if you ask where the bulk of his efforts went, where the creativity was in highest gear, it was always around prayer. Davenology was a word that could only have come from Zalman. Just the notion that inward prayer was a skill to be learned and cultivated was news to most Jews. The techniques and aids he offered for opening the heart, ranging from “The First Step,” really the beginning of new interest in Jewish Meditation, way back in the early 1960’s, to the countless new translations, melodies, and original texts of prayer – these were where Zalman’s soul lay and where he gave us more than anything else.
It was not an easy message to bear – that prayer and devotion are what being a Jew is all about – and it will not be an easy message for us, his students, to carry forward. Most American Jews see themselves as quite secular. Except in rare moments of private and collective trauma – including some in the course of this awful summer – they are not much interested in praying. But Zalman did not buy that. He saw the Jews around him as brimming with a quest for knowledge, but also with a desire to go deeper, to open their hearts. He was there to help them do it, using every technique and trick his eternally creative mind could bring forth to do so. He pictured Jews of this generation as so imbued with quest because they were also imbued with extra souls, the souls of all those Jews who had gone up in smoke in the previous generation. He would find a way to them. He would not see those souls turned away.
I disagree with those who say that Zalman was a political person. I don’t think he had much of a sense for or commitment to political processor the notion of a state. Zalman was a Holocaust survivor, imbued by that experience with a tremendous sense of decency, of right and wrong. He could not abide injustice, certainly not within his realm. He understood that the exclusion of women from Jewish life and leadership was wrong and hurtful, both to women and to Judaism. So too the exclusion of sexual and other minorities. He cared deeply about acting in a just and humane way, because he had a great heart and because he bore painful memories of injustice and exclusion. But when the issue came to be one of the future of our world – our species, our planet – this very unpolitical person, because he was a great futurist, let himself be led by his students, especially by his great student and then partner Arthur Waskow, to setting his creative mind toward seeking solutions. Zalman loved the challenge of solving problems – even, perhaps especially, those whose full solution lies beyond us.
Zalman’s work is not completed. The Judaism of profundity and joy that he sought to articulate and share is still news to most Jews. The rescue of Hasidic wisdom and the beauty of its truth from the straits of exclusivism and narrowmindedness, making it available to seekers Jewish and non-Jewish, here and around the world, has only just begun. A Jewish people that can thrive and attract new members in the context of an open society because it has vitality, inner strength, and important things to say to our world, especially in this age of environmental crisis – all these are seeds that Zalman planted within us, that we now have to nourish and grow.
What lesson did I learn from Zalman in the most specific, concrete sense? Once some decades ago, I have no idea where, the two of us were in a kitchen together. Almost out of nowhere, Zalman said to me with a full measure of seriousness: “When you slice onions to make gefilte fish, you slice them vertically; when they are for anything else, you slice them horizontally.” Or maybe it was the other way around; I no longer remember. He must have been quoting his mother, or maybe somebody else’s kitchen wisdom from back in Vienna. Did I take him seriously? But of course! Mr. Jewish authenticity himself – he must have heard it somewhere! At least Crown Heights, if not Vienna! No matter how you slice it, many tears rise up from the slicing of that onion. May they join with the tears that flow from the loss of my master, my teacher, my friend, and join together with all of yours to come before the Throne of Glory. That Throne of Glory sits in a palace that Zalman, following the Ba’al Shem Tov, told us with a wink was all an optical illusion, a fantastic web spun forth by the eternal One to give us an object for our devotions. Nevertheless, he longed to see it. And also to touch it, to smell it, to taste it, to hear the angels singing all about it. God be with your spirit, my dear friend. Your spirit be with God!
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