|Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi|
This post is not so much a eulogy as a personal memoir of my experiences with Reb Zalman and how he impacted my life and work. Although I eventually drifted away from the movement he founded, I never forgot all that I learned from him.
The first connection
I first wrote to Reb Zalman in 1976, and finally met him at the University of Minnesota Hillel in 1980. Back then, he was still "Zalman Schachter" and not yet "Schachter-Shalomi." His organization at that time was called "B'nai Or" -- "Disciples of Light" -- and he was the B'nai Or Rebbe. That was how I related to him -- as a Hasid coming to a spiritual master. Which indeed he was. In that first meeting, he asked me to take a walk around the block with him and then asked, "Who are you?" I began the usual intro bio stuff and he stopped me and said, "Who are you? Inside!" Then he read my soul in a way that nobody has done before or since. He also knew that my wife Caryl and I would marry -- even though we had not yet announced our engagement. (We were married July of that same year.)
The name "B'nai Or" originally came from the Dead Sea Scrolls (thought by many to be Essene writings), where the Children of Light battle the Children of Darkness in the Last Days. Those Scrolls were discovered in 1948, right after World War II, when the Nazis had destroyed the Jews of Europe and Hasidic culture was in danger of being lost forever. Reb Zalman was deeply touched by the story of the Essenes retreating to the wilderness at Qumran to preserve their writings and teachings. He felt that something similar was needed to preserve the teachings and contemplative techniques of Hasidism as it had been before the Holocaust. He originally envisioned B'nai Or as a semi-monastic Jewish community, a sort of ashram, which he described in a paper called Toward an Order of B'nai Or. It was an idea that I eagerly embraced.
In 1982, Caryl and I moved to his center in Philadelphia with the intention of becoming part it. For almost a year we lived in the old B'nai Or House on Emlen street, where we had daily contact with Reb Zalman (his family lived upstairs) and I sometimes got to travel with him. it was during this time that I presented my first workshop on "Jewish Tribal Consciousness" (discussing parallels with Native American culture) and wrote the first version of my book 49 Gates of Light while walking daily in nearby Fairmount Park. At the annual B'nai Or retreat at Fellowship House Farm, I presented my model for integrating the chakras with the sephirot on the Kabbalah Tree of Life, upon which 49 Gates of Light is based.
It was also in Philly that I started hearing that Judaism had reincarnation teachings, which set me on the road to eventually writing Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust, the book for which I am best known. In all of this, Reb Zalman was always very supportive. I was only at B'nai Or House for a year, but it was a year that impacted the rest of my life. Without his encouragement, my books might never have been written.
What it was like in the old days
The old B'nai Or was much more orthodox than the Jewish Renewal movement of today. It was closer to what is now called Traditional Judaism (or Conservadox) except that it had a more mystical bent to it. It has also been called neo-Hasidic and I think the term fits well, although I cringe at the sound of neo-anything. But Reb Zalman did manage to be a bridge between the Hasidic philosophy and practice of the Old World and the post-Holocaust Judaism of today. Hasidim before the Holocaust --even in Chabad, where Reb Zalman was ordained -- was much more contemplative than it is now.
The semi-monastic community that Reb Zalman envisioned never materialized, but his teachings did spread through workshops and "spiritual labs" where we would explore our inner feelings about God and Torah. At the time I was in Philly, B'nai Or was not so much a movement or a denomination as a spiritual path in terms of daily discipline. Nor was it so political as Jewish Renewal of today. Jews of all backgrounds came, experienced, and then took that energy back home to their own communities. "Bring it all home to davening (Jewish worship), Reb Zalman would say. "Bring it all home to davening."
There were a lot of experiential exercises that we tried during the week in his "spiritual labs," then we brought the insight and energy of that experience into the traditional liturgy. Reb Zalman also taught a method of chanting the prayers in English, but using the traditional tunes and cadences, in order to make the davening more accessible to people who did not know Hebrew. All of this was very helpful in opening up the texts to a living tradition. I have continued to use some of these techniques in my own classes and workshops.
If I had only known back then that I'm autistic...
