Where greatness lies

Where greatness lies

A memorial to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Rabbi Zalman Schechter-Shalomi and Rabbi Debra Orenstein welcome the new year.

On July 3, 5 Tammuz, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died. He was 89.

He inspired tens of thousands of people directly – and indirectly he inspired millions more, people who have yet to discover that the spiritual approaches they hold dear were invented and graciously shared by him.

Reb Zalman was prodigiously influential over many decades, but he was not proportionately famous. He was not always given credit for his vast learning or for his astonishing array of contributions. And he was okay with that.

The first time I saw Reb Zalman, he was on the bimah of an auditorium that held 2,000 people. His face beamed love at the congregation. I had been leading another High Holiday service, and I was able to join his congregation for the last few minutes of Rosh Hashanah morning.

He spread his arms wide, as if to embrace everyone present. I had never felt so much love in a room. I wish I could quote what he said – no doubt it was brilliant – but all I remember is the palpable sense that he was blessing everyone present.

Yes, great achievement

Reb Zalman’s life was full and vital. It was historical – both in the sense that his biography tracked some of the most important events of the 20th and 21st centuries and in the sense that he shaped history.

Reb Zalman was a survivor of the Holocaust. Held in detention in Vichy France, he lost a brother and extended family in Auschwitz. He grew up in what was then Poland and now is Ukraine, Austria, and Belgium. In North America, he lived in and around New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Winnipeg, and Boulder. He had 10 children. Born into a family of Belzer chasidim, he studied with two Lubavitcher rebbes.

Together with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Reb Zalman began Jewish outreach as we know it through programs for Chabad. Reb Zalman shaped the chavurah movement, Camp Ramah, and Hillel. He is considered a father to the spiritual eldering, hospice, and Jewish Renewal movements. He championed environmentalism and stewardship of the earth long before they were fashionable. He helped thousands of Jews to find their spiritual home within their own religion by reintroducing Jewish meditation and Jewish mysticism to Jews who had fled to the beat culture, ashrams, and suburban indifference.

Reb Zalman was devoted to deveykut, bonding with God. Throughout his life, he explored expanded consciousness and developed “davenology” – methods of reaching God through prayer. Perhaps surprisingly, the Lubavitcher rebbe gave his blessing to Zalman’s meditation at an ashram and to his experimenting with drugs with Timothy Leary. Some of these controversial experiences, and Reb Zalman’s growing conviction that women should be equal participants in Jewish ritual, eventually led to him leaving Chabad, although he was highly regarded as a scholar and leader, and even mentioned as a possible successor to the rebbe.

Deeply grounded in tradition, Reb Zalman had a genius for innovation in thought, liturgy, and social action. He invented or reintroduced dozens of programs and approaches that have been adopted and co-opted across the Jewish world, including naming ceremonies for girls; healing services; praying with contemporary music and everyday English; chanting Torah with translation; do-it-yourself, home-based Judaism and family education; the use of technology and pop culture in Jewish education; outreach to interfaith couples; embrace of LGBT Jews; spiritual direction (God-centered counseling), and eco-kashrut, which is a standard for keeping kosher that integrates moral standards for the treatment of workers, animals, and the environment with traditional ritual requirements.

And that’s just a partial list.

Reb Zalman was known in some circles for his relationships with famous religious leaders, including Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Ram Dass, Father Thomas Keating, and Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. He was among the Dali Lama’s advisors on the question of how a people can survive in exile. But even more than his momentous trip to Dharamsala, it was Reb Zalman’s ongoing interfaith dialogue with people from, literally, every religious background that shaped both his extraordinary mastery of particular religious expressions and his access to universal principles.

I once arranged to meet Reb Zalman at an Assyrian Church of the East in Los Angeles; my synagogue rented space there. Upon being introduced to the priest there, he recited some of the church’s liturgy, by way of greeting. As you can imagine, that led to a warm welcome and many wonderful conversations.

Reb Zalman was an accomplished academic. That was his day job for most of his adult life. By the time he retired, he was professor emeritus at both Temple and Naropa universities. Though this doesn’t always come with academic credentials, he also happened to be an outstanding orator and master teacher.

Great fortune for me

I didn’t know Reb Zalman’s biography 18 years ago, when I was invited to be his back-up rabbi at High Holiday services for Makom Ohr Shalom Synagogue in Los Angeles. Reb Zalman had not been well, and both he and the synagogue leadership wanted someone available in case he needed to rest. That first year, Reb Zalman indeed was seriously ill and became quite weak, so I stepped in and led services. By the next year, he had bounced back, and we co-led.

For 15 amazing years, I was privileged to lead High Holidays with him. He graciously welcomed me and Rabbi/Cantor Monty Turner as his partners.

Just by observing him, I became a better counselor, liturgist, and teacher. I learned to listen better and to fear death less. Reb Zalman inspired many of the Jewish practices I hold most dear – from reciting the “Ana B’koach” prayer upon hearing a siren to chanting Torah with translation and commentary. I came to think of Reb Zalman as a mentor and friend, as well as my rabbi. This was not because we were buddies, but because he was so open and loving.

