Obituaries | Reb Zalman mixed Old World gravitas with New Age Judaism

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who died July 3 at age 89, wasn’t the only rabbi who tinkered radically with Jewish tradition. No one else, however, did so with the sense of gravitas and authenticity that came with carrying a living memory of the richness of prewar Jewish Europe.

To his followers, he was Reb Zalman, their Hassidic rebbe. But what other rebbe had dropped acid with Timothy Leary and dialogued with the Dalai Lama?

Though Jewish Renewal, the movement he created, remains small compared to the major Jewish denominations, many of the ritual innovations he fostered have long since gone mainstream — from the use of musical instrumentation during services to the incorporation of Eastern meditative practices.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

He will be missed by his admirers in the Bay Area, a region he visited often during his life. Local Jewish Renewal congregations such as Chochmat HaLev and the Aquarian Minyan, both in Berkeley, and Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, trace their founding to Schachter-Shalomi.

“I owe Reb Zalman my Judaism,” said Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, the former spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev who was ordained by Schachter-Shalomi. “The debt I feel toward him is so profound, for opening up a connection to serious Jewish practice that connects to the soul.”

Added Barry Barkan, a founder of the Aquarian Minyan: “He didn’t have a lazy moment. His mind was always active, always engaged and always stretching.”

Few could match the scope of his erudition, steeped as he was in sacred texts, Jewish mysticism, contemporary psychology and Eastern spirituality. Schachter-Shalomi was a Yiddish speaker proficient in the vernacular of modern science and computer technology, an academic capable of creating transformative religious experiences

Born in Poland in 1924 into an Orthodox family with Hassidic roots, Schachter-Shalomi grew up in Vienna and arrived in the United States in 1941. He was ordained as a Chabad rabbi but strayed from his Orthodox roots, eventually helping to found a movement that fused the ancient and postmodern into a kind of liberal Hassidism.

He earned a doctorate from Hebrew Union College and became a professor of religious studies at the University of Manitoba. In those early years, he began traveling around the United States, introducing Kabbalah and Hassidism to thousands of young Jews.

Like other Hassidic masters, Schachter-Shalomi encouraged followers to seek a direct experience of the divine through practices inspired by Jewish mystical tradition. He embraced a liberal ethos, championing equal roles for men and women in religious life, welcoming gays and lesbians, and promoting doctrines such as eco-kashrut that integrated contemporary concerns into Jewish practice.

Schachter-Shalomi pioneered groundbreaking ritual innovations, including meditation, ecstatic dance and drums and other musical instruments in religious services. He led prayers in the vernacular, reading Torah from a scroll but translating it into English on the fly while maintaining the traditional cantillation — a feat he could carry off with aplomb well into his ninth decade.

Though he lost family members to the Nazis, Schachter-Shalomi believed it was a mistake to attempt a restoration of the Jewish world destroyed by the Holocaust. Instead, he felt that Jewish traditions needed to be renewed, harmonized with new ways of viewing reality that emerged in the 20th century, much in the way theology had to be reordered following Galileo’s demonstration that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

Schachter-Shalomi spoke often of a paradigm shift made necessary by worldview-busting events — the moonwalk, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were favored examples — that rendered traditional Jewish modalities irrelevant. He wanted Jews to get over what he called the “triumphalist” sense that they had a monopoly on religious truth in favor of an “organismic” model that saw Judaism as one of many tributaries of the divine river.

Said Rabbi Burt Jacobson, who studied with Schachter-Shalomi in Philadelphia before coming to the Bay Area to found Kehilla: “Reb Zalman was convinced that the task for Jews in our time is to view ourselves as an integral part of the global community, sharing our traditional wisdom with the world at large, thus helping to construct a new era of civilization. His love for the Jewish people widened out to embrace all peoples and religions.”

Along with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Schachter-Shalomi was among the earliest emissaries dispatched by the Lubavitcher rebbe to do outreach on college campuses. But he drifted from Orthodoxy, exploring other mystical traditions and immersing himself in counterculture. His LSD experience, Schachter-Shalomi said later, had confirmed certain “intimations” he had previously about the nature of the spiritual world.

