As you receive this letter on the morning of July 4th, 2014, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is being buried in Boulder, Colorado – and in some deep sense, buried and given new life all around the planet.
Does the death and burial of a Great Teacher mean his light has gone out? We are taught, “Or zarua latzaddik” — the light of a tzaddik is buried in the fertile soil like a seed.” — It sprouts again and again; and in Zalman’s case, has already and will often again give birth to new seeds of light.
No one else in the 20th/ 21st century brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited –- and transformed.
For me, the learning I absorbed was at two levels: two major new intellectual understandings, and a deeper path of bearing and behavior.
I will get to the intellectual frameworks with which he invited us to create an old/new Judaism. But first, the personal bearing and hearing that made it possible for his friends, his colleagues, his students to absorb new ideas, change them, make the new possibilities our own:
My first real encounter with Zalman came in the spring of 1971, still in the early days of my engagement with Judaism. I had heard about him, and noticed he was coming to lead Shabbat services at a Hillel House in Washington DC (where I was living). So I went on Friday evening.
There were about 40 of us. Zalman gathered us and said, “With your permission, I want to separate the women from the men.”
“No!’ said I. (Feminism was then not just a strong commitment, but a burning passion that I shared.)
“What?” said Zalman, looking surprised.
“You said ‘With our permission,’ ” I said. “Not with mine.”
“Oh. Hmmmmmm,” said Zalman. “It’s not at all about inequality, pushing women away. I am trying to explore whether there is a stronger spark of Spirit when men and women create a polarity of energy between them.
“Sooooo — How about if we separate the women and men not physically, not ‘geographically,’ but separate their voices? Is that OK?”
I said “Yes.” Not just because I was interested in the experiment, but –- and for me this was the real and powerful lesson –- he listened when I objected.
He was clearly a great and knowledgeable teacher – and he listened when a newby said ”No!”
Story within a story, poised upon a story: Several years ago, the Ohalah listserve of Renewal rabbis was discussing what it meant to be a Rebbe, and how that fit or didn’t fit with a more feminist sense of shared, not hierarchical, spiritual access to God.
I wrote the list, reminding them that Zalman dealt with the question in a unique, powerful, & creative way: