An Awakened Soul

The Lives and Lessons of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

By Jay Michaelson

Published May 13, 2005, issue of May 13, 2005.

Is spiritual development really as important as intellectual development? Today, one often finds in Jewish culture a mutual suspicion between those who value intellectual education (and its likely material consequences) and the “spiritual” types who like to chant, meditate and “explore their feelings.” On the one side, many well-schooled Jewish adults regard today’s would-be mystics with contempt, seeing them as little more than deluded hippies. On the other side, many spiritual seekers see bourgeois Judaism, in both its secular and religious forms, as a calcified shell, devoid of inner life.

Owing to the mutual suspicion between “spiritual seekers” and, well, everyone else, much of the literature in the spirituality genre has a tendency to preach to the converted, with unexplained assumptions and muddy thinking that leave the rest of us more skeptical than ever.

A refreshing exception is “Jewish With Feeling,” the latest book by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

Born in Poland in 1924, Schachter-Shalomi is probably most associated with the mystically infused, psychologically attuned movement called “Jewish Renewal.” But his spiritual wandering has taken him on a far wider path, from an Orthodox European upbringing to the world of Lubavitch Hasidism and the life of a religious emissary — and then on the much wider, yet perhaps more familiar, arc of a countercultural religious figure: “mind expansion” in the 1960s, the New Age in the ’70s and ’80s, places like Dharamsala and the Naropa Institute (where, until recently, he held the Chair in World Wisdom) in the last two decades.

“Throughout my life I have revised and readjusted my beliefs,” the rabbi writes in his new book, adding, “just as I grew into the world of Lubavitch, I moved beyond it. I wanted to learn from the spiritually experienced of other faiths: Sufi sheiks, Buddhist monks, Christian contemplatives, American savants. I received something from all of them.”

Today, Schachter-Shalomi has his devoted followers — who call him Reb Zalman and regard him as their rebbe — as well as his detractors, who regard him as an eccentric, a rabble-rouser or worse. He still teaches occasionally, often (as this coming Shavuot) at Elat Chayyim, the upstate New York spiritual retreat center he inspired — but not as widely or as frequently as in his younger years. And now there is the Reb Zalman Legacy Project, an initiative of the Yesod Foundation, which aims to preserve for future generations the teachings of this master of contradictions.

The seeming contradictions are many. Schachter-Shalomi, a former college professor and academic, is an amateur anthropologist of all things spiritual who looks every bit the “neo-Hasidic” rebbe. He is known for his unorthodox approaches to Jewish life, yet he speaks English with unmistakable Yiddish inflection. He has written 150 books and articles; chanted zikr (remembrance of God); sat at long, silent meditation retreats — and even taught environmental education at Camp Ramah.

And now he has written “Jewish With Feeling.” Without question the best, most readable introduction to Reb Zalman’s philosophy of Judaism, it is also, in this reviewer’s experience, the best “beginner’s guide to Jewish spirituality” available today. Unlike other spiritual works (including some of Schachter-Shalomi’s own), the book is clearly written and takes nothing for granted. Many “guides to Jewish practice” assume that the wheels are moving already, taking you to a predetermined endpoint: a traditional Jewish life with all the trimmings. “Jewish With Feeling,” thankfully, does not, which is why it is the perfect book for a both the spiritual seeker (“a person whose soul is awake,” in Reb Zalman’s terms) and the “curious skeptic” — or, for that matter, an inquisitive bar mitzvah boy. It meets doubters and skeptics where they are, and proceeds with intellectual credibility and rigor. And it has no preset ending, no prewritten prescription for how to solve your problems.

Schachter-Shalomi begins his book not with assumptions but with questions. “If my children asked me, ‘Abba, is there a God?’ I would say, ‘Yes, there is a God.’ But if you ask me for a categorical statement: ‘Does God exist?’ I might demur.” This seems radical –– a rabbi doubting God’s existence –– but, Zalman writes, “exists” is a property (or state of being) of nouns, of objects. God, however, is not an object. If anything, God is, for Reb Zalman, a verb — and an interactive verb, at that; less a being than a mode of being, or the way of being itself. “Too abstract?” he asks at one point. “Perhaps. The important point here is to open up new vistas of god-thought and to realize that even the objections to ‘god-language’ fall into the limitations they would have us transcend.”

“New vistas of god-thought” could be an apt summary of much of Zalman’s life project, including his latest work.

