Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In Memory of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi -- once the B'nai Or Rebbe, always a radical teacher

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, often hailed as "the father of the Jewish Renewal Movement," passed from this earth on July 3, 2014 (5th of Tammuz 5774).  He was radical, controversial, and sometimes a little bit crazy -- but undeniably a brilliant genius who made a tremendous impact on all branches of Judaism.

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.  Hasidism 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
And many, many people have learned from him, even if they do not realize it.  When I brought my 49 Gates of Light book back into print for its 4th edition, I included the story of the B'nai Or rainbow tallis (prayer shawl) so that story would not be lost.  After all, the book itself is based on his design and how it integrates with the sefirot (see diagram).  Back in 1982 he had explained this to me in an interview, which I then wrote up and published in the old B'nai Or Newsletter.  Newsletters get lost, however, and I wanted the story to be told to a wider audience.

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!"

I could go on forever, but this essay is already getting too long.  Reb Zalman was way ahead of his time, and always a loving, caring, compassionate teacher.  He impacted my life forever, and I will deeply miss him.

*  *  *

Portions of this post were adapted from my longer essay, "What B'nai Or Was Like in the Old Days," included in the fourth edition of 49 Gates of light: A Course in Kabbalah.

For more on the life and teachings of Reb Zalman, see: 

On the Death Of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Personal memoir.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Father of Jewish Renewal, Dies at 89 -- Huffington Post.  Excellent biographical review of his life and career.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi brought Old World Gravitas to New Age Judaism by Ben Harris


Jeff Eyges said...

Thank you for writing this, Rabbi. I knew of your history with Reb Zalman and the B'nai Or movement, but I didn't know the details (I guess I didn't read that chapter in "49 Gates of Light"). I did just now go back and read it, along with the chapter on the Rainbow Tallit (which I had previously read).

I've been reading and rereading a bit about Reb Zalman recently. I'm rereading Kamenetz's Jew in the Lotus and Stalking Elijah, and I've started Jewish with Feeling (which I purchased two or three years ago but hadn't read) and The December Project, the book written by the woman who had weekly meetings with him in which they dealt largely with the matter of death.

I deeply regret that I didn't get to meet Reb Zalman. A friend who is a Modern Orthodox rabbi here in Boston (and a scholar of Hasidism), who was an old friend of his, talked for years about going to see him again one last time, and was supposed to take me with him. This went on for years, to a point at which I began to tell him, "Go, with or without me. You'll put it off until it's too late, then you'll be sorry." Unfortunately, he never went (and is now, of course, sorry). Now it's too late for both of us. I'm really rather put out with him about it.

Reb Zalman did teach one last time at Isabella Freedman this past Shavuot, after not having been there for several years. The rabbi and his wife were in Israel, but she urged me to go for them as well as for myself. I didn't, because Isabella Freedman isn't cheap and I have a number of expenses coming up, but I'm sorry now (I also found out the other day that Jay Michaelson, another teacher of Kabbalah, was recently ordained by Reb Zalman and was there assisting him, and I'm sorry to have missed him as well).

I told the rebbetzen about the Shabbaton being planned for August in Boulder for R. Zalman's 90th birthday, and I figured they'd go to that and I'd probably go with them, but unfortunately it isn't to be (beshert, I guess you'd say).

I've met a number of important lamas in the Tibetan tradition, including the Dalai Lama, but I missed all of the important seminal figures in Jewish Renewal and postmodern Judaism in general (well, I did recently meet Arthur Waskow, briefly). I think Reb Zalman was the last one who might have been able to help me to connect to Judaism at any level other than that of social justice (not that I minimize that level). There's no one left, now (which speaks to me about the veracity of the belief system, but I don't want to give you a hard time about that).

His memory will certainly be for a blessing.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Never say never -- it cannot be that there is "no one" left who could help you connect, God does not close the door like that. But whoever it is probably won't be some national workshop leader. More likely a relatively obscure person somewhere who is focusing on their own inner growth and not national publicity. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will be there. Perhaps the reading you are doing now is preparation to find whomever that will be.

Speaking of reading, I also recommend Reb Zalman's "Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidim" which has a lot of his earlier material. (It is basically a re-write of his doctoral thesis in a more readable form.) Also Elie Wiesel's "Souls on Fire" if you have not already read it. And, of course, the writings of Heschel, who had a very strong influence on Reb Zalman's life (they knew each other.)

