Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – Jewish, With Feeling

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l

My copy of Jewish With Feeling wasn’t on the shelf.

“Oh,” I said to my husband, Ralf, “I remember. I lent it to someone. Again.”

Jewish With Feeling is one of many books by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on my shelf. It is also a book I lend out more often than any other in our library. It is a book anyone can read – without fear of knowing too little; without fear of knowing too much.

It is a reflection of Zalman’s spirit: Light-filled, opening, welcoming, rich.

Reb Zalman died this morning, just weeks away from his ninetieth birthday celebration.

He was the founder of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The ALEPH seminary has ordained over 80 religious leaders. I am among them. I learned, at this seminary, the difference between rebbe and rabbi; I learned to be the former even when I was called the latter.

He was friends with countless other religious leaders across the world. One was the Dalai Lama. Their encounters were described in Rodger Kamenetz’ book The Jew in the Lotus.

I read the book well before discovering Jewish Renewal. I very much liked the Reb Zalman I met there – years before I got to like him in person.

Reb Zalman reached out to the disaffected, to the secular Jew, the alienated Jew, to any Jew. You only needed to stop for a moment and he could hold you with a story – each blessed with an unforgettable punch line that always, inevitably, elicited a smile, outright laughter, a nod, or a tear.

This morning I told a friend, “He gave something to everyone.”

Wisdom, first and foremost. I learned from Zalman to put aside the siddur and listen for the prayer that needed to be voiced. I learned, from Reb Zalman, to recover the Jewish practice of spontaneous blessing, though I am certain he would have understood why I so closely observed Christian friends practicing their own take on that art.

I learned from Reb Zalman that it was the task of the rebbe to look into the soul of a congregant.

Zalman was a seer of souls. The first time I met him was after he attended a service I co-led in 2005. He remarked on my “singing smile.” Later, that very day, he dedicated one of his books to me, to one “who delights in tefillah.”

Of all the facts of my life, this is one that has never failed. Give me any opportunity to sing prayer and I will know God’s presence for the gift it is. Zalman (fore)saw that.

In his book, Wrapped in Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters, Zalman quotes his friend, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z”l: “How do you know that you have met your true teacher? Whatever this person teaches you, you knew it all along.”

Reb Zalman taught people what they knew all along – that went for everyone, Jewish or not.

I teach his work. For me, his most gorgeous teachings were these: Look into the soul before you. Help make our texts speak. Tell our stories and live them in the telling.

Show others what it is to be Jewish with feeling.

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