Faces of Renewal: Rabbi David Zaslow

teya-picAn interview with Rabbi David Zaslow

How long have you been part of Jewish Renewal?

Since 1988 when Rabbi Ari Hirschfield z”l and Reb Zalman zt”l accepted me in their private smicha program. I was ordained by them in 1995 under the further direction of Rabbi Marcia Prager and Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin.

What original contributions have you made to Jewish Renewal?

In poetry we speak about poets who make a breakthrough, and those who interiorize, or help advance the breakthrough. I haven’t made any original contributions to Renewal, but I’m honored to have done the work of interiorization. I’ve taken the infrastructure of Reb Zalman’s theology and developed it in terms of Jewish/Christian relations, as well as an understanding of Hebraic thinking through etymological word studies.

What do you mean by etymology?

Every word in every language has a root that is a metaphor. When we study etymology we’re looking at the archaeology of language. We can learn a lot about how our ancestors were thinking by studying the way they coined and understood words. For instance the Hebrew word “olam” means “world” as when we describe G-d as melech haOlam, “Ruler of the world.” But we use that same word when we say l’olam va-ed meaning “forever and ever.” So it seems that time and space were intimately linked to our ancestors. Time represented by “forever,” and space represented by “world” or “universe.” Our ancestors might have had an understanding of what Einstein called the time space continuum thousands of years ago.

Can you unpack the concept of Hebraic thinking?

The notion that there is no distinction between the animate and the inanimate realms can be seen in Psalm 148 where the Psalmist is addresses elements in nature in the way that all indigenous people do – not as if they were alive, but experiencing them as actually alive. Also, today we make a distinction between the living and the dead. Our ancestors made no such clear distinction. The ancestors, though not here physically, are spiritually alive and accessible to us. These are a few examples of Hebraic thinking

You’re author of Jesus: First-Century Rabbi. Tell us more about your work with Christians?

We use the term JuBu, HinJu, or SuJu with a sense that we can hyphenate ourselves with the Buddhists, Sufis, or Hindus. Yet, with Christians we would never do that. We recognize that groups like Jews for Jesus are nothing more than missionary groups. Yet beneath the surface of the distinctions between Christianity and Judaism there is an inherent unity. Our stories are uniquely different and yet parallel. When we remove our fear of missionary encroachment we find great synchronicity with the theology of our Christian friends. Reb Zalman’s dialogues with Thomas Merton are extraordinary. Reb Zalman was not afraid to speak using Christological language, and Merton responded in kind with language about Judaism that had never been said before by a Christian theologian. Reb Zalman is to say “it’s a difference of approach.” If we approach Christians and Muslims with respect, looking for commonality, that’s what we’ll find. That’s the kavannah (intention) behind my interfaith work.


This interview is part of Faces of Renewal, an ongoing series of profiles of people who are renewing Judaism in our day.