I was lucky to be able to study with Reb Zalman back before it became a national movement, when he was still in master-disciple mode and the retreats were held on university campuses for free for participants. The Shavuot retreat I referred to was held at a place called Fellowship Farm in PA, where you could just pitch a tent. Later on, Reb Zalman priced himself out of my range, as far as attending events went.

Ditto for teaching workshops. I knew I was out of the loop when being invited to teach by Reb Zalman was not enough anymore; I was required to submit a written proposal & lesson plans (which were rejected by his underlings.) Unfortunately this is what happens as grassroots movements become institutionalized. (sigh)

Jeff Eyges said...

There’s a great deal to unpack here, and I don’t want to take up a lot of your time.

I don’t remember what I’ve told you (I don’t think it’s been much), but I’m not just beginning the “spiritual journey”; I’ve finished it. I spent decades on it and came up empty-handed. All religions promise you a payoff at the end of the search. The Christians express it as “Seek and ye shall find”, but they all say it in one form or another. It may be the greatest lie ever told.

In any case, I now define myself as an atheist. I’m convinced belief in a personal, benevolent, involved creator is insupportable. If there is a personal being overarching all of this, it’s a psychopath and is undeserving of our devotion.

There may be an impersonal absolute – Brahman, Eyn Sof, the Tao – but my response to it is one of indifference: “So?” What can it do for us? It can’t mitigate our suffering and I don’t appear to be hardwired to have any sort of access to it, so it’s nothing upon which I can lean to get me through the nightmare that is life. All it has left to place upon the table is postmortem continuity, and I haven’t the slightest interest in that. I don’t particularly want to be here now.

Now, if I’m wrong (and I don’t think I am), Reb Zalman was a rare enough phenomenon that he might have been able to help me to find a way in, but he’s gone now. As I said, I missed all of them – Zalman, Shlomo, David Zeller et. al. (I literally missed David Zeller by one day, but that’s another story.) For numerous reasons having little-to-nothing to do with my ego, a rank-and-file guy isn’t going to be able to cut it.

Regarding “God” not closing the door – you and I have had very different lives. I’ve had 57 years of nothing but closed doors. There is simply no way to explain my history in terms of a personal creator who wants all Jews to approach it through the vehicle of Judaism, particularly Orthodoxy. Frankly, it would be impossible to explain me in terms of anyone’s belief system, but as I say, I don’t come here to give you a hard time.

As far as this is concerned: when the student is ready, the teacher will be there - yeah, I know. I was ready decades ago. S/he never showed up. The problem is that it doesn’t always work that way, and when it doesn’t, people of faith simply don’t want to hear about it.

I should also tell you that I dislike Heschel. I don’t merely disagree with his theology; I don’t much care for him personally. I find him smug and condescending toward nonbelievers, and he said things about them that were untrue and frankly ignorant. He was bright enough to know better. Now, if you dislike Heschel, that’s a pretty good sign there isn’t much, if anything, for you in Judaism.

I knew I was out of the loop when being invited to teach by Reb Zalman was not enough; I was required to submit a written proposal & lesson plans (which were rejected by his underlings.)

Yep. It always ends up like that. A teacher may have brilliant insights, even a direct pipeline to “higher reality”, but they always end up surrounding themselves with bureaucrats who latch on to them and guard them jealously as though they were their own private possessions. Teachers aren’t very discerning in that arena.

Religion is just a bad business.

Matti Epstein said...

Hi Yonassan, Matti and Meirah Epstein here in Lexington, Mass. I remember well when you and Caryl went to Reb Zalman in Philly in 1982 when I was living in Northfield. When you returned to Minn, I was so uplifted when you brought back Torah teachings from B'Nai Or, all the way from the East Coast(!) in the manner of an 18th Century Hasid who took a journey to his Rebbe in some far away town in Poland or Ukraine and then came back to his home shtetl with the latest Torah and stories.

It was very inspirational to me to hear you tell those stories, and made me feel, however many degrees of separation removed, a part of the living tradition myself.

I also remember you starting to feel a bit ambivalent about the politicization of the B'Nai Or movement and the gradual falling away from halakha. Meirah and I went to a Rosh Hashanah retreat with Reb Zalman a few years later in 1986 in Northern California where we started to feel some of that ambivalence intuitively ourselves. But hearing his parables and stories, observing the way he would daaven with such kavannah, and most memorably singing Avinu Malkeinu with such soul, sticks with me as a positive memory, a brachah, despite some of the qualms I had at the time.

