Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: The Holy Cobbler with a Secret



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The day Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi left this world I happened to be mostly in transit. I took two books with me for the day; David Macey’s biography of Frantz Fanon, and R. Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch’s Hasidic work Maggid Devarav le-Ya’akov. When I heard the sad news on the train, feeling quite alone, I did what any hasid would do when he heard of the death of his rebbe. I took out a Hasidic work and began learning. I found myself somewhere in the middle of Maggid Devarav le-Ya’akov. It did not really matter where. The simple act of learning Hasidut on that lonely day enabled me to believe that somehow I was participating in the separation of body and soul that the tradition teaches occurs during those first hours after someone’s death. Naïve, perhaps maybe even a little delusional, but it gave me solace nonetheless. At some point I came across a teaching that jumped off the page in the way it seemed to capture what Reb Zalman gave to the world. Below I offer a translation of that lesson and a few observations as my parting words to him and, more importantly, as words to those of us who now have the responsibility to carry his message to the post-Zalman era of Jewish Renewal, may it live a long and healthy life. I dedicate this to Eden Pearlstein, Chani Trugman, Shir Yaakov Feit, Adam Segulah Sher, and Basya Schechter, Paradigm Shifters, each and every one.
(R. Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, Maggid Devarav le-Ya’akov, # 95)*

When Moshe ascended to heaven, he heard the angels praising God with “blessed is your glorious kingship forever” and he brought that down to Israel (Deuteronomy Raba 2:36). This can be compared to “the king’s daughter who smelled a spicy dish. If she reveals her desire she suffers disgrace, if she does not reveal it she suffers pain. So the servants began to bring it to her secretly” (b.T. Pesahim 56a) [in the Maggid, the secret refers to esoteric Torah – torat ha-sod].
There are two types of water: the upper waters and the lower waters, on this R. Akiba said ‘[when you see these waters, do not say water, water]…and the lower waters cried. (b.T. Hagigah 14b). There are two types of actions: one is the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot; one which are actions in this world, which also must be done under the adage, “Know God is all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6). The sages say, “Enoch was a cobbler [lit. one who stiches sandals] and with every stich he would say “for the sake of uniting God and God’s shekhina (Yalkut Reuveni on Genesis 24:3), as it says, “Wisdom cries out in the streets [Raises her voice in the squares]” (Proverbs 1:20).
There are two kinds of wisdom, higher wisdom and lower wisdom…as the Zohar states, “God fills all the worlds’ (Zohar 3.225a). This is what is called “the power of the subject is embedded in the object’ (koah ha-poel be-nifal). As the power of the subject [God] descends further into this world it becomes more concentrated (m’zumzam). For example, even though everything that exists in the sea also exists on land, its existence on land is in a much more concentrated form…Intuitively it appears that even the lowest places contains all the levels [above it], as it is written ‘[I did not say this ruling previously] because I had not yet eaten meat [and thus was not exacting in the proper reasoning of the matter – Rashi] (b.T. Baba Batra72a). This suggests that after eating, ones intellect is sharpened. [the Maggid assumes that the lower level of food contains the higher level of intellect – sm.]. When a wise child brings joy to his/her parent, it also renders joy to their heavenly parent . This is the joy that that comes from the pleasure a child brings to a parent. Before the sage consumed meat the intellect was embedded in the meat, albeit in a concealed fashion. At the outset, organic and vegetative matter also contained this intellect as well as the joy and pleasure [that would only be revealed later] which was also concealed….
This higher wisdom is called “the head level” (reish dargin) and the lower wisdom is like a seal (hotem), which inverts [that which is from above] and makes it into song. This “perek shira,” that is, the [higher] wisdom that is embedded in the song, [only] reaches its fulfilled state [through song]. This is why the Levites sing. The Kohanim work in the realm of thought and the Levites lift up that which is close to the world of thought by means of praise which is also called song. The power of the subject in the lower realms is called “feet” (“the foot level” raglin). And this is what it means that Enoch was a cobbler (one who stiches shoes). He would stich, and by doing so connect and elevate the power of the subject in the lower world to its roots above, and thus he would say, “for the sake of uniting God and God’s shekhina because the power of the subject in the lower world is called malkhut.
As so, “Moses ascended to heaven,” that is, he ascended to the heights that are called the realm of bina. And thus he heard the angles say “blessed is your glorious kingship forever.” And through this ascent, Moshe created a union (yihud) by bringing this angelic praise into the world. “And he brought this down to Israel” means that Israel also became engaged in elevating lower things like the angels. This is what it means, “and they brought it her secretly.” This process is called tiferet [the balance, and the male companion of malkhut] which is the elevation of that which is below and the insertion of divine wisdom in her [malkhut]. They had to bring her [malkhut] this level of intellect from divine wisdom [through secrecy]….thus it says that “the lower waters cried” [and they became bereft of the wisdom that was elevated back to its source – sm]. But know that Torah and mitzvot are themselves divine, as it were, and thus called higher wisdom.