He was a leading figure in the growth of the havurah, small prayer groups that emerged in the 1960s and rejected institutional synagogue Judaism in favor of home-based worship, presaging the rise of independent minyans.

In 1974, Schachter-Shalomi led a weeklong seminar in Berkeley. Barkan attended, and remembered being struck by the rabbi’s singing of niggunim, wordless Jewish chants. Afterwards, they became friends for life.

“He didn’t just teach,” Barkan recalled. “He gave over a transmission of energy and consciousness, as if he reached into the genetic pool of the Jewish people and connected with each of us.”

Barkan and others went on to found the Aquarian Minyan in 1974. It was Schachter-Shalomi’s suggestion that the fledgling minyan incorporate the term “Aquarius” into its name since it reflected the changing zeitgeist.

“He was both a player and an observer,” Barkan said. “There was a part of him that would have loved to be a rebbe, and part that believed that the new paradigm called for an egalitarian community in which each person is called upon to act as the rebbe.”

Among Barkan’s most cherished memories is walking down Berkeley’s iconic Telegraph Avenue with the rabbi, giving both money and blessings to the homeless.

Schachter-Shalomi later joined the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and inspired the creation of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Aleph ordination program, and Ohalah, an association of Jewish Renewal clergy.

Schachter-Shalomi married four times and fathered 11 children, including one through a sperm donation to a lesbian rabbi.

An inveterate boundary crosser, he declined to choose between the social justice imperatives of Reform Judaism, the spiritual rigor and devotion of traditional Orthodoxy and the mystical impulses of Hassidism. He wanted all of them.

In the 1990s, Schachter-Shalomi left Philadelphia, where he had held a teaching post at Temple University, to assume the World Wisdom chair at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo. There ensconced as the “Boulder Rebbe,” Zalman received scores of visitors in his study, many of them seeking inspiration and solace on their own journeys away from Orthodoxy.

In his later years, as Schachter-Shalomi began to relinquish leadership responsibilities of the Renewal movement, he focused his declining energies on preparing himself and his followers to face his inevitable death. Schachter-Shalomi was driven by a belief that the existing Jewish toolbox was lacking the instruments to navigate the later stages of life — what he came to call the December years.

Earlier this year, journalist Sara Davidson published the book “The December Project,” the product of nearly two years of weekly meetings between her and Schachter-Shalomi in Boulder.

“The teaching that he wanted to impart was that you will come to the end at some point, and at that point the work is letting go — letting go of your ties, letting go of your loved ones, letting go of everything,” Davidson said.

The Bay Area got its final Reb Zalman experience in August 2012, when the 87-year-old gave four talks in Oakland. “I remember with great relish the days [1974] when there was a meeting of the ways in Northern California [at which many spiritual teachers participated], where we all got together and celebrated, and [Rabbi] Shlomo [Carlebach] was singing and everybody was dancing,” Schachter-Shalomi said before the visit. “And there still is a little bit of that flavor left in the Bay Area.”

Despite failing health, Schachter-Shalomi continued to teach. One month before his death, he led a retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwestern Connecticut for Shavuot.

After the holiday, Schachter-Shalomi fell ill with pneumonia and spent a week in a hospital in Hartford, Conn., before being flown back to Boulder, where he died in his sleep. He was laid to rest on July 4 at Green Mountain Cemetery in Boulder, although the rabbi had requested that people not attend, partly out of concern for the carbon emissions the travel would expend.

Those who loved him and learned from him believe his legacy will endure.

“It’s so clear how all [denominations] have become more open to song and meditation,” Schley observed. “The Conservative and Reform movements are very different because of Renewal. It penetrated the world.”

Added Barkan: “He made room for every Jew to enter as an equal. You didn’t have to bring anything but your heart and life experience. He created a kind of universal Judaism.”

Dan Pine of J. and Alix Wall contributed to this report.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.