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Soul Man

Interview by Alice Chasan

In his 81st year, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi offers new ways to enliven Jewish practice and spark spiritual connections.

“Jewish with Feeling,” the title of the latest book by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, aptly describes the author’s robust approach to Judaism. The founding father and spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Schachter–Shalomi has packed more into his 80 years than a dozen ordinary people combined. Born in Poland, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi–widely known as Reb Zalman–fled Nazi-occupied Vienna with his family in 1939 for Antwerp. They settled in New York City in 1941, where he studied in the Lubavitcher Hasidic yeshiva. He was ordained as a Lubavitch rabbi in 1947. He eventually left the Lubavitch community to pursue other avenues of Jewish expression. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s spiritual quest has taken him on a journey of exploration into Eastern traditions; he has drawn on the spiritual practices of the world’s religions in his efforts to connect contemporary Jews to a reinvigorated Judaism. Among Reb Zalman’s many passions, perhaps none is as important to him at present as the goal of “Jewish with Feeling”: Connecting “simple Jews who want a Norman Rockwell Judaism” with the profound satisfactions of their tradition. He argues that all too many Jews operate on autopilot, following rituals and mouthing prayers that have no connection to the heart. And for countless others, material priorities have pushed the spiritual realm completely out of the picture. “Jewish with Feeling” is his latest roadmap for reentry into meaningful Jewish practice, what the author calls “ensoulment.”

Why did you decide to write this book after so many years of teaching about an enlivened Judaism?

I wanted to write a book to guide people who spend most of their lives in what I call “commodity time.” Not enough people are experiencing the wonderful possibilities that are available in natural, organic time, in sacred time. So that was one of the reasons that I felt this was important to write. It is a book for universalists: Jews who care for the planet and then they wonder, what do you need to be a Jew for? They have embraced so much of the general culture. They would like to have a good family life, a good spiritual life. And so the question was: If I’m so universal, why should I be Jewish? That is the starting point for many of the people for whom this book is written.

And the answer that I’ve been working on for quite a while had to do with my understanding of the Gaian hypothesis—which is to say that the planet is a living being, and we are all parts, cells of that living being. And when you are in such a situation, you have to be integral to the planet. And then the question comes up, what do we do with the gentiles?

Each religion is like a vital organ. If you’re integral to the planet, it is really important to be the best Jews that you can be. If we are a healthy, vital organ of the planet, then the rest of the world will be able to heal, too. Since I’ve had ecumenical dialogue with Hindus, Buddhists, Confucionists, Taoists, Christians of all sorts, Muslims, it was getting very clear that with so many of the people I had a kinship, such that I didn’t even have to apologize. I didn’t have to be ashamed to say that I love God. And once people are in that situation that they too feel that they have that kind of kinship, then a lot of things happen in what I call spiritual intimacy.

But the starting point you recommend for those seeking meaning within Judaism is to go back within the core of Jewish practice, and to find meaning inside. Not to go immediately to those larger concentric circles, to the points of intersection with other faiths, because that’s largely where contemporary Jews have already been.

That’s exactly the point. Today’s Jews come from there. I taught at Naropa Univeristy (a university in Boulder, Colorado, founded by Tibetan Buddhist monks, where Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi held the World Wisdom Chair until his retirement in 2004). I found quite a number of Jews there; I would say the representation of Jews at Naropa and other such places is quite great.

Why do many spiritually searching Jews turn to these other—often Eastern—traditions first?

I think there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the status quo of what goes under the name of “organized Judaism” in the United States. The people who have woken up to any level of awareness are wondering what are they doing there in the shul (synagogue). It’s not doing anything for them.


That touches an ouch place—the ouch place is the Holocaust, of course. When people are involved in post traumatic-stress situations, they have to work hard on it. And we (Jews) haven’t done the updating yet.

Jews have held on too tightly to outmoded forms of practice?