There is something in this opaque circuitous lesson that I think captures Reb Zalman’s life-work. I have always thought that to understand what Reb Zalman was trying to do requires more than knowing the Hasidic foundation of this thinking or the New Age spiritual tradition in which he framed it. It also requires a sensitivity to how he reads those texts, how he translated that mystical world into a practical spiritual program.
What I found particularly striking in the text above is the Maggid’s implicit juxtaposition of Moshe and Enoch. Moshe descends from heaven with the praise of angels on his lips. Enoch, as the midrash teaches, was “a cobbler [ who stiches sandals].” In R. Mordecai Joseph of Izbica’s Mei ha-Shiloah, another text Reb Zalman liked to quote, we read that Moshe could not bring Israel into Erez Yisrael because “his portion was Torah” while Joshua’s “portion was in the land.” For R. Mordecai Joseph, Moshe knew he was never going to enter Erez Israel even before striking the rock and thus his death on Mount Navo was not a punishment at all. He knew he had no portion in the land. His portion was on the mountain. (Mei ha-Shiloah, on Hukat, vol. 1, 160). Moshe was a man of the heights. Arguably the two foci of his life were mountains: Sinai (his purpose) and Navo (his death). As an aristocrat bred in the house of Pharaoh, Moshe looked down at the world. He arguably never really understood the Israelites he led. And they never understood him. That is part of the tragedy in the triumph of the biblical narrative. Enoch, as the midrash described him, was man who cared for the mundane. He was man of the people. Reb Zalman often stated that his interest was “pastoral” and not “philosophical.” As he put it in one of the last things he wrote two days before he left us (to be published in Tikun, Winter 2015), “I need to stress that in all this I did not approach my work as much as a philosopher of religion as a pastor. I found it important to provide the people with whom I worshipped with experiences that they could give themselves to and bring with them into their own places of worship.” Reb Zalman was an Enoch-Jew, he wasn’t a Moshe-Jew. He would rather stitch broken sandals than climb mountains.
The notion of “twos” dominates the teaching of the Maggid: Moshe and Enoch, “two types of water,” “two types of actions,” “two kinds of wisdom.” In each case the Maggid focuses on devotion as the act of bringing these “twos” together, elevating one, drawing one below, and in each case the purpose is unifying the source and its extension, the subject with its object. In the apparent categorical distinction between these “twos” we witness one the central teachings of the Maggid, “the power of the subject is embedded in the object’ (koah ha-poel be-nifal).” Unity is thus not the bringing together of disparate parts but disclosing the unity that already exists. This, I think, is the “secret” that sits as a cornerstone of the Maggid’s teaching. “If she reveals her desire she suffers disgrace, if she does not reveal it she suffers pain. So the servants began to bring it to her secretly” (b.T. Pesahim 56a). This secret that responds to the king’s daughter in her quest for the spicy dish, that which is both desired and ostensibly forbidden, or desired because it is forbidden, is the true esoteric Torah. The secret in Hasidism according to the Maggid (and Reb Zalman) is not in any metaphysical system but that “the power of the subject is embedded in the object’ (koah ha-poel be-nifal).”
The danger in all this is obvious. So much of Judaism as it has come down to us in what Reb Zalman would call “the old paradigm” is precisely about guarding those distinctions, embellishing them, making them the very core of devotion. Traditional halakhais arguably based on distinctions; permitted, forbidden, us v. them, men v. women, etc. As one’s devotional practice ascends, distinctions seem to multiply. Theologically, biblical or covenantal, religion is arguably founded on the categorical distinction between Israel and the nations. Many have tried to massage the categorical nature of those distinctions, or present a more “democratic” view of halakha (R. Hayyim Hirschensohn’s [1857-1935] may be one of the best examples), but the biblical and later rabbinic foundations remain. Distinctions are not wrong, they constitute a central part of what is to think and analyze the world we live in. The problem is when those distinctions take on a calcified hierarchical quality that lends itself to claims of moral superiority and triumphalism. This is precisely what Reb Zalman was trying to undermine, theologically and halakhcially (see for example, hisIntegral Halachawritten with Daniel Siegel). The secret is in the act of subverting that hierarchy through progressive devotion. That is what Reb Zalman called “the fourth turning of Hasidism.”
