The notes below are my own thoughts on the remarkable life of this modern day sage and his intersection with many of the people I interviewed for my book, Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths.
In an ancient Jewish tale told in the Talmud, four rabbis enter the mystical state of Paradise. One goes insane, one dies, one becomes a heretic and is excommunicated, and one returns in peace. The heretic is the focus of Crossing the Boundary. The fourth, Rabbi Akiva, became one of the most significant founders of the Jewish religion as it is known today. To my mind, Reb Zalman is no less significant and in many ways very similar.
According to most interpretations of the Talmudic tale, the heretic, Elisha ben Abuya, was banished from the Jewish people as he became an “unbeliever.” In my book, I suggest that perhaps after his experience in “paradise” he gravitated towards the Greek mystery schools such as the Eleusinian, in which participants drank plant mixtures that induced altered states of consciousness. I further conjectured that he, Aher, and Akiva remained good friends respecting each others different paths of spirituality. Respect and tolerance would come, I surmised, from their experience and understanding that the true nature of divinity, indeed reality, and how one lives a good life is beyond the trappings of any particular religious form. (There is a chapter in Crossing the Boundary devoted to this story and the nature of heresy).
In our time, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, like Akiva, entered the mystical state and also brought a new vision of Judaism to his people. He was the primary founder and organizer of the Jewish Renewal movement. For the last fifty years of his life he focused on bringing direct spiritual experience to Jewish individuals and groups with an open-minded cultural mindset. Steeped in his early training in the ultra-orthodox Jewish world, he opened to learn from and integrate teachings from a wide range of other spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism and more.
I had the privilege to attend a number of his retreats and teachings and experience first-hand his generous, joyous and wise spirit. Several of the folks I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary shared stories of their encounters with Reb Zalman and his profound openness to their alternate spiritual paths. Some wondered aloud about whether they would have chosen a Jewish path if they had met him in their formative years. He was an honorary Sufi Sheikh and participated with an open heart in ceremonies and rituals of other faiths. In the article in The Forward, he is pictured laughing with Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), well known as a spiritual teacher who chose Buddhist meditation and the Hindu guru, Neem Karoli Baba, rather than following his family’s Jewish religious path.
Reb Zalman spoke of Jewish identity and what he called Jewish PTSD, the inherited trauma in the Jewish collective psyche from centuries of abuse, pogroms and the Holocaust perpetrated primarily in the Christian world. He reflected that this imprinted trauma and fear was a contributor to the Jewish community’s fear-based relationship to the Israeli conflict with the Palestinian people. But he mostly withdrew from political involvement to focus on his spiritual teachings for healing the psyche and soul and advancing the development of the Jewish Renewal movement. He appears to have sensed his mission to be the transmission of the joy of renewed spirituality that bridged people of all faiths, a recognition that Paradise is not for one chosen people.
Reb Zalman embraced people of other faiths and Jews who chose other faiths even though he was deeply embedded in the practice of his own Jewish traditions. As with my understanding of Akiva and Elisha ben Abuya, the people in Crossing the Boundary, (Sufi, shaman, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, etc.) walk side by side with him.
For a most eloquent and factual tribute to Reb Zalman recently published in The Forward, please see: