"I do not believe that anyone
has the exclusive franchise on the truth.
What we Jews have is a good approximation, for Jews, of how to get there.
Ultimately, each person creates a way that fits his own situation.
While there are differences between Jewish and non-Jewish
approaches to mysticism in specific methods, observances, and rituals,
there are no differences in the impact of the experiences themselves.
When it comes to what I call the 'heart stuff,' all approaches overlap."
One of the great trans-traditional spiritual
teachers of our times;
Professor Emeritus of Religion at Temple University;
past Holder of the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University;
founder of the Spiritual Eldering Institute and
the Rabbinic Chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Reb Zalman is a transformational founder
and leader of the Jewish Renewal Movement and internationally recognized
teacher of the heart who draws from many disciplines and cultures. As
a modern master of the methods of transformational psychology, he uses
prayer and meditation, movement and song, storytelling and philosophical
discourse, to present the central teachings of Hasidism and Kabbalah in
a contemporary and heartfelt manner along with other universal spiritual
truths gleaned from Sufi, Buddhist, Shamanic, Native American and traditional
He is President of Spiritual Eldering Institute,
which teach elders how to expand their lives and consciousnesses to meet
their extended life span.
Born in Poland in 1924 and raised in
Vienna, he fled the Nazi advance by coming to the United States in 1941.
He was ordained in 1947 and received a Ph.D. in 1968 from Hebrew Union
At one level, the phrase expresses the deep piety of a rabbi who seeks
God within a great mystical stream, a rabbi trained in the exacting traditions
of the Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher Hasidim.
It also expresses the courage and broad-mindedness of a religious leader
who has opened himself again and again to other classical spiritual traditions
from Catholicism to Buddhism, and to psychology; bodywork, feminism, environmentalism,
and much else.
Schachter-Shalomi has become the great sage of a worldwide movement of
Jewish renewal by virtue of his keen understanding of where his own tradition
can connect with the psycho-eco-spiritual revolutions of our millennial
As the founder of the P'nai Or (Children of Light) religious fellowship
and the rabbinic chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Schachter-Shalomi
has inspired and guided a movement for an observant, deeply traditional
Judaism that is at the same time warm, experientially based, gender-equal,
environmentally aware, nonhierarchical, and grounded in renewed liturgy.
Born Zalman Schachter in 1924 in Poland, the rabbi-to-be soon moved with
his family to Vienna, where he attended both a traditional yeshiva and
a socialist-Zionist high school. When the Nazis threatened, the Schachters
getting out of Europe just before the Holocaust (Antwerp, detained in
a camp in Vichy France, escaped to Africa, the West Indies, and finally
to NewYork in 1941).
"Having been saved from the Holocaust. . . I felt something was needed
from me to give back," he recalled. "I saw what was happening
to our tradition, that it was being diminished. That the best and most
advanced of our people had been decimated. So I was moved to think about
creating a Noah's Ark for our tradition." In other words, he was
looking for forces within Judaism that would re-energize it and make it
self-confident again. Having been excited by the intense mystical piety
of the Lubavitcher movement, Schachter (he would add Shalomi to his name
in the 1970s) attended the central Lubavitcher yeshiva in Brooklyn, where
he took rabbinic ordination in 1947. Stints of teaching and serving as
a congregational rabbi at Lubavitch synagogues in Connecticut and Massachusetts
Already Schachter was showing signs of an iconoclastic temperament. In
his congregations, he allowed women to take part more fully in worship
and introduced guitars into the liturgy. He also entered a graduate program
in the psychology of religion at Boston University, where he enrolled
in a class in spiritual disciplines and resources taught by the great
African American theologian and social activist Howard Thurman. Uncertain
how he would fit into a Methodist-run university and a class taught by
a Protestant pastor, the rabbi expressed his anxieties to Thurman.
"He put his coffee mug on his desk and began to look at his hands,"
Schachter-Shalomi recalls. "Suddenly he spoke. 'Don't you trust the
Ruach-ha-Kodesh?" Not only did Thurman invoke the Spirit of Holiness
in good biblical Hebrew, but he went to his phonograph and put on a recording
of Max Bruch's setting of the ancient Kol Nidre prayer, sung on Yom Kippur.
"Soon I began saying to myself; Zalman, relax!"
Thurman's course was another revelation. The students experimented with
various kinds of spiritual exercises, which "frequently took the
form of guided meditations,' Schachter-Shalomi recalls. "In one kind
of exercise, we were instructed to translate an experience from one sense
to another-we would read a psalm several times, then listen to a piece
by Bach, to 'hear' the meaning of the psalm in the sounds of the music.
. . . In this way our senses were released from their usual narrow constraints
and freed to tune in to the cosmos, to touch God."
When he joined the Near Eastern and Judaic studies department of the University
of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1956, Schachter was still looking for ways
to restore Jewish traditions, not change or renew them. The Jewish Essene
monastic tradition revealed by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the vigorous spirituality
of the Hasidim, and the treasures of Kabbalistic mysticism were pre-Holocaust
resources that could give Jews hope and energy after the great European
During a sabbatical in 1968, Reb Zalman took part in the founding of a
chavurah- a small Jewish study group-in Boston. "We did remarkable
things with liturgy;" he says. "Having seen how people sat and
meditated on cushions, we did it too. We used a lot of body movements
and dance in what we were doing, and that was part of the delight. And
gradually I was moved from restoration to a whole other idea that had
to do with renewal."
These were among the first stirrings of the Jewish Renewal movement, an
effor t to re-energize Jewish piety by making it more emotionally satisfying,
inclusive, experimental, experiential, and compelling. For Jews who were
alienated from the sometimes tepid rationalism of the Reform movement
and the stern ritualism of the more traditional denominations, the brilliant
neo-Hasidic writings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were a
call to embrace the living fire of a slightly different traditionalism-the
great tradition of ecstatic union with God carried by the Hasidic mystics.
At the same time it was a call to link themselves to the world of the
moment, its pains, possibilities, and lessons, its psychospiritual breakthroughs
and political changes.
Schachter-Shalomi's teaching begins with an emphasis on experience over
doctrine, the felt yearning for God over abstract ideas about the Deity.
There's also a powerful orientation toward the future in his idea of faith. "Faith is tossing out into the future an anticipation for which I
don't have proof," he says. "But I feel attracted in a direction
and when I follow this direction it is faith that pulls me there."
He sees God not as a stern old man living "up there," but as
a force both outside and inside us that draws us to Himself (or Herself).
"From Age-ing to Sage-ing"
"Gate to the Heart and Spiritual Intimacy".