We circled the wagons after the Holocaust. You take a look in the enclaves of Orthodoxy you have in Brooklyn and in Jerusalem, and in Monsey, and in other places, and you see that the people are really afraid to do anything other than follow what has always been done, because they have a sense that their children will disappear, they will not be Jews anymore. Holocaust survivors worry about losing their children to the gentile world. And they want to impose forms and observances on them that they never had from their environment, not even at home. Among families of survivors, there was a lot of denial and repression.

The other factor is the state of Israel. We became very enamored of Israel itself, and many times, in the past 50 years, when you came to an American synagogue, what you got was people making fundraising appeals. Rosh Hashanah came, and there was a United Jewish Appeal or an Israel Bond drive in the midst of the high holiday service. And that wasn’t very much of an invitation to participate in spiritual life. So we lost people over time.

Many organizations dedicated to “Jewish continuity” are running a heart and lung machine to keep a dying patient alive. They don’t have a sense of how to build a future for Judaism, because most of the time they want immediate results. One of the things that I speak about at Jewish education conferences is how to create a curriculum that will produce the boddhisatvas or lamed-vovniks (in Jewish legend the “36 hidden righteous people” who will redeem the world) for the year 2025. The mainstream Jewish leadership is not thinking about spiritual formation. They are interested in immediate results, in the form of loyalty to a vague thing that’s called “Jewish identity.” They foster strong identification with Judaism that is an inch deep. Ethnic, national, foods, and so on. There is very, very little content.

So since 1948, that has been the primary focus for American Jewish identity?

When you say “primary focus,” you imply a very high degree of consciousness. And I’m not sure that we can talk about a high degree of consciousness when we talk about many of the things that are happening in the Jewish community.

For many Jews, is the pull toward Israel as the focus of Jewish identity an emotional pull, a matter of wish-fulfillment?

And how we appeared to the world.

But now we come to the beginning of the 21st century, and we have a different set of issues and imperatives that are driving people in their search for connection to Judaism.

Up until this time, the people I was dealing with in the Jewish Renewal movement were those who already had direct experience of spirituality.

They came out of the 1960s and 1970s with openness to the experiential level of religion?

Correct. And with them I had a language of commonality. I just had to translate the Eastern precepts in a Jewish context.

Are you still trying to speak to that group, or are you hoping to broaden the audience for these ideas? This book could be picked up by anyone, even Jews without any background in Jewish learning or practice.

That’s right. This book is for a broader audience. I want them to get their hands into the practice and their feet wet in spirituality. For many years, I have stressed the hands-on approach. When I taught Judaism at Temple University, I looked at the previous curriculum and found that it was historical—about Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Mordechai Kaplan; the most relevant was Abraham Joshua Heschel. They hadn’t had the slightest idea about what a Jewish home was like—how you light candles, how you kasher meat. So I sent my students to synagogues, to kosher butchers, so they could have their hands-on experience.

In 1968-69, I was on sabbatical from the University of Manitoba, in Boston studying Near Eastern languages and literature at Brandeis. And I taught a course there in psychology of religion. And most of the things in the first “Jewish Catalogue” (a ground-breaking countercultural guide to Jewish practice) came out of term work in my course.

The “Jewish Catalogue” was a new kind of how-to guide to Jewish life, but at the same time, it assumed that you were already immersed in Jewish practice.

Exactly. But you can introduce a hands-on experience of Judaism to anyone. At Camp Ramah (a summer camp supported by the Conservative movement), I worked as a religious environmentalist with the young people. There we had a tallisareum (a workshop for making Jewish prayer shawls) and people wrote their own mezuzot (scrolls with verses from Deuteronomy that Jews affix to their doorways). I would get horns and show the campers how to make shofarot (rams horns used in Jewish worship).

Now, in “Jewish with Feeling,” you are taking your hallmark hands-on approach to Jewish life and applying it on a much more basic, entry level.

That’s the point of it, yes.

