Father of Jewish Renewal Movement Dies

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

He was laid to rest on Independence Day, a most fitting time for such a free spirit, and toward the end of this process I looked overhead and four eagles were quietly circling, soaring high in the azure sky. Bob Atchley

(JTA) — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, died on the 4th of July, 2014.

A maverick rabbi from an Orthodox background who spent time in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Schachter-Shalomi transitioned over time toward a New Age, neo-Hasidic approach, gaining a substantial following on his own but also influencing other Jewish denominations.

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/07/03/news-opinion/united-states/rabbi-zalman-schachter-shalomi-father-of-jewish-renewal-dies#ixzz36dc4YZei

Infected by Reb Zalman—Yes! By Bob Atchley

Imagine that there existed a benevolent virus that, once you were infected, kindled in you a hunger for a spiritual life, implanted an image of what the spiritual journey of later adulthood might look like, instilled faith that such a life was possible, provided practices and nurtured the motivation needed to stay on the path, and uncovered the compassion needed to bring that wisdom into the world by revitalizing the wisdom-keeping role of Elder. This isn’t science fiction. It actually happened to me and many others beginning in the 1990s.

I was infected by Reb Zalman in the spring of 1992. I was attending a conference on Conscious Aging, put on by the Omega Institute. I knew several people on the program, but had not met Reb Zalman. On the first day of the conference, Reb Zalman presented his view of Sage-ing as a process of spiritual growth that would enable elders to take up their ancient functions as wisdom keepers in ways that fit our 20th Century world. As someone who had been studying aging for more than 30 years, I knew Reb Zalman was onto something important. In the early 1960s I had found in my interviews that many older people were going well past formulaic religion to develop deeper spiritual understanding and that for the most part neither religion nor gerontology was developing or offering knowledge that could help them with this process. Reb Zalman’s charismatic presentation laid out a step-by-step process for nurturing this new vision. Reb Zalman’s vision infected my imagination.

The following year at the American Society on Aging annual meeting, both Reb Zalman and I gave talks in a session on spirituality. He talked about Sage-ing; I talked about late life spiritual development from a Hindu perspective. After our session, I had lunch with Reb Zalman and Eve. He accurately described my talk as “Vedanta without the curry,” meaning that I had described basic ideas in Vedantic philosophy without using Indian language, which I took as a compliment. Reb Zalman’s understanding of Vedantic and Buddhist psychology and sociology were spot on, and we had no difficulty at all crossing intellectual boundaries in our discussion. In little more than a half-hour, I discovered that Reb Zalman and I were compatible intellectual collaborators. We were both open, flexible, and focused on the spiritual center of things. Reb Zalman had infected me with his enthusiasm for collaborative study and enquiry.

In 1996, my wife Sheila and I decided that it was time for us to retire from Miami University in Ohio. We wanted to live in or near mountains, so Boulder was one of several places we visited in the Rocky Mountains. It did not take us long to select Boulder as our destination when we retired in 1998. Reb Zalman had accepted an appointment as World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University in Boulder beginning in the fall of 1996. I had not planned to seek another academic job, but Naropa needed a chair for their graduate department of gerontology and Reb Zalman encouraged me to take the job, which I did. Being able to hang out with Reb Zalman was an important incentive for me to join Naropa. Reb Zalman was helping me satisfy my need for dialog with Sages.

We had been in Boulder for just a week when Reb Zalman invited me to attend the “Monday Morning Group,“ an eclectic mixture of spiritually-oriented academics, practitioners, artists, and activists who met at 7:30 A.M. each Monday morning at Reb Zalman and Eve’s home. Reb Zalman convened the group, and each week we would have presentations or be taught spiritual practices by members. The openness, acceptance, feedback, and social support offered in this group were extraordinary. We wandered in and around several themes: How do we nourish and refresh our connection to our spiritual core? How do we bring the transcendent levels of consciousness and awareness and spiritual knowledge that we develop on our spiritual journey into our everyday activities? How do we connect with other like-minded and spiritually-centered people to influence social policy? How can we nurture the spiritual experiences of children?

I have regularly attended these weekly meetings for 16 years, and I can attest to the many ways that Reb Zalman quietly made himself available to be the spiritual glue for the group. He was always the Rabbi, but he was also an accomplished scholar of comparative religion who understood various spiritual doctrines and practices in terms of the basic functions they were designed to perform. Once you understand that, he said, you can then see changes that might be made to allow ancient ideas and practices to appear fresh in today’s techno-intellectual culture. It was no accident that Reb Zalman was the founder and chief flak-catcher for the Jewish Renewal Movement , the Sage-ing Movement, and a host of other spiritual and religious innovations over the years. I was infected by Reb Zalman’s gentle, optimistic, benevolent activism.

Sitting in the Monday Morning Group, I would watch Reb Zalman, dressed in sweatpants, flannel shirt, and bedroom slippers, put in his hearing aids and say, ”Let’s go deep inside and see what comes up for us to discuss today.” That was all it took to set us off on 90 minutes of productive fun, which always ended with a prayer for healing. The sessions were frequently punctuated by Reb Zalman’s deep booming laugh and the twinkle in his eye when he would ask a tough question or tell a story. What kept us together for such a long time was that we enjoyed the process and had learned to love each other by openly listening to one another year after year. Slow-cooking is a fine method of spiritual connection.

Being around the marvelous being called Reb Zalman week-in and week-out for many years affirmed for me that he was a master of all the qualities and skills of a Sage identified by Sage-ing International: openness, spiritual centeredness, flexibility, compassion, intellect, equanimity, presence, clarity, humility, sensing deeper questions, compassionate listening, having a non-judgmental, non-adversarial stance toward others, and comfort with diverse points of view. He did all this with good humor, a light heart, concern for the planet, and a good sense of when it was time to sing or tell a story.

Most important of all, Reb Zalman embodied his teaching. He was the teaching. We could learn the subtleties by just watching him do his thing. And oh how happy he was when he saw others work up their courage and begin to enjoy the ecstasy of integrity—walking their talk. Those of us in Sage-ing have been watching him for more than 25 years, so we are well-rehearsed and ready to step into his very big shoes. Reb Zalman made this easier by resigning from leadership roles in the various organizations he started. This forced us to re-create our leadership processes, which in every case I am aware of has made the organization stronger. This is certainly true for Sage-ing International. Reb Zalman was teaching us how to let go with grace.

The end of Reb Zalman’s life was a teaching also. Three years ago I had two long discussions with Reb Zalman about “the December Work,” in which we talked about what a graceful end of life is about and how to do your part in helping it happen. These ideas were brought together with great skill and authenticity by Sara Davidson in her book, The December Project, which was the result of two years’ work with Reb Zalman. His passing was the most graceful I have ever seen. He died quietly in his sleep, at home, with Eve by his side. He had planned and arranged to be buried in a beautiful cemetery plot high on a hill overlooking Boulder and the Great Plains to the East, with its amazingly wide blue sky. His body was buried in the ground, sans coffin, so he could literally return to his beloved Earth. He was laid to rest on Independence Day, a most fitting time for such a free spirit, and toward the end of this process I looked overhead and four eagles were quietly circling, soaring high in the azure sky.

Reb Zalman showed us how to die with grace—he was Grace, embodied for 89 years. Reb Zalman taught us that we can be grace, too. What a gift!

Comments are closed.