It seems to me that Reb Zalman’s gift to us was how he refracted the Maggid’s subversive approach in both thought and, more pointedly, in action. Do not be dissuaded by the bifurcated reality of “us” and “them,” this religion or that one, this nation or that one. The secret is “the power of the subject is embedded in the object” (koah ha-poel be-nifal), each object in creation contains the power of the subject who creates it. This is not a naïve call for unity or any kind of cosmopolitanism. It is, rather, a metaphysical claim that he asks to make our own and to translate into making a new world. This does not erase difference but it does arrest the slippage from difference to irreconcilability. To reject, to resist, to demonize the other is, by definition, to banish the creator from the world (koah ha-poel be-nifal). To engage in the world, in its most mundane dimensions, can be the highest act, to stitch the sandals (the lowest realms), as Enoch did while whispering, “for the sake of uniting God and God’s shekhina,” does more than what Moshe did when he descended and brought the angelic praise to Israel. Enoch’s worldly practice enabled him, and all who follow him, to return that angelic praise to its source. It seems to me Reb Zalman preferred the vocation of the cobbler to the vocation of the prophet. His work was in the everyday, not in the prophetic academy. He spent his days stitching the sandals of broken souls and stitching together the shards of misunderstanding that lay scattered around our post holocaust world.
Reb Zalman was a Kohen but in many ways he functioned as a Levite in the Maggid’s teaching. In my reading of this lesson, Moshe was the Kohen and Enoch was the Levite. Moshe moved from above to below and Enoch took what was below and raised it up to its root above. Enoch, as Levite, inverted thought into song, thereby, according to the Maggid, completing thought by bringing it more deeply into human experience. The songwriter/Levite and the cobbler perform the same function; each quietly doing what Moshe did in his dramatic way, albeit in reverse. For Reb Zalman, being a ba’al niggun was not like Moshe descending from the mountain with the angelic praise on his breath. It was like Enoch stitching sandals, translating thought to music, raising things back to their source. Those of us that spent time with Reb Zalman know that he relished the chance to teach us old, and often rare, Hasidic niggunim. It wasn’t just teaching the melody but conveying the very notion of song as devotion, as an act of ascension. It is both the song and the singing that enables us to take part in that process of returning to the angels what Moshe borrowed from them. When he recently met a musician who came to him for a blessing, the first thing he did was smile and say to her, “Nu, sing something!”.
Reb Zalman was one of the few who did not shy away from the radical nature of Hasidism but embraced it fully and took it to its next level. He did not hide the secret, and he did not reveal it either. In whispering it in the ears of those who would listen, he simply passed it on.
There have been many great figures who have inspired us with words and lived exemplary lives. Reb Zalman distinguished himself in that he also taught us how to live a progressive devotional life and carry his legacy forward. He did not deny us the desire for the “spicy dish.” He brought it to us “secretly.” Those who also had the desire for that “spicy dish,” sought him out. Those who are aware that distinctions often become vulnerable to moral judgments, those for whom “the power of the subject is embedded in the object” (koah ha-poel be-nifal), those who did not want to abandon the “feet” for the “head,” all of us have been given a tremendous gift and an equally ominous task. Toward the end of his life Reb Zalman was skeptical of the Aquarian Age. He saw the bloodshed around him, the divisions and hatred that are tearing the world apart. Maybe he became a bit disenchanted with his own vision. But what the “rebbe” gives he cannot take away. Even with his last breath. Reb Zalman taught us to be cobblers and Levites. Not to stand at the heights looking down at the world like Moses but to stitch sandals like Enoch the cobbler. There are so many sandals to stich, so many songs to create, so many secrets to pass on. He gave us all he had. And he had more than most. But he has moved on. And he left many sandals that still need repair. And with that our work begins.
Shaul Magid
Fire Island, New York
9 Tammuz 5774
July 7, 2014