How do you think the people who are drawn to Jewish practice in the spirit of renewal you advocate in this book are going to fare when they go back into the synagogues and religious schools that exist in their communities?

I can’t plan the whole course of their spiritual journey. Some people are going to look around; they’ll start shul-shopping. And soon they’ll see that it doesn’t matter what denomination, because we’re in a post-denominational time.

You are empowering Jews to raise questions that may be regarded as impertinent by people who like the status quo. What do you say about that?

Gezunterhait! Enjoy! Deepen it. Wake up to it. Here in Boulder, it’s a wonderful thing. I help them all. There are two Renewal congregations, and the conservative and the Reform. And I join them all.

And do they welcome you?

They’re very happy.

I would think that a lot of rabbis would look at what you’re telling people to do in this book and they would say, this guy is a real subversive, because he wants to upset the applecart.

The people at the Rabbinical Assembly once asked me to come to teach their rabbis about davvenology (methods of prayer). And when I come to the conservative shul here, it is my job to do the prayers for geshem and tal. And I did it in English with them, with a beautiful nigun (melody). And they’re very glad I come. When the rabbi goes out of town, he asks me to pinch-hit for him. And I introduce the Conservative congregation to things in their own prayerbook.

But there are an awful lot of Jews who are wedded to the status quo.

In 1968-69, I was offered the role of chazzan (cantor) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And there were three groups of people—the young people who loved it; the old-timers who loved it, because the could shokl (sway in prayer) along, and they would daven along in Hebrew. And then there was the middle group—the pillars of the synagogue, who paid the bills and ran the place like a business, and these were the people who couldn’t stand what I was doing.

So you agree that some people will be inspired by your new book and take your ideas into their synagogue, and wind up being marginalized for putting these ideas forward?

It depends on the synagogue. Harold Shulweis, a Conservative rabbi in California, is using a lot of the things that I’m doing. It’s a huge congregation, he’s an old war-horse, and he’s doing wonderful work. Most seminaries don’t have the sense to invite the old war-horses to come and teach their students. They have people teaching who have never led a congregation. So their students come out of 5, 6 years in seminary and know nothing about how to conduct a spiritually enlivening service.

So should rabbis be reading your book as well as people at an elementary level? Is it a roadmap for teachers as well as students?

Of course. When I go out and teach in a larger context, I invite the rabbis to see it as a a lesson, an example.

This book has a very gentle approach to introducing people to prayer and spirituality. You’re telling them to take their time. No need to be a speed-davener. You say in the book that good prayer, like good sex, takes time. So in a sense you are upsetting the applecart even in the Jewish Renewal community, where there is an emphasis on prowess in Jewish practice. You’re saying, welcome into your community people who are not so adept in spiritual practice, who might be stumbling along.

Yes. And I’ll give you an example. I was in Jerusalem on Sukkot. And a lot of Christians come to Jerusalem on Sukkot because of the belief that the holiday foreshadows prophecies of the end-times. So I go to Hechal Shlomo (the Temple of Solomon), and I see some Africans there wearing kippot (skullcaps), and being very uncomfortable, and yet wanting to understand and participate. No one bothered to sit with them. I went around and collected a few siddurim from people that had translations in them. And I sat with them and explained it to them the parallels to their religion.

Are Jews willing to do that with other Jews who are ignorant of the practices?

There used to be some people who were the machers (big shots) in the shul. The macher was the one who knew the siddur (weekly and Sabbath prayer book) by heart, and lord it over people if they couldn’t do it. And that would infantilize people. That’s not the best thing to do.

How should the spiritually adept Jew receive the initiate into the synagogue?

For instance, in our Renewal congregations, I have a few of my siddurim that are translated into the vernacular, and I hand them to newcomers and show them where we are so that they can participate in English. Make eye contact with someone who looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. And walk over to that person, make him comfortable, sit in the back with him, introduce him to what you know.

Alice Chasan is a senior editor at Beliefnet.