Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Credit: Creative Commons

In 2005, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who founded the Jewish Renewal movement, made a pilgrimage to Ukraine to the grave of the Baal Shem Tov, who founded Hasidism.

Reb Zalman felt a kinship with the Baal Shem Tov, which means master of the good name, because, like Zalman, he’d diverged from the dominant Jewish culture of his time. “In every generation,” Zalman said, “there are people who say, ‘These are the boundaries in which you must stay,’ and there are those who say, ‘I have to grow, I can’t stay within the old skin.’”

The Baal Shem Tov, called the Besht, had never studied at a yeshiva but had come to know God through devotion, singing, and prayer. He told his followers that “the person who recites the psalms wholeheartedly is already on the same level or maybe even higher than the elite scholars.” The Besht started a tradition based on experience, on passionate reaching for oneness with the Divine.

Reb Zalman, after fleeing the Nazis in Vienna, was ordained a Hasidic rabbi in the Lubavitcher community in Brooklyn. During the 1950′s he was dispatched to talk with disaffected young Jews at college campuses. At a B’nai B’rith Hillel conference for young adults, Reb Zalman, then 31, walked out by himself into the fields one night and began to weep.

“Dear God,” he said, “these American kids have so little background, but they’re hungry and they’re good – they want to do right. Please, help me to reach them.”

What came to Zalman that night was that he couldn’t transplant Eastern European Hasidism, as the Lubavitchers were attempting to do, in American soil. “It would never take root.” He realized what was needed was not to restore the religion of the shtetl but to renew Judaism in a way that would serve people in this time and place. “Renewal, not restoration,” he decided. And that set him on the course to create Jewish Renewal, which would preserve the spirit and passion of Hasidism while updating the practice to make it more egalitarian and socially conscious.

For his pilgrimage, Zalman flew to Kiev and took a car to the village where the Besht had died, Medzhybizh (good luck pronouncing it). The grave was inside a two-story, light colored brick building. Zalman walked through the door and placed a note on the grave. “There was a tradition that if you stood there and sang a certain melody, he would join you and be your prayer partner,” Zalman said. “I sang, closed my eyes and let go, and I heard something like: Nu, what is it you want?”

Reb Zalman interrupted the story to tell me, “I’m not sure how you could write this, because it wasn’t all verbal.” He had a form of inner dialogue with the Besht, which began with Zalman saying, “We are doing Hasidism, but we’re doing it in a different time and space. It’s very hard for a Jew in our day to follow the narrow path of the tradition, and that’s why I’ve been developing Jewish Renewal. But there are people in Hasidism who are holding the reins, and they won’t recognize what we are doing. So I want to graft our tree to your trunk.”

The response he received from the Besht was that Zalman had been called to do this work. The explanation given could be put this way, Zalman said: “There is a flow that moves from God to souls, that’s given freely along with creation. And every once in a while there are people who want to dam up the flow, saying not everyone should receive it, only people who observe this and that. ‘If they satisfy our requirements, we’ll let them have a little.’ But the flow gets narrower and narrower until they’ve built a whole dam and won’t let anything through.”

I was struck by the rightness of the image. I’d run up against that very dam.

Zalman continued: “What I heard from the Baal Shem Tov was: ‘I had to dig under the dam so the waters could flow again. And you have done the same – releasing the water so it moves. In this way, you are my disciple.’”

Why couldn’t I write about that? I asked.

Laughing, Reb Zalman said, “It wasn’t a conversation you could have taped.” But that inner dialog gave Reb Zalman the affirmation and strength he needed to keep going on the path he was opening.


Sara Davidson is the New York Times best-selling author of Loose Change, Leap! and Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion. Her website is saradavidson.com. This piece was adapted from The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery.

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