  • The above text is an adapted translation of one of the teachings included in Maggid Devarav le-Ya’akov. I excluded certain small sections that dealt with technical kabbalistic formulations that were not suited for translation.

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Sea View, NY. His most recent book isAmerican Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana University Press, 2013). His forthcoming book is Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2014). He is also on the editorial board of Tikun Magazine. His fuller discussion of the theology of Zalman Schachter Shalomi and Zalman’s long-term significance will appear in the Winter 2015 issue of Tikkun magazine. To subscribe:

5 thoughts on “Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: The Holy Cobbler with a Secret

  1. Reb Zalman was a dear friend for almost half a century He was one of the wisest people I have ever met, and one of the most joyous. The times I spent with him and his marvelous wife Eve were truly memorable.
    We had just finished writing a book chapter together a few months ago. He was in full command of his faculties and it was a great pleasure to collaborate with him on this project. “One of a kind” is a cliche, yet it perfectly embodies Reb Zalman’s life and contributions.

  2. Beautiful Shaul.
    Our dear Zalman gave me the “shoes” to truly walk the PAth..not just the soft padded ones….for the wellworn taken-by-many-path..but the radical path of Bold Independent Thinking of Soaring Soul Exploration…
    A Holy G-d “Father”..A Friend..A Teacher..”

  3. Thank you for this beautiful teaching. Zalman was an important friend, teacher, beloved on the journey for
    47 years-and showed me /us so many ways to reach up, and out to others and to heal the world and our
    longing Jewish (and universal) hearts.

  4. When I first met our beloved Zalman many years ago, he came down from the hermit’s hut above Lama on a mountain in New Mexico, and reported to those gathered for a conference with Ram Dass and Daniel Ellsberg on the height of the thermonuclear crisis. Two quotes from that brief talk:
    “When we tried to clear our minds in meditation there was something that kept on coming through, all the time, whether we wanted it or not. And that was an echo of a terrible future. It was if the last cry of this planet set out waves that kept coming through to us, at the very time we wanted to go through to the Infinite. What would happen would be that cry coming through. First we thought, ‘come on, this is just disturbing the meditation’, until we began to hear that what we were hearing was that echo which we in the meditation had to listen to and hear. What is happening on this planet, we begin to see, is that there is a great push to reach a [new] level of awareness and consciousness….”
    “Bucky Fuller, God rest his soul, used to say about learning that we can only learn from our mistakes….Now the problem is that while our biotechnology has so formed us that we learn from mistakes, the next learning we CANNOT afford to learn from a mistake. There will not be anyone around to learn from. So our learning has to happen with such a mind move of such proportions, that is so different from anything we have ever done before.”

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