Take care Yonassan, please stay in touch, as we haven't heard from you in many years, and every email I ever sent to you always bounced.


Yonassan Gershom said...

cipher: I don't practice religion looking for payoff at the end. The journey itself is the payoff.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Matti & Meira: Good to hear from you again. You probably have my old pinenet email address which is defunct. I am reluctant to post my current one here, but if you message me through my Facebook fan page I'll give it to you to you. But be aware I'm not online much --we are still on rural dialup which is VERY slow nowadays.

Yonassan Gershom said...

cipher: Having given this all some thought, I'll add that my life has been no bed of roses, either. You will note that I write little, if anything, about my family or my childhood -- and there is a reason for that. I do not wish to go into detail but let me just say that dysfunctional does not begin to describe it. There was a lot of abuse and misunderstanding plus my autism was undiagnosed so I was bullied in school -- the upshot is, I have very little memory of my childhood -- it does not become anything more than a bunch of disjointed fragments until around 5th grade. The only grade school teacher whose name I remember is the one who locked me out in the hall for having a meltdown -- if that tells you anything. The rest is all a blur.

For me, the only thing that DOES keep me going is a belief in God. If I had to believe I was nothing but a bunch of DNA and that life is nothing but biochemistry, I would have given up long ago. But I have had enough experiences that tell me otherwise. I rely a lot of the verse in Psalms that "Though my father and mother forsake me, God will hold me close." (Psalm 27:10)

And BTW, just because a teacher is not well-known does not mean he/she is "ordinary." Some of my best experiences have been with people who never went on the New Age circuit. Including the man who showed me how the chakras integrate with the Tree of Life (that story is also in the back of the 49 Gates book.) I only saw him once and never even knew his name.

Jeff Eyges said...

Including the man who showed me how the chakras integrate with the Tree of Life (that story is also in the back of the 49 Gates book.) I only saw him once and never even knew his name.

Yes, I read about that the other day. It's difficult to know what to make of it. Did it actually happen? Were you in an altered state of consciousness? I wouldn't presume to offer an opinion; I can only say that I've never had an experience of that nature. (BTW, why didn't you ask him his name?)

I appreciate your telling me about your background. Childhood abuse is horrendous; I experienced it myself. However, as I said, we've had different lives. When you went looking as an adult, you found your teacher. You were given the direction you needed. The signposts were there. I had none of that. What I did have were people on the sidelines offering the same tired rationalizations designed to protect their faith: "You didn't try hard enough, you didn't give it long enough, you didn't really want to find... " (not that I'm accusing you of saying any of those things). It always ended up being my fault.

I can understand that belief in God keeps you going. I wouldn't want to take that away from you. And I appreciate the fact that you're inclusive; you aren't a fundamentalist. I meant what I've told you about your work with Dr. Schwartz. I can't agree with you theologically, but within the framework of your belief system, I approve of what you're doing.

I also appreciate the fact that you continued to think about this after your initial response and came back to share your thoughts. It was kind of you.

In any case, I gave it as many years as I could. Perhaps there's someone out there, but I can't continue to search for him or her, and I can't continue to wait. It's genug. The teacher doesn't always show up when the student is ready, and I have no way to reconcile this with the notion of a benevolent, personal, involved creator - especially one who wants all Jews to approach him through the vehicle of Judaism. Even now, occasionally, I make an attempt to connect with someone - but it never bears any fruit.

I think all I can say is that there comes a point at which one is entitled to give up. Now, if there is a benevolent, personal, involved creator - he knows where to find me.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Regarding why I didn't ask his name, this was not a "howdy do, my name is" hand-shaking event. I rarely meet people with such introductions anyway, since I am terrible with names and faces until I have some sort of context to remember them by. It's an autism thing. There are people around town I've seen for years but still don't know their names. So this really wasn't so odd for me.

Jeff Eyges said...

Got it.

Unknown said...

Dear Reb Yonassan,

Thank you for the beautiful portrait of your experiences with our rebbe, Reb Zalman ז״ל. I met him in 1992 and then had the zechus to live by him in Boulder during most of the last 18 years of his life. I served at various times as his gabbai-shammes, shlepper and talmid. A few months before he died, he empowered me as a maggid. I too struggled with the renewal as a denomination thing, as I gravitate toward the "open orthodox" camp (also with hassidishe leanings). I love the work you're doing there in the Minnesota woods (I've been transitioning back to vegetarian diet after 24 years off that derech!).

I hope our paths cross at some point!

שבת שלום וברכה