Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried like a Seed –- to Sprout

Reb Zalman w/ Dalai Lama, 1990, w/ Rebbitzen Eve Ilsen between them

As you receive this letter on the morning of July 4th, 2014, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is being buried  in Boulder, Colorado – and in some deep sense, buried and given new life all around the planet.

Does the death and burial of a Great Teacher mean his light has gone out?  We are taught, “Or zarua latzaddik” -- the light of a tzaddik is buried in the fertile soil like a seed.” -- It sprouts again and again; and in Zalman’s case, has already and will often again give birth to new seeds of light.

No one else in the 20th/ 21st century  brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited –- and transformed.

For me, the learning I absorbed was at two levels: two major new intellectual understandings, and a deeper path of bearing and behavior.

I will get to the intellectual frameworks with which he invited us to create an old/new Judaism. But first, the personal bearing and hearing that made it possible for his friends, his colleagues, his students to absorb new ideas, change them, make the new possibilities our own:

My first real encounter with Zalman came in the spring of 1971, still in the early days of my engagement with Judaism. I had heard about him, and noticed he was coming to lead Shabbat services at a Hillel House in Washington DC (where I was living). So I went on Friday evening.

There were about 40 of us. Zalman gathered us and said, “With your permission, I want to separate the women from the men.”

“No!’ said I.  (Feminism was then not just a strong commitment, but a burning passion that I shared.)

“What?” said Zalman, looking surprised.

“You said ‘With our permission,’ ” I said. “Not with mine.”

“Oh. Hmmmmmm,” said Zalman. “It’s not at all about inequality, pushing women away. I am trying to explore whether there is a stronger spark of Spirit when men and women create a polarity of energy between them.

“Sooooo  -- How about if we separate the women and men not physically, not ‘geographically,’ but separate their voices?  Is that OK?”

I said “Yes.” Not just because I was interested in the experiment, but –- and for me this was the real and powerful lesson –- he listened when I objected.

He was clearly a great and knowledgeable teacher – and he listened when a newby said ”No!”

Story within a story, poised upon a story:  Several years ago, the Ohalah listserve of Renewal rabbis was discussing what it meant to be a Rebbe, and how that fit or didn’t fit with a more feminist sense of shared, not hierarchical, spiritual access to God.

I wrote the list, reminding them that Zalman dealt with the question in a unique, powerful, & creative way:

He grew up in Lubavitch, where on special occasions the Rebbe would gather all the men around him at a special Tisch, the Rebbe’s table. He would sit in a special fancy chair, and teach Torah for hours on end as the Hassidim drank L’Chayyim.

Reb Zalman would, Erev Shabbat or the evening before a festival, gather us all –-- women and men –-- at the Tisch. He would sit in the Rebbe’s Chair, teaching Torah for about 20 minutes.

Then he would stand up, and say –-- “Everyone stand!” So we stood.

Then he would say, “Everybody move one chair to the Left.” And we did. So did he.

‘Then he would say to the person who was now sitting in the Rebbe’s Chair: Look inside for the Rebbe-Spark within you – and teach from there.”

And so we moved, person by person, through the night.

This was NOT automatic arithmetic equality, like a voting machine. It saw the possibility that in each of us was a channel for sacred Spirit. The Chair was important. It called us into depth.

That was the way I told the story. Then Zalman wrote me privately, off the list: “I am glad you told the story, “ he wrote. “But I used to say, “Move one chair to the Right. I prefer it should be ‘one chair to the Left!’”

Laughter and Learning. Sharing the Spark.

Why do I think this is the story for now? Because Zalman has moved one chair to the Up, the Down, the Earthy, the Celestial -- and beckoned us into the Rebbe's Chair. Each of us, all of us, welcome to sit there and find the Rebbe-spark within us. And to share our spark.

Now let me turn to the intellectual frameworks he brought into our lives, to enable us to shape a living Judaism:

Reb Zalman drew on the crisis of biblical Judaism swamped by Rome and Hellenistic civilization. and in response transforming through midrash the biblical tradition into a new paradigm -- Rabbinic Judaism.

 He spoke in the same way of the crisis facing Rabbinic Judaism and all other religious traditions today as Modernity swamps us all –- and the need once again to transform Judaism into a new paradigm.

In that new paradigm –

  • women and men, people of varied sexual orientations and identities were equal;
  • we could sing a Jewish prayer with the American melody of ”Shenandoah” and the Christian melody of “Amazing Grace”;  
  • we could learn from Sufis and Buddhists and Christian mystics and Kabbalists and feminists and LSD and scientists of Gaia;
  • we could mourn Palestinians as well as Israelis  (when on the 2d day of Rosh Hashanah 1982 we learned about the massacres of Sabra & Chatila, he cried out, “Gevalt, gevalt!’ and set aside a good part of the morning for me to read the newspaper reports aloud, as a Prophetic Haftarah);
  • we could respond to the shriek of pain that for years he could hear coming from the Earth herself, and explore what "eco-kosher" might mean, not for food only but for the coal and oil and plastics that we "eat"; 
  • we could see the trajectory from the angry ancient Prophets into the fiercely loving nonviolent activism of a Prophet like Martin Luther King.

The other framework was his way of celebrating the Kabbalistic/ Hassidic teachings of the Four Worlds and the Sphirot (emanations of God) as they appeared within us –- not in an ethereal  other-worldly Divine Mystery.

 I will always remember –-- in my body, not only in my mind --- how he transformed the seven Hakkafot of Simchat Torah – the seven dances with the Torah Scroll.

He explained that in the Lubavitch Hassidic world where he grew up, the seven dances were dedicated to the seven Sphirot –-- Overflowing Loving-kindness, Rigorous Judgment, Compassion, Eternity’s Rhythmic Beat,  Beauty’s Melodic  Sweetness, Generative Foundation, and Collective Ingathering.

But, he said, the dances he was taught were all the same. How could the Dance, the music, the poetry, the color, of Overflowing Loving-kindness be the same as the Dance of Rigorous Judgment?

So he invited us to meet in seven clusters to create the seven Dances that spoke within us of the different Sphirot. Each cluster taught the whole community its Dance. And as we danced through the night, it became clear that all seven Sphirot were within us, not beyond us. All seven within each of us.

Our bodies joined our minds, our own “I” joined the universal “I.”

And that’s still another story, the story of how I stood at the foot of Sinai hearing the great Anokhi, the Universe speaking “I”  -- with Zalman as my guide and guard.

But that’s enough. As Zalman's body folds into the earth below, right now -- his light is glowing,  seeding from the burial field new fields of light.

The memory of this tzaddik IS a blessing.

A blessing for shalom, salaam, pax, peace –


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