I wish I could say that I instantly understood the extent of the gift I had been given when I was paired with Reb Zalman. But it took me some time. Part of the reason for that, no doubt, was my youth and inexperience. But part of it was Reb Zalman’s amazing humility. He came out with what he had to offer only when he perceived that people truly were ready.

Greatness defined

Recently, I read an old best-seller, “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins. One of my favorite insights to come out of the research summarized in the book is the distinction between a good leader and a great one. Leaders who get good results in the corporate world can manage themselves, work well with other people, supervise individuals, manage teams, and hold a vision for the company. Leaders who get great results have all these same abilities – and one thing more. Not a particular talent or capacity. Not connections. Not charisma.

They have humility.

It turns out that rock star CEOs, who make the news or create a culture around their personalities, do not achieve what genuinely humble CEOs do. This fits the Jewish paradigm. With Moses as the ultimate example, our tradition prizes humility both for character and for leadership.

It’s hard to talk about humility. Humble people are hardly likely to advertise their approach or its benefits. Biographies, obituaries, and common conversation laud achievement. Humility is interested in character, and it flees from the spotlight.

The greatness of Reb Zalman

Obviously, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi made extraordinary contributions. But what made him truly great – what made him a leader we will be learning from for generations to come – was his humility. He had great respect for the office of rabbi, but no personal pride or ego about his own position.

Reb Zalman’s own words give credit to his rebbe and take an unfussy, practical approach toward his own position. It was owing in large measure to this attitude that his outreach was successful.

“Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and I got into our situation, and all that has happened since, because our rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, called us to his table on Yud-Tet-Kislev in 1949 and said, ‘It’s time that you should travel to the campuses, to the universities,'” he wrote in “Geologist of the Soul: Talks on Rebbe-craft and Spiritual Leadership.” “And we agreed that we would go as just plain Zalman and Shlomo, keeping the threshold for how we would present ourselves very low. It was not necessarily helpful to be Rabbi Carlebach and Rabbi Schachter, because we wanted to meet people where they were, without the barriers those titles might create. And I think it was successful because many people felt ‘I can do that too!’ We were just telling stories and singing songs and talking about what we loved. So stepping into our shoes became relatively easy.”

Reb Zalman’s humility came across in the devoted attention he brought to every encounter. He listened – truly listened – to people. The kind of deep attention he paid is so rare that initially it was disconcerting to some folks. Even in a casual conversation, Reb Zalman sometimes would ask for a moment to think over what a person had just said. He was someone who truly “learned from every person” (Avot 4:1), and so he regularly paused to digest other people’s viewpoints and wisdom.

Reb Zalman took students and children seriously. He considered their questions and comments deeply, stopping to think, and often to to pray, before responding. He took time with young children in the synagogue, integrating them into the services, telling them stories, showing them the Torah scroll and the letters of their names in it. The adult congregation waited, watched, and learned.

We all know people whose genius and giftedness makes them impatient with amateurish efforts in the areas of their expertise. But the opposite was true for Reb Zalman. His giftedness sought out and shined a light on the gifts in others. He cultivated other people’s talents, sometimes actively, as a guide and mentor, and sometimes just through the power of his focused, appreciative attention. He did this for me – and for hundreds of others. During the last 10 years of life he deliberately withdrew from leadership, encouraging and coaching younger rabbis to step in, even when was available to do a task himself – and frankly, do it better.

Reb Zalman had a beautiful singing voice and a great ear; he composed music and masterfully applied contemporary melodies to classic liturgy. When he listened to other people’s compositions or davening, he listened with rapture, to find God in it, to hear what he loved. His enthusiasm was genuine, and it inspired both the person leading prayers and the congregation. Enthusiasm, after all, literally means “possessed of God” or “having God within.”

Reb Zalman often liked to explain the Yiddish word “fahgin” as the polar opposite of “to begrudge.” Rather than resisting giving someone else the good, you deliberately seek it for them. You pray for them, heap upon them good will and blessings. Reb Zalman not only loved this word, he embodied it. He never wanted to keep religious leadership, joy, honor, wisdom, or any other good thing for himself. He “fahgin”-ed all good things to all people.

Over and over, I saw Reb Zalman do things for people of all faiths, backgrounds, and stations – even when they didn’t “deserve it,” even when someone else could have done it. I perceived the price we paid for Zalman’s generosity – whether it was directed toward me or toward others – because I understood that we were taking a genius away from work that only he could do. Of course, Reb Zalman would never have put it – or thought of it – that way. On the contrary, he went out of his way to serve and help people.

Once, an aspiring journalist at a community paper in a small town published an article that he was proud of. Reb Zalman was mentioned tangentially in the article, which was brought to his attention by a friend of the author. When Reb Zalman inferred how important this article was to the author, he tracked him down and phoned him to offer him a genuine, heartfelt mazel tov on the piece. I know about this story for two reasons. First, Reb Zalman asked me to help put him in touch with the man. And second, the journalist talked about that phone call many times over the course of a decade. It inspired him to continue in a career path that he might have given up, but for Reb Zalman’s encouragement.

