Amidst the celebration and fireworks of Independence Day, I mourned the death of my holy mentor, guide, and friend Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who was buried that morning. We met almost 30 years ago, at a time in my life when I had pretty much abandoned the organized Judaism of my past and expressed my spiritual life through participation in Native American ceremonies and rituals.
I was introduced to Zalman by another Rabbi, Aryeh Hirschfield whom I met during a sweat lodge at a Lakota Sundance ceremony in the mid 1980’s. (I have written about that meeting and the intense friendship it created, in my book The Dancing Healers). Reb Aryeh, who was also a Yeshiva boy, had been ordained by Zalman, and he said his entire view of about Jewishness and how it could be expressed, was the result of R. Zalman’s influence…we had to meet he said.
It just happened to come at the perfect time, because the first gathering of the Jewish Renewal movement was about to take place outside Philadelphia; and my wife was making more and more noise about wanting to find a Jewish spiritual path we might walk together.
When I first saw him, he was of average height but looked taller than he was; had a shaggy, white-flecked beard, was dressed in a long caftan, colorful yarmulke (skullcap), rainbow colored tallis (prayer shawl), and a smile that was heart melting.
Reb Zalman was born in Poland in 1924, escaped from the Nazi’s, and came to the US in 1941. He was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in the Lubavitch Hassidic community, became a Hillel Rabbi on college campuses and slowly his ideas about how Judaism could be practiced with absolute kosher legitimacy, began to be expressed. He moved away from his ultra-orthodox Hasidic roots and founded the Jewish Renewal Movement. Jewish Renewal was about the transformation of spiritual expression. Like my Native relatives, he said you could pray in any language and sing any song because he saw the Great Spirit in everything and everyone, and everyone had a direct link to that energetic source. Zalman pioneered interfaith dialogue (hobnobbed with Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama); he was a passionate activist for women, LGBT community, and explored the sacramental value of hallucinogens.
He was one of a tiny handful of spiritual teachers I have ever known, who grabbed me by the throat and dragged me to face the power of Awe. After that first Kallah in Radnor, Pennsylvania, we saw one another and spoke periodically for the next 30 years. He was an anchor in my struggles, and the bridge to restoring my Jewish soul.
On July 4th , this day that we remember the visionary gifts’ of our founding fathers, I’m looking at the fireworks and seeing my Lubavitcher Rebbe. The death of a Tzaddik (a great teacher) does not extinguish his light, it only reminds us that what’s most important in life, is what you leave behind.
I feel your smile sweet Z, farewell, and I’m smiling with you.