Reb Zalman, the Prophet of Both-And

Renewal Founder Nurtured Jewish Tradition and Revival


By Jay Michaelson

Published July 03, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I last spent time with Reb Zalman a month ago, during Shavuot at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center. He looked and felt like all of his 89 years — and he told us as much. As in “The December Project,” his collaboration with Sara Davidson on the late years of life, Reb Zalman was entirely clear-eyed about nearing the end of his life.

It was hard to hear, but also strangely comforting. Here was a teacher dying the way he had lived: with intentionality, honesty and lessons for us all.

Let’s not turn eulogy into hagiography. Reb Zalman’s was a messy life, full of blessings and challenges, love and heartbreak. But it was also such a full life, with such an impact on so many people, that even in these early hours, as the magnitude of the rabbi’s passing has yet to fully set in, the grief I feel is intermixed with gratitude. This was truly a life well lived.

Others in these pages have already surveyed some of Reb Zalman’s fascinating biography and remarkable accomplishments: the teenager’s turn to Hasidism, the war years, the relationship with and later separation from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and, most importantly, the five decades of innovation in the Jewish Renewal movement. I will leave the analysis to them, and to history.

My contribution to his memory is personal. When I first met Reb Zalman, I was a repressed, closeted Orthodox-practicing law student at Yale. I lived just a few doors from the Hillel, and after debating back and forth, decided to go hear what he had to say. Little did I know that he’d be splitting us into pairs and “inviting” us to say the Shema while staring into one another’s eyes, replacing our partner’s name for “Israel.”

Needless to say, it would be awhile before we met next.

When we did, in 2002, Reb Zalman had already had a powerful influence on my life, often without my knowing it. The Judaism I came to practice was, in large part, the Judaism he helped create: participatory and progressive, yet still committed to the powerful spirituality of traditional Jewish communities. Although Jewish Renewal is often stereotyped as “New Age,” it actually is quite uncompromising, refusing to sacrifice either progressive politics (in the broadest sense of the word) or the spiritual power of Hasidism and Kabbalah. Practice both-and, it insists.

As I gradually drifted away from Orthodox practice, it was Renewal that offered an alternative. I had been raised Conservative, but found little “deep” spiritual practice in my home movement — especially in the first decade of the millennium. Reform never appealed to me personally. Only Renewal and Reconstructionism, the two intertwined mini-movements of American Jewish innovation, offered a replacement for immersive Orthodoxy. Meditation; creative ritual; thick pluralism; sex-positivity; personal introspection and transformation; a community of seekers. The expressions of Judaism which Reb Zalman pioneered enabled me to envision a Jewish life outside of halachic practice, and provided contexts for healing I hadn’t even known I needed.

So by the time we met (again), it was Reb Zalman who had created the conditions for us to do so. And for the next twelve years, I was honored to call him my teacher, and a kind of spiritual friend. Reb Zalman would Skype out of the blue to ask about Frankism (my dissertation topic) or to pitch a project to Zeek (the magazine I co-founded). And this past year, he affirmed my rabbinic ordination (also via Skype). One of my first acts as a new rabbi was to assist at the Shavuot retreat where he gave some of his last teachings.

My story is particular, but hardly unique. Hundreds of teachers, rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders likewise found in Reb Zalman’s “translation” of traditional Judaism into contemporary life a way to savor the blessings of Jewish life and practice, while consciously confronting those aspects of Jewish tradition which needed to be renewed — or discarded outright.

Renewal is hardly the only way, of course. But it is a unique way, and uniquely suited to those in search of personal growth, spirituality, and a taste from the orchard of Jewish mystical traditions.

And like Reconstructionism before it — which has now thoroughly pervaded non-Orthodox Jewish theology — the impact of Renewal is far greater than the movement’s numbers. Reb Zalman once called Renewal Jews the “advance scouts” for the wider Jewish community. Some experiments succeed, and others fail. But one of the core principles of Reb Zalman’s neo-Hasidism — that ritual and spiritual practice is meant to be a mode of self-exploration and self-transformation — has permeated Jewish life.

This is deeper than whether a shul has a meditation minyan or not. It is about what questions we ask of our Jewish lives. For those of us who turn to Jewish text, tradition, or practice to inform our lives, what do we go looking for?

Since this is a reflection at the time of my teacher’s death, the coincidence of that timing is also inescapable; Reb Zalman’s passing comes in the wake of brutal violence suffered by, and inflicted by, our brothers and sisters in Israel. Reb Zalman didn’t speak often about Israel/Palestine, and maintained relationships with settlers and peaceniks alike.

But to a great extent, the Judaism he proposed was an alternative to both camps. Settler-Judaism maintains the fierce energy of Jewish commitment, but without progressive politics; progressives often live up to Jewish prophetic ideals but sometimes at the expense of spiritual sustenance. Both-and, Reb Zalman insisted, translated, protested, innovated; both-and. His memory is already a blessing.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.