Credit: Creative Commons

I am in pain over the loss of a great spiritual guide for our generation in the passing of Reb Zalman. He was perhaps the last of a breed, that bridged generations and who had lived on both sides of the great Jewish divide in these generations.

He understood the depth, the beauty and the love of the old world of Hasidim through the deep exposure he had to that world in his early years. His Rebbe (teacher) was Reb Yosef  Yitzchok Schneerson, the 6 th Lubavitcher Rebbe and father in law of the last Rebbe whose 20 Yar Ziet anniversary was just commemorated a few weeks ago.

Yet for much of his life, especially from the 60′s and thereafter, he was a beacon of light to a younger generation, who as the Torah in the beginning of Exodus says “did not know Joseph” and had no understanding of that world. With depth, with love, with humor, and with songs he imparted a spiritual conscience of an old age that spoke to the generation of a new age. The renewal Judaism he helped found was not really meant to create another branch of Judaism, but rather to influence and inspire its existing branches. His deeply universal message was powerfully influenced by his deep Jewish roots.

His close colleague and long time friend, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who was my teacher once said to me that Reb Zalman was able to go places and reach people that he couldn’t. Reb Shlomo literally traveled to the ends of the world to bring his spiritual message. That admiring comment gives us not only a sense of the high regard Reb  Shlomo had for him but also speaks volumes of the great impact Reb Zalman had on our generation. Tens of thousands would not be able to find a home in Judaism and might have been lost from our religion had it not been for the renewal movement Reb Zalman was the de-facto leader of for decades. His universalism knew no bounds, as did his profound spirituality and they both spoke eloquently to an idealistic generation of seekers that were yearning to embrace both.

While he was a brilliant and visionary teacher he was no less a loving friend to the many that came to him for counsel. He knew very well that Reb Shlomo was my teacher, and both he and Reb Shlomo spoke to me in depth not only about their kinship and similarities, but also about their deep differences; but nonetheless for the last two decades since Reb Shlomos passing he called me from time to time to see how I was doing. As a great master of the old Hasidic world, in the course of these conversations he would not only discuss and teach me spiritual lessons but showed deep caring interest in me and my family’s welfare. I will forever cherish his pragmatic counsel as much as I will respect his deep teachings.

What I will miss most is seeing his name flash on my caller ID as his call was coming in and then hearing him greet me with those loving Yiddish words “Sammy Laben Vus Machst du.” This is hard to translate but means something to the affect “Sammy my life (Laben is extra difficult to translate from its warm metaphoric Yiddish meaning) how are you doing.” It was not just the meaning of these words that always touched me and brought me back to my own childhood of the survivor Yiddish speaking world; but it was the deep love and warmth that was exuding from the melody in his voice that I will never forget. I could hear the old world Shtetel Hasid in his voice and yet as our conversation took hold I would hear the most contemporary high tech “with it” young American Jew speaking through him as well.

As these two worlds are in deep confrontation in our times, the Jewish world today more then ever needs to hear them dialogue with one another; each with it’s distinctive dialect, and from that discover a synthesis of the dialectic tensions posed by such discussion. Reb Zalman may have seen a paradigm shift occurring in our generation but his sensitivities and kinship to both worlds amid whatever critiques he may have made is what will be most missing as the debate between the old and the new continue to evolve.

Let me conclude with Reb Zalman’s own words to show the deep sensitivity he practiced in this regard. A few years ago in a most unusual occurrence the Chabad based weekly Yiddish newspaper the Algemiener Journal published an interview its editor Yosef Yizchok Jacobson had with Reb Zalman, which I will translate from Yidish. The interviewer asked him why he made changes in Halacha (Jewish law) and Reb Zalman responds:

“I pierced holes in halacha so that through the openings those Jews that are distanced from Halacha can return to Judaism. It was never my intent that those that are living within its bounds should use these openings as a means to leave. …My mission is to give people an opportunity to enter into the fold. I feel without these openings they would not make any approach into the rich world of Judaism. I did what I thought was appropriate for many Jews of our generation who are completely assimilated and alienated from Judaism.”

May his memory, mission and deep sensitivity be a blessing for all of us.

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Reflection from Rabbi Sammy Intrator, who was the associate rabbi to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at the Carlebach shul


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