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Thanks to the now-late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

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My mother’s father’s parents at least weekly went to the orthodox synagogue three blocks from their home, which was around a mile from mine. I finally went there in 1974 at age eleven for a cousin’s bar mitzvah, and saw first-hand the separation of men and women at religious services. Women sat on the side in the front rows, rather than being relegated to the back of the room. However, women were still segregated, and not counted towards the minyan of ten men traditionally considered as necessary for god to hear humans’ prayers.

Little did I know at the time that several years earlier, a Lubavitcher Chasidic rabbi named Zalman Schachter-Shalomi had already taken inspiration from the developments in the Sixties, and from his experience with psychedelics, to spearhead the Jewish Renewal movement, that reinjected joy and spirit, rather than stultifyingly long praying, and fully welcomes women and men as equals, welcomes intermarried couples, and welcomed people of all sexual orientations. In fact, I knew nothing about Zalman until around 2005 when I read Bhagavan Das in It’s Here Now (Are You?) talk about spending time with Zalman in New Mexico with a Native America spiritual leader, consuming peyote with Zalman.

I then found and read Zalman’s Jewish With Feeling, learning his message that it was generally best to find spirituality from one’s spiritual tradition that one has grown up with, and to do it with full feeling, not by rote nor by fear of the deity. Zalman joyously interacted with leaders in other religions, including with Muslim religious leaders as part of his urging peace between Israelis and Arabs.

Nearby Zalman’s Jewish With Feeling on the bookstore shelf was Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew In the Lotus (the Buddha is said to have sat on a lotus flower)  which chronicles the author’s joining several rabbis invited by the Dalai Lama to meet in Dharamsala, as part of the Dalai Lama’s exploration of religious and cultural survival in diaspora. One of the rabbis on that trip was Zalman. See this enchanting picture of the Dalai Lama tugging on Zalman’s beard while Zalman pats the Dalai Lama’s shoulder, showing the engaging power of their inner playful children. In the small world department, I realized the the Jewish Renewal spearheaded by Zalman was an umbrella for the same Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Center in Maryland where I had been attending annual holiday services, led by David Shneyer, who is a remarkable man, rabbi and musician.

Zalman acknowledged that many Jewish people were following a Buddhist path, and many are key Western Buddhist leaders, including Thubten Chodron, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, who was born Jewish and who interacted with the rabbis when they visited the Dalai Lama in what became the Jew in the Lotus story. He had pointed out the exotic aspects of other religion, but for me, Buddhism attracts me less for anything exotic, and more for its emphasis on inner and outer peace and non-duality. I learned nearly four years ago that Judaism teaches a non-dualistic approach of sorts, which is bitul hayesh.

Zalman emphasized making a good transition into elderhood, coining the process as sage-ing, while Ram Dass underlines that we are not defined by our bodies, which we transcend.

Zalman left his body on July 3, 2014. I understand that his influence extended deeply and widely beyond Jewish Renewal. Here is what some other people have said after his passing:

– Rabbi Michael Lerner, in Tikkun;

Rabbi Arthur Waskow;

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Deeply thanking and bowing to Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.