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July 11, 2014  RSS feed
Obituaries

Text: T T T

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi brought old world gravitas to New Age Judaism

By Ben Haris JTA news service


Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was one of the world’s most innovative and influential Jewish spiritual leaders.

To his followers, he was their Hasidic rebbe. But what other rebbe had dropped acid with Timothy Leary and dialogued with the Dalai Lama?

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, who died July 3 at 89, wasn’t the only rabbi who tinkered radically with Jewish tradition. No one else, however, did so with the sense of gravitas and authenticity that came with carrying a living memory of the richness of prewar Jewish Europe.

Though Jewish Renewal, the movement he helped midwife, remains marginal by the standards of the major Jewish denominations, many of the ritual innovations he fostered have long since gone mainstream — from the use of musical instrumentation during services to the incorporation of Eastern meditative practices.

Born in Poland in 1924 into an Orthodox family with Belzer Hasidic roots, Schachter- Shalomi was raised in Vienna and arrived in the United States in 1941. He was ordained as a Chabad rabbi but strayed far from his Orthodox roots, eventually helping to found a movement that fused the ancient and postmodern into a kind of liberal Hasidism.

Like the Hasidic masters of Europe, Schachter-Shalomi encouraged his followers to seek a direct experience of the divine through practices inspired by the Jewish mystical tradition. He embraced a decidedly liberal ethos, championing equal roles for men and women in religious life, welcoming gays and lesbians, and promoting doctrines like eco-kashrut that integrated contemporary concerns into Jewish practice.

Schachter-Shalomi pioneered ritual innovations that were groundbreaking at the time, including meditation, ecstatic dance and drums and other musical instruments in religious services.

He was a believer in a radical ecumenism, fascinated by the ways other traditions “get it on with God.” During the historic Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama in 1990, Schachter-Shalomi captivated the Tibetan leader with a lengthy presentation on kabbalistic cosmology.

Along with the legendary composer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Schachter-Shalomi was among the earliest emissaries dispatched by the Lubavitcher rebbe to do outreach on college campuses. But he drifted from the strictures of Orthodoxy, exploring other mystical traditions and immersing himself deeply in the counterculture.

His LSD experience, Schachter-Shalomi said later, had confirmed certain “intimations” he had previously about the nature of the spiritual world.

He was a leading figure in the growth of the Havurah movement, the small prayer groups that emerged in the 1960s and rejected institutionalized synagogue Judaism in favor of home-based worship, presaging the rise of today’s independent minyans.

In the 1990s, Schachter-Shalomi left Philadelphia, where he had held a teaching post at Temple University, to assume the World Wisdom chair at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired college in Boulder, CO.

In 1997, he co-authored From Age-ing to Sage-ing, an attempt to recast the golden years as something other than a period of decline.

And in March, journalist Sara Davidson published the book The December Project, based on meetings with Schachter-Shalomi. “The whole teaching that he wanted to impart to people was that you will come to the end at some point, and at that point the work is letting go — letting go of your ties, letting go of your loved ones, letting go of everything,” Davidson said.


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