“In this book,” he writes in the introduction, “I make no assumptions about how much you know about Judaism, what holidays you keep, or whether you believe in God. I want us to put experience first, to start from your soul’s experience and carry on from there.” He argues that “theology is the after-thought of spiritual experience, not the other way around. We are not trying to construct some top-down authoritative system, but to nourish the seeds of our own personal spiritual experience. We start with wonder, or with thankfulness, or yearning, or even rage, and we ask ourselves: Wonder or rage at what? Thankfulness toward what? Yearning for what? It was simple, searching questions like these that started our ancestors thinking in terms of ‘God.’”

Naturally, putting experience first is different from a more traditional Judaism, which places emphasis on the authority of revealed text. Reb Zalman admits as much. “A mystical approach to Judaism is… less dogmatic and more experimental. It doesn’t have a low ceiling, capping the mind and frustrating its desire to unify in love and awe with a vital, living universe. It is open minded, open souled. It says, ‘Try this. If you feel it as a living reality, we’re getting somewhere.’”

There is a natural fit between this experiential model of religion and the fact that, in Schachter-Shalomi’s words, we are all today “Jews by choice,” freely able to embrace or reject different aspects of our religious and cultural traditions. Then again, if it’s all about personal experience, what’s the point in a book by an 81-year-old Lubavitch-trained, sometimes-heretical rabbi? Reb Zalman quotes the late Lubavitcher Rebbe: “The earth contains all kinds of treasures, but you have to do know where to dig. If you do not, you will come up with nothing but rocks or mud.” At the same time, “a rebbe can only show you where to dig. You must do the digging yourself.”

To be sure, Schachter-Shalomi points his readers in many directions, suggesting hundreds of different spiritual practices: ways to make the Sabbath meaningful, ways to interpret kashrut in an ecological framework, new understandings of commandment, prayer, and social justice. But he says, over and over, practice is the critical ingredient. You have to try, experiment, discard what isn’t working, investigate what is. “The leap that Judaism asks us to make is not a leap of faith, but a leap of action,” he writes, adding, “Do you hunger for spirituality? Take on some form of spiritual practice and you will begin to satisfy that hunger.”

Without a practice — without actually doing something, exploring the territory instead of reading the map — we literally have no idea what religious people are talking about. Books won’t do it. Even “hungering for spirituality” is a meaningless term if you don’t know what spirituality is — and yet, paradoxically, you can’t know until you’ve tried, pushed yourself, experimented and explored. (Based on a Hasidic teaching, Schachter-Shalomi says you should try a practice for 40 days before deciding it doesn’t work for you.) A map is not territory, and reading a menu is not the same as eating the meal.

“Jewish With Feeling” is an easy read, filled with Zalmanisms, which combine Schachter-Shalomi’s old world roots with his very up-to-date technological life, complete with AOL screen names, Palm Pilot and TiVo. “Underblessed reality is like empty calories,” he writes. Or, “Good prayer, like good sex, good exercise, good learning, good conversation, needs to have a chance to build.” And, Reb Zalman writes, don’t forget the “fore-pray.”

It remains to be seen what the Zalman Legacy really will be. Perhaps Reb Zalman will become a mere footnote — the leader of a small, fringe sect of Jewish Renewal, another smart, iconoclastic spiritual wanderer. But signs are emerging that he might be remembered as a pioneer, building new bridges between spiritual and secular communities. Maybe, like the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a fellow Lubavitch emissary who went his own way, Schachter-Shalomi will have his once-radical teachings filter into the Jewish mainstream.

Already, the wider mainstream Jewish community is beginning to warm to the former outsider; it’s notable that “Jewish With Feeling” carries endorsements from several popular literary figures: Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Harold Kushner and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Jewish meditation groups are common, colorful P’nai Or prayer shawls are ubiquitous and spiritual growth is, in many circles, accorded as much respect as growth in intellectual, emotional and physical realms. Perhaps, like the radical beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who in his later years became a respected literary figure, Schachter-Shalomi, the onetime founder of the Aquarian Minyan, will find acceptance in the very institutions he often seeks to subvert, gaining an influence far larger than even his original dreams. If that happens, I think it will owe less to how Reb Zalman speaks and teaches than to how, as Ethics of the Fathers advises, he listens and learns from everyone.

Jay Michaelson holds a Master of Arts degree in religious studies from Hebrew University and has studied with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He is the creator of learnkabbalah.com.

* * *

Jewish With Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi With Joel Segel

Riverhead, 288 pages, $23.95.



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