But somewhere along the line, in the transition from "B'nai Or" to "Jewish Renewal," the lab experiments became the davening itself, which was just too strange for me. For example, Reb Zalman began to teach a technique where two people recited the Shema while staring deeply into each others' eyes. This I could not do -- and I know now it is because I am autistic. (I have Asperger's, which was undiagnosed at the time.) Eye contact in general is difficult for autistic people, and staring into somebody' eyes is extremely uncomfortable. Doing that makes me feel like we are two roosters squaring off for a fight -- exactly the opposite of the "trust" it was supposed to build. For similar reasons, I could never really "get into" some of the other exercises where we davened in "twosies" and "threesies." The more we moved into this sort of partnered davening, the more I retreated into myself.
This was not about "refusing to be open" as some people misinterpreted my reluctance to participate. It was about the fact that my brain functions very differently from "normal" people. What is inspiring to others is not always that for me. Had I known about my autism back then, I might have approached things very differently. And others, in turn, might have had a better understanding of my lack of social skills and quirky personality traits. But as it was, I became increasingly alienated from the people and the movement, although never from Reb Zalman himself. He always accepted me for who I was.
From "B'nai Or" to "P'nai Or" to "Jewish Renewal"
In 1983, Caryl and I returned to Minneapolis. When I went back to Pennsylvania in 1985 to attend the first national Kallah gathering in Radnor, PA, much had changed. Political correctness had arrived, and the feminists objected to the word "B'nai" because it literally means "sons." So "B'nai Or" became "P'nai Or" ("Faces of Light"). Current biographies describe Reb Zalman as having "founded P'nai Or in 1962" but that is revisionism. B'NAI Or was founded in '62. The name change did not take place until 1985. I was there when it happened.
"B'nai" does literally mean "sons" but it also means "disciples," and I have always felt that this was more than just a name change. Over the years, the energy has shifted away from a focus on discipleship toward one of humanism. Eventually the B'nai-P'nai name was dropped entirely, and the organization became "The Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal" as it is called today.
I go my own way -- but never forget what I learned
The 1985 Kallah was the last event even billed as "B'nai Or," and the last I ever attended. I was ordained by Reb Zalman in 1986, and for a while I remained connected to his work. But as things became less and less comfortable for me, I went my own way, eventually to become a Breslov Hasid. This was something Reb Zalman had apparently foreseen, because in 1983 he referred to me as "a master of prayer in the way of of Nachman of Breslov." When I asked him what he meant by that, he said he saw me as someone davening alone in the forest, like the "Master of Prayer" in the Breslov story. (Rebbe Nachman taught his followers to go alone to a field or forest and pour out their hearts to God.) Which, now that my wife and I live in rural Minnesota, is exactly what I have become. Not a congregational rabbi, but a reclusive "Jewish Thoreau" who writes about Judaism and nature.
What I still carry with me
Although I broke with Jewish Renewal as a movement, Reb Zalman and I remained in touch behind the scenes. I always sent him my latest books, and he was always supportive. I, in turn, supported his work, sometimes giving feedback on current projects. I remember especially a conversation we had back in 1982 about how, in tribal cultures, people don't try to remain eternally young. In Native American tribes, people accept the stages of life and transition into being elders. Grey hairs become a mark of wisdom and honor, not something to hide in shame. I do not know if this conversation eventually influenced his workshops on "eldering," but I do know we both shared a lot as we aged. Reb Zalman was always open to new ideas and truly followed the line in Pirkei Avot: "Who is wise? He who learns from all people."
|Reb Zalman's Rainbow|
Tallis design and how it
corresponds to the sefirot on
the Tree of Life diagram
Many people do not realize that he was the first Jew in modern times to make a tallis in colors other than black or blue and white. At the time it was so radical, he was unable to find a tallis weaver willing to make them, and had to go to a non-Jewish vestment company instead. He never copyrighted his design, so now everyone is making them, but he did it first back in the 1950s. Today the idea of a multi-colored tallis has entered popular culture and is taken for granted. So much so, that someone once walked up to the aging Reb Zalman and asked, "Where did you get your rainbow tallis? Yours is exactly like mine!"