A Wonderful Tribute

At the recent ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal event commemorating the eighth Yorzeit of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (a’h), Rabbi Yitz Greenberg delivered the following words regarding Reb Zalman’s legacy. I sent him an email asking if he would share the text and he sent the text below along with this reply:

Dear friend,
Thank you for asking for the text of my words about Reb Zalman. I wanted to honor his memory as I believe that he was one of the religious greats in my/his generation. Therefore, I am grateful that you will distribute these words more widely. Yitz Greenberg

Here’s what he said:

The Talmud says:

Tzaddikim – great religious figures – loom greater after death than in their lifetime.

[NOTE: cf., Talmud Bavli Chullin 7b:10]

I think the Talmud means that with the death of the great ones, all the trivia falls away – the personal limitations, the competitors, the confusion around their most original approaches which people did not understand, the failures. What remains and stands out is the light they shed, their originality and greatness.

That is how I feel about Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

I was lucky enough to meet him at the start of my career. I knew from day one that he was a Master of religious experience. One example: He came for a Shabbat to Hillel at Brandeis University when I was a new director. He davvened in Hebrew – but also in English. In the first 5 minutes of his praying in English, I realized that all the fuss about prayers not in Hebrew – between my Orthodox community and liberal denominations- was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Of course you could pray in English – if like Zalman did, you poured your heart out, you sang with a melody, you related to God and humans. But if you turned the Hebrew words into rote and empty words, or if you recited highfalutin English words and said them with deadly formalism then you were praying in no language.

He was a genius in religious experience. Although raised and rooted in Hasidism, he had the ability to get inside (to tap the soul) of every religion that he encountered. This ability frightened me sometimes because I wondered how you could get inside the inner circle of another religion without becoming a true believer in a religion other than your own.

I will never forget our trip together to meet with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Along the way, at his request, we stopped at a Sikh temple. Inside, Zalman greeted the worshipers as if they were old friends and coreligionists. He seemed to know every step of the service and what were supposed to be the responses of the congregation. I remember that I recoiled. But when we talked afterward, I realized that he had the unique ability to get inside the other’s soul, to empathetically identify with the other’s religious experience – without losing his own spiritual centeredness or his own direct encounter with the God of Israel and with the angels and divine creatures of our tradition.

What do I consider to be his greatest contribution? He was born and raised and deeply steeped in Hasidism. He spent years in Chabad serving as the Rebbe’s emissary (shaliach) until he realized that he had outgrown that world of the spirit. By then, he was able to embrace and enter into the religious world of the non-Orthodox, the non-Observant, even the non-Jewish. He could speak to them, inspire them, interpret their traditions and interpret his own in a way that deepened the sacred dimension of their worlds.

The spiritual greatness of Hasidism or of Chabad is there- but the practitioners cannot distill the essence and/or bring it alive and vital into another human spiritual reality. Zalman absorbed the mysticism, the individual religiosity, the joy and communal celebration of Hasidism whole and deep. Then, he re-channeled it; he transmuted it; he injected it – alive and whole – into modern and postmodern Jewry. Think of his transformational broadening of Kashrut into eco-Kosher.

He was able to leave behind the patriarchalism, tribalism, the fearful self-centeredness and moral atomism. The distilled religious spirit, the empathetic humanism and sense of justice, the embrace of all genders and beyond, he brought with him as he helped create the world of renewal Judaism. His ability to come down off the mountain and enter into the everyday and to connect with every person stood him in good stead throughout his life as a Renewal sage, as a neo-Hasidic rabbi, as a founder of a new post-modern, post-denominational movement in Judaism. His personal model lives on to inspire not only religious Jews but the rare messengers of God who are embedded in various places in Jewish life who await R. Zalman’s kiss and personal blessing to come alive and lead and inspire another generation and new people all over the world.

One Response to “A Wonderful Tribute”

  1. T'mimah Ickovits Says:

    These words bring me back into the rebbe’s presence. Thanks for posting.
    Shabbat Shalom,

Leave a Reply