When I was going through fertility treatment, I had the chutzpah to ask Reb Zalman to be on my prayer team. He not only agreed, he called me often to encourage me. In a way that was uncanny but never surprising, his calls usually came right after an important treatment or bit of news. Reb Zalman continued to call me throughout my pregnancies, just to bless me. He took delight in my two children. Some of my most precious memories are of the times he laid hands on them and blessed them.

Long before I was a mom, Reb Zalman and I initiated a teen service, scheduled for the break on Yom Kippur afternoon. We were just beginning the service, and Reb Zalman launched in with deep and challenging questions: “What do you see in the world that worries you?” “What are you really concerned about?” The kids looked down and away. No one wanted to speak first. It so happened that the service took place in a room where some of the choir members had stashed their belongings. A few adults were sneaking in to the room to collect their things, and some of them, including the mother of one of the teens, hung back quietly to listen. Reb Zalman raised his voice and scolded them angrily, “You are disturbing us here! We are having a private service for teens only. Get your things and get out!” I was shocked. The parents and kids were shocked. This was so unlike the Reb Zalman we knew. Was it the hunger talking? Was he irritated by the kids’ unresponsiveness?

The adults filed out quickly. Most appeared embarrassed. The mom stormed out, obviously offended. Reb Zalman heaved a sigh that signified both exasperation and relief. And then the kids opened up, relating their most deeply held concerns. We had a discussion that touched heart and soul, that connected our ancient tradition with our contemporary needs. As the kids left the service, one of them spoke for the whole group when she said, “I will remember this for my entire life.”

I was a little slow on the uptake, but as soon as the words started tumbling out of those teens, it became clear that Reb Zalman’s emotionalism was deliberate. It was a rare case of “aveira leshem shamayim” – a sin for the sake of Heaven. He was winning the trust of the teens by establishing the site of the service as sacred space – even if it meant yelling at the parents.

Afterward, I asked Reb Zalman if he had planned that opening. He shrugged and smiled mysteriously. I asked if he would talk to the mom. He said, “No.” It was clear to me that he had made a trade-off. He was willing to let her think badly of him if it ensured that her child could have a vital spiritual and educational experience. Letting her know that he was “just fooling” would have saved his ego and reputation, but if word spread quickly, it might also have led the teens to question whether the discussion we had was for real. Believe me, it was. But Reb Zalman was not willing to take a chance of sacrificing their growth; he would much rather compromise his dignity.

Reb Zalman’s focus was always on God and community, not on his role. This continued to be evident in his last days. He left a message that discouraged his students from flying to Colorado for his shiva and funeral, and asked the community to continue with a 90th birthday celebration, conference, and fundraiser for Aleph that had been planned for August.

Honoring greatness in us all

Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote this memory of Reb Zalman, which captures, all at once, what is generous, brilliant, controversial, and humble about his spiritual leadership:

“He grew up in Lubavitch, where on special occasions the Rebbe would gather all the men around him at a Tisch, the Rebbe’s table. He would sit in a special, fancy chair, and teach Torah for hours on end as the chasidim drank L’Chayyim.”¨”¨Reb Zalman would, Erev Shabbat or the evening before a festival, gather us all ““- women and men ““- at the Tisch. He would sit in the Rebbe’s Chair, teaching Torah for about 20 minutes.”¨”¨Then he would stand up, and say ““- “Everyone stand!” So we stood.”¨”¨Then he would say, “Everybody move one chair to the Left.” And we did. So did he.”¨”¨Then he would say to the person who was now sitting in the Rebbe’s Chair: “Look inside for the Rebbe-Spark within you – and teach from there.” “¨”¨And so we moved, person by person, through the night.”¨”¨This was NOT automatic arithmetic equality, like a voting machine. It saw the possibility that in each of us was a channel for sacred Spirit. The Chair was important. It called us into depth.”

Reb Zalman both preached and practiced imitatio dei, modeling oneself after God. It is a well-established Jewish principle that we should strive to “follow the attributes of the Holy One” (Sotah 14a). Deuteronomy 10:17 teaches that God is great, mighty, awesome -and neither plays favorites nor accept bribes. In a nutshell, that was Reb Zalman.

Reb Zalman’s greatness, might, and awesome example did not result from mere charismatic leadership, though he surely had charisma, as well as dozens of talents, abilities, and virtues. First and foremost, his greatness depended upon the kind of humility that treats all people as equal and isn’t seeking perks or rewards. It was on that foundation of humility and righteousness that everything else – the massive structure of his legacy – was built.

Carrying his
greatness forward

It would be foolish and prideful to aspire to Zalman’s greatness, in the sense of imaging that we could reach his level of learning, generosity, or influence. But I believe that each of us has the capacity to build a foundation of humility as great as his. And if we are willing to do that, then the divine potential in each of us will be released, as surely as it was in him. To quote “just plain Zalman” himself: he “made it relatively easy to step into [his] shoes.” And with shoes like his to fill, that was no easy task.

May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

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