Iconoclastic rabbi steers clear of same old, same old for next gen Jews

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is one of a kind, and the Jewish religious establishment does not know what to do with him or how to categorize him.

Much can be said about Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. He was ordained by Lubavitch, dabbled with pot and hung out with Timothy Leary. He has learned from the Sufis and met with the Dali Lama, yet knows the classic Jewish sources — Kabbalah, Talmud and Shulchan Aruch — far better than those who would like to criticize him and those who would like to say that he is not authentic.

He is tuned in to the computer world, the world of jazz and the worlds of Christian and Hindu spirituality, and he draws some of his most powerful images from them. He is not only a learner in these worlds, he is a teacher as well, bringing, taking and offering the insights of Jewish spirituality to those he dialogues with across the lines that usually separate religious traditions from each other

But although you may be able argue with the answers he gives in his new book, “First Step to a New Jewish Spirit,” you have to admit he asks the right questions.

For a generation of young Jews who find Judaism trivial and irrelevant, he proposes a Judaism that is vital and vibrant and that deals with the real spiritual issues in their lives. In this review, I will confine myself to three examples: marriage, divorce and kashrut.

To most young Jews, the marriage ceremony is a confusing collection of rituals with little meaning. Many couples now live together before they marry, yet the rabbis they meet with either think this is a shande or pretend that it is not happening. (It has reached the stage where, when I do a premarital interview, if the couple has one religion and two addresses, I don’t know how to handle the case.)

Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi looks upon young people living together before marriage as something healthy and normal and as a way to work out issues that need to be dealt with if a marriage is to be successful. He teaches that couples ought to re-celebrate their weddings every seven years or so in order to look at the changes that have occurred within themselves and between themselves.

He also welcomes the many new people-helping ideas and practices — humanistic and transpersonal psychologies, family therapy, support groups, havurot and a growing yearning among people for a spiritual element in their lives — as beneficial and not as threatening to good marriages.

But what happens when the goodwill that holds a marriage together dies? What happens when a person feels the marriage is a bottomless pit, and simply does not, or cannot, pour any more energy into it?

Some people try to numb themselves to the pain they are living with because they prefer to stay in a dead marriage rather than live in a furnished room, or eat their meals in a restaurant or have meaningless one-night stands. Schacter-Shalomi says a person has to be at least half unconscious even to pretend that such a marriage is tolerable. And it is very hard to sustain any level of relationship if you are only half conscious.

For these people, he offers some practical suggestions on how to see if a marriage can be saved. Equally important, he offers valuable suggestions on how to end a marriage humanely, so that the participants can release each other and become truly emotionally and spiritually freer. If anyone finds his suggestions for how to say goodbye too “new age-y” or not traditional enough, then that person has the obligation to explain how present rituals of divorce can be presented to those forced to go through them without seeming like so much mumbo-jumbo.

Kashrut is at the core of Jewish life, yet for many young people it seems foreign, remote and off-putting. How can the laws of kashrut be taught to a new generation in such a way as to make them feel like more than a pointless rigmarole?

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi does it by raising a whole series of questions that those who affirm kashrut need to think about. Many of those who are observant seem to be engaged in a contest to see who can ‘out frum’ whom and who can show off piety by adding to the restrictions.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi does not quarrel with meticulous observance of the laws of kashrut.

At the same time, he insists that there are new questions that anyone who wants to claim to be kosher has to wrestle with. Are eggs kosher, as long as they don’t have a bloodspot on them, as the sources say? Or are eggs traif if the chickens spend their entire lives imprisoned in cages only one cubit in size?

Fruits and vegetables are kosher, according to the sources. But are they really kosher if they are sprayed with DDT or painted to look fresh on the shelves, or gathered by workers who are underpaid and exploited?

Are chemical additives kosher when we don’t know what harm they do to our livers, kidneys, stomachs or intestines? Is a seal fur coat kosher if it is obtained by clubbing baby seals to death? Is coal from strip mines that destroy the land, or oil from offshore wells that pollute the sea or energy that comes with nuclear waste that pollutes the air kosher or not? Are cigarettes traif? And, if so, why does it take so long for the halachic authorities to get around to saying so?

These are the new questions that those who would keep kosher and those who teach kashrut to a new generation have to struggle with. And the answers will not be found simply by studying the ancient source books. Whoever wants to deal with these questions will need to know biology, chemistry and food technology, as well as the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch.

These are examples of the kinds of questions that Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi tackles in this book. He deals with what Judaism has to say about the body, as well as what it has to say to the mind and to the soul. He deals with what it takes to make the work, where we spend a third of our days, meaningful and not frustrating.

And he deals with how to make the Sabbath a day of love and joy and not only a day of dos and don’ts.

Those who feel that their Judaism is settled and satisfying, and those who feel that their lives are in order and in no need of rethinking should not read this book because they will derive no benefit from it.

Let them live well without it. But those who are searching for meaning in their lives, and who suspect that Judaism just might contain some wisdom and some guidance that can help them in their quest, ought to read this book and study it carefully. They will find much to enrich their minds and nurture their souls within it.

“First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit” by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi with Donald Gropman (105 pages, Jewish Lights, $16.95)