R. Zalman: God's Soul-Friend

R. Zalman: God's Soul-Friend
Reb Zalman (aka Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, smiling.

Yahrzeit of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l. Fifth day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz.

So, in Reb Zalman’s honour, ALEPH Canada hosted a special Zoom event. Ten of Reb Zalman’s many Canadian students shared memories, poetry, story, or music.* Here is a short video of the words and music I was able to offer with my musical partner Charles. Introduction is by Rabbi Sherril Gilbert.

Underneath the video, I’ve included a transcript of the words I offered — with links defining Hebrew and Yiddish words. At the bottom of the page, I also share links to the websites of all the event’s participants.

TRANSCRIPT (approximate): When I was a rabbinic student in ALEPH Ordination programs, Reb Zalman was still quite involved in our education. You could say that Reb Zalman encouraged us students to find a balance between tradition and innovation. But the word “balance” would be misleading.

One month he would say, “You must bring new life to your community’s davennen practice! So, divide the congregation into two groups. Tell them to read words from the Siddur to one another as if it’s a personal letter.” But, the next month he would watch some of us do this and say, “Oy, this looks terrible! Just sing the prayers as they are in the Siddur. Also, you should all daven in an Orthodox shul for a year.” Of course, a third of us would say, “No thanks! I’ve been there, done that. I came to Jewish Renewal for something different.” And another third would say, “Great idea! But the nearest Orthodox shul is a 200 mile drive from my home.” Still, a third would go out and do it.

Or, one year, Reb Zalman would say we need more grounding in traditional intellectual learning. So, we should study the great theologians from five different religions. And then next year, he would say, “I worry that we’re losing the practical arts of Judaism. So, you all need to learn how to shecht a chicken.” Of course, you can imagine how the vegetarians and vegans among us reacted! So, no, we did not become butchers.

But, in the end, we each found our own way of being a rabbi. Still, we all received Reb Zalman’s gift of the spirit of lifelong learning and cheshbon hanefesh, self-critique.

Reb Zalman, however, did teach his core ideas consistently. Here is a glimpse of just one. Develop a personal relationship with God, he said. But he did not tell us how we should experience God. Instead, he reminded us: our tradition offers many different interfaces for our different heart spaces. God is light, lover, parent, healer, creator, ancient spirit and more. Sometimes, if you davenned the Amidah next to Reb Zalman, you would overhear him talking to God. In a loud whisper, he talked about joys and troubles. He sighed and smiled. And he always used his personal blend of Yiddish, Hebrew and English. Thus, he recommended that each of us talk with God regularly, using our own heart-language.

* Here is information on my colleagues and teachers who spoke. I’ve included a link to their websites, where possible. Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Rabbi Shalom Schachter, Dr. Charles Kaplan, Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel, Lorne Mallin, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, Dr. Simcha Paull Raphael, Rabbi Sherril Gilbert & Rabbi Schachar Orenstein.

  1. Shalom! Thank you for the picture you paint of his way of teaching and it’s impact. His Yahrzeit is actually the fifth of Tammuz because he died on July 3, 2014 shortly after 8 AM.

    1. Thank you, Seth! Fixed it, thank you. Blessings and long life to you!

  2. Thank you for the “Anti-Anger Niggun”. My maritime hillbilly paternal DNA does sometimes get the
    better of me. Righteous anger is one thing, but feral over-reaction is quite the inappropriate other. I’m going to install your Niggun on my WhatsApp and dance to it regularly.

    1. Thanks for writing, Heather! And I do agree with you about varieties of anger. You articulate some differences quite well here.

  3. Thank you for your sharing your story. It brought a Tikkun to my heart. When I was a student in the Smicha program and co-lead Shabbat Morning services at Ohalah, I introduced, following Reb Zalman’s vision of renewal, an embodied practice of the Ten Sefirot which everyone seemed to like. At the end he said: “Oy, this looks terrible! It sounds like the Muppets.”
    Hearing your story reminds me that it wasn’t personal. It was, perhaps, Reb Zalman’s way of teaching me self-critique. Oy.

    1. Hi Ora. Thanks for this sweet note. I feel WITH you, on this one! Xo

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