Answers to Questions
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
1. The term “paradigm shift” is used to describe a newly emerging way of looking at reality. When the patch jobs on old reality maps, like the Ptolemean (ca 100 BCE) world view (which saw Earth as the center of the Universe) no longer works and it has become essential to design a new one, like that of Copernicus, (that the Earth revolves around the sun,) we have a paradigm shift. A mind-move of such proportions has taken place that it represents not a mere adjustment of the old paradigm, correcting a detail here and another there, but rather a radically changed Weltanschauung. Our faith treasures are independent of the reality maps with which they have become combined. Even though a paradigm no longer works, many people hold on with desperate tenacity to what has become obsolete. A major shift of reality-view threatens to unbalance everything. So much of our assumptions and behaviors depend on these paradigms. But once we delaminate our faith-treasures from the earlier maps, we can connect these treasures of tradition to new maps. Judaism has undergone several such “paradigm shifts”: one with Abraham and the Patriarchs, Moses and the First Temple, another after the destruction of the First Temple and and an even greater one after the Churban of the Second Temple, when all of our practice and belief had to be reframed. Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the moon walk have instigated yet another such shift and I write about that. In this book I offer the journey of my own recontextualization of Judaism as helped by Jewish Mysticism.
2. Jewish Renewal, differs from Restoration, which seeks to hold on to the last paradigm. People in Jewish Renewal do not want to abandon sacred and cherished traditions to toss them out along with outworn cosmologies. We are now privy to information which floods us with wonder at the view of a wider and ever more complex cosmos, and we don’t want to put our minds in pawn as the price of our staying wedded to our tradition. Still, we look to fill our spiritual needs as experienced in the present with a maximum of tradition. To make this happen we have to retrofit our spiritual technology to the demands of our era. We are sensitive to feminism, human potential, ecology and Whole Earth thinking.
3. Mostly about the issue “what right have you got to modify a long standing and Divinely revealed tradition?”. My response is that revelation continues in the present. We are as much at the service of Divine revelation as earlier generations were. We have at this time an additional task, and furthermore, we are aware that we have a task. So we feel our inadequacy – after all, how can we undertake this “updating”?. Yet those who may be better equipped don’t perceive this as a need – so it devolves upon us.
4. There was no one pivotal moment with its special theophany. The process was gradual. There was a long series of these epiphanies, often unrelated to one another and the effect was cumulative. And – this is crucial – making sense of these “aha” moments. takes first of all an introspective attitude as well as some meditative and contemplative training. In this way I kept revising and readjusting my credo. I grew through adolescence during the Holocaust years. In the midst of hopelessness I saw glimses of the Presence to which I pledged my life. This created a dynamic tension causing me to hold fast to both doubt and faith. The process was amplified by other experiences: by meeting great souls, by deep prayer and by the struggle we call Godwrestling.
5. Critics of Kabbalah will keep criticizing those who teach it. Their criteria are largely ideological, intellectual and rationalistic ones. In those circles, preoccupation with Kabbalah is too reminiscent of the deranged Chanan of “The Dybbuk” and was thought dangerous. Still smarting from the excesses of the Sabbateans and the Frankists, followers of pseudo-messiahs, they felt the need to defend themselves from an unstable, reality-denying mysticism. Today our situation is different. As one encounters souls in process, one marvels at the amount of inner knowledge and sensitivity they possess. In my own adolescent searches I was blessed to find those who listened seriously to my questions, and encouraged me to reach for answers that matched my inner learning, my in-tuition. So I find that those who honor this direct knowing will not place obstacles in the path of the seeker. The people I teach are often of much greater soul sophistication than those who have heaps of traditional book learning. The established institutions of Jewish education did not know how to cope with the issues that agitated many of the young of the post-Holocaust generation. They went to look elsewhere for their spiritual nourishment, and found in a variety of places e.g. Zen, Vedanta, psychedelics etc.. Hungry to relate the reality of the experiences to their ancestral tradition, they found very few who could honor their questions and answer them. Most members of the established leadership had not had these experiences and could not relate to them. The exoteric-ideological stance of the establishment repelled the seekers. Traditional esoteric teachers demanded that the seekers relinquish and deny their sacred encounters outside of the tradition and begin basic observances, first acquire Hebrew and study the basic text and only after they were sure of their loyaly to traditional Torah Hashkafah would offer them a smidgin of our treasures. There is a concept of T’shuvah, repentance, turning, that is from below to above, and this is what the traditional teachers demanded from the seekers. This is also how many of the returnees have made their way back. There is, however, also the concept of the T’shuvah from above. In that thrust one connects first the higher centers of ones being and later, when one is in relationship with God, one implements what one needs from the tradition to round out ones life. There are now countless individuals and families that have taken the second route and many of these are the members of Havurot and connected with Jewish Renewal.
6. I don’t want to answer the question as posed. In fact I find it hard to see how anyone who longs to hasten the process of redemption can answer the question as posed, since we know that a prerequisite for the coming of Moshiach is the unity of Klall Yisroel and the phrasing of such a question results in divisiveness. In 1943 I experienced a surge of imminent messianic expectation when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yossef Yitzchak Schneersohn issued his apocalyptic broadsides. Something messianic was indeed happening but it was not “The Moshiach”. I honor Lubavitch-Chabad as the wonderful school from which I graduated and learned not only Davvenology and mysticism but also the urge to work in outreach and the training to do something about Jewish Renewal. This book is about the coming to an end of one era and the dawning of the new one , a paradigm shift.
7. Any thinking Jew who reads the New York Times, listens to N.P.R. or watches Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or the McNeil – Lehrer report and wants to keep their Jewish life up-to-date, who has gained something from the Jewish Catalog and has looked over the fence to other forms of spirituality. In all likelihod the book will anger both those who think one must not change anything as well as those who want to change everything.
8. It was not my achievement that I have a foot in the past and a foot in the future, it was my given. I was uniquely placed to comprehend and bridge many worlds, both by historical events ad by personal disposition. My real achievement was in that I held fast to them both, often at great personal cost. This put me in a position to understand the complex struggles of the next generation and to teach them from an extraordinary vantage point. So my greatest achievement stretches beyond my person in the students who continue this work. A great variety of students, from Chassidic- Orthodox to secular humanist, have learned from me. I did not impose a mold on my students. They all felt empowered to follow the inclination of their own inner core and expressed what they had received and integrated in various ways. The range from those who identified themselves openly with Jewish Renewal to those who have quietly returned to their conventional congregations and mainstreamed what they learned, often without explicitely attributing the source. Our contributions simply blended in to the acceptable scene like the rainbow colored Tallit I designed. We created the Havurah movement and the Jewish Catalog which was the growing edge in the late 60’s and 70’s. Later in the 80’s B’nai Or – (then called P’nai Or and now – Aleph Alliance), offered retreats, Kallot and institutes as well as Elat Hayyim, a Jewish Center for Healing and Renewal, a work which continues. The Wisdom School, which I conducted with my partner Eve Penner-Ilsen, was an outstanding effort to hot-house the Jewish Spirit with the emerging state of the art of contemporary psycho-technologies. I trained and ordained Jewish Renewal rabbis, initiated of the Eco-Kosher project, provided the stimulus for Shomrey Adamah, (the guardians of the Earth). We reached out to the disaffected and helped them to own their Judaism again. We invited them to bring and share whatever of value they had leaned to enrich our own traditional practice. All these are component parts of my life’s work.