On the Death of Zalman Schachter Shalomi, z’l: A Great Jewish Teacher and the Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement
by: Rabbi Michael Lerner on July 3rd, 2014 | 12 Comments »
Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and one of the most creative and impactful Jewish theologians of the last forty years, died today. I write with tears in my eyes and love in my heart for this incredible teacher, a source of inspiration for literally hundreds of thousands. I loved this man very very deeply for the past fifty one years that I knew him.
This is not a eulogy, but a personal statement of loss and an invitation to those who did know him to share stories about him with us at Tikkun which we can send out to the tens of thousands of people who read our communications. This is my form of grieving after I stopped crying at hearing this news today.
Zalman was born in Europe and barely escaped the Nazis when he was able to flee from France to the U.S. He became a Lubavitcher Hasid and Rabbi in Brooklyn, and was chosen by the rebbe along with his friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to reach out to the generation of Jews coming of age on college campuses in the 1950 and 1960s. Zalman served as a campus Hillel rabbi, and there tapped into the emerging new consciousness that we subsequently called “the counter-culture.” His experience with LSD and other hallucinogens opened for him a deeper level of experience that fortified rather than undermined the spirituality that had always sung to his heart and which had been the inspiration for much of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic movements. Like his friend Shlomo Carlebach, Zalman’s teachings and his approach to prayer (davvening) excited young Jews whose experiences in the established synagogues of mainstream American Judaism were quickly alienating the whole generation from the spiritual deadness, materialism, and fearfulness (which often translated into a kind of idolatry of Israel as the only savior assimilated American Jews could believe in) that was at the time parading as “Judaism.”
I was first introduced to Zalman by my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and am forever grateful for the relationship that we developed after that. As a counselor at Camp Ramah, I invited Zalman to teach my campers some of the ways to pray the “Shma” prayer – and these 13 year olds were mesmerized by Zalman’s ability to translate deep spiritual truths into a language they could understand, and then to embody his teachings in the way he actually led the davvening. So it was no surprise to me that after Heschel died, Zalman became the de facto leader (or perhaps co-leader with Shlomo Carlebach) for all those Jews seeking a spiritually alive Judaism.