When I first heard about Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi known as Reb Zalman or just plain Zalman by his students and friends I was a yeshiva high-school student, and the story being told was one of the Jewish world's equivalents of an urban legend: awesomely outlandish, yet so perfect it just had to be true.
Reb Zalman, so the story went, had been a devout Lubavitcher rabbi. In the early 1960s, he just happened to be seated on an airplane next Dr. Richard Alpert of Harvard University who, along with Dr. Timothy Leary, was then conducting experiments with a mind-altering substance known as LSD. Alpert told the mystically inclined rabbi that he had in his possession a drug that, taken in the right circumstances, by the right person, could help one see God. Before the plane had landed, the story went, Alpert had handed Zalman a dose of something that was about to change his life and the face of 20th century American Judaism forever.
"Not true," Zalman told me this summer, as we talked in the basement of his split-level home in Boulder, Colorado, nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where he moved 10 years ago with his fourth wife, Eve Ilsen. For a moment I was disappointed. I had long relished my teenage image of a Hasidic rabbi on acid, his consciousness suddenly soaring into unchartered territory, the black letters of all the sacred texts he had absorbed over the years transformed into a multi-colored kaleidoscope of revelations. But the real story, like the real rabbi, was even better than the legend.
"I first took acid with Leary," recalled Zalman in his characteristically deep, warm voice. At 81, his demeanor and energy are those of a much younger man. "That was several years before I knew Alpert. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave me a bracha (blessing) before I did it".
Almost totally unknown in Israel until recently Yedioth Ahronoth will publish his first book in Hebrew for the local public, coauthored by one of his Israeli students, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, later this year Reb Zalman, wise-guy as well as wise-man, provocateur, prophet, holy clown and Hasidic sage, has, over the last decade or two, begun to be recognized as one of the most influential rabbinic figures in postwar America. The Jewish Renewal movement, founded and still headed by Zalman, was originally conceived as post- or trans-denominational, but it is fast becoming a fifth Jewish denomination, joining Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist on the American Jewish scene. The movement combines kabbala (Jewish mysticism) and feminism, ritual creativity and extreme flexibility in regard to halakha (traditional Jewish law), and is open to insights and techniques borrowed from other religions. About 50 synagogues, most in the United States but some in Brazil, England and Israel as well, are affiliated with the Renewal movement; some 50 students are currently studying for rabbinic ordination through the movement's official organizing body, called Aleph.
Zalman's eminence and his advancing age has not gone unnoticed. The well-funded Reb Zalman Legacy Project has been created to record, preserve and transcribe the hundreds of teaching audio and video cassettes and articles that his students have accumulated over the years. And Zalman's unique history and polymorphous versatility he is equally at home writing Hasidic tracts in traditional rabbinic Hebrew, speaking about Eastern mysticism and Western philosophy, using metaphors borrowed from the world of science and high-tech, or discussing theology with Jesuit priests has boosted his influence far beyond the confines of the movement he founded.
In 1995, Zalman was asked by the nonprofit Naropa Institute, a liberal-arts college in Boulder specializing in integrating Eastern spirituality and Western disciplines such as psychology and philosophy, to fill its World Wisdom Chair. In the nexus between Eastern and Western forms of religion that has become the unofficial and amorphous doctrine of Americans on the left who are "spiritually" inclined, Zalman is perceived as perhaps the preeminent representative of authentic Jewish wisdom and certainly the most accessible. On panels that might include Eastern sage Dalai Lama and Rev. Desmond Tutu, representing enlightened Christianity, it is more often than not Zalman who is called on to speak for the Jews.
Chance meeting Despite the story I heard in high school, Zalman was never a typical Hasid. He was born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna. His father, a liberal Belzer Hasid, sent him simultaneously to a traditional Hasidic heder and a socialist-Zionist gymnasium. By the time he was a teenager, scarred and embittered by the oncoming Holocaust that had sent his family fleeing from Austria on a route that would take them to Belgium, France, North Africa, the Caribbean and finally the United States, young Zalman had already rebelled against traditional notions of divine providence and the promise of reward in the afterlife. A chance meeting with a freethinking group of Lubavitcher Hasidim working as diamond cutters in Antwerp helped him channel his heretical questioning toward the answers that could be found in Jewish philosophy and mysticism. He quickly became immersed in the worldview of Chabad Hasidism.
From his arrival in New York City in 1941 and up until 1968 when a talk he gave on kabbala and LSD goaded the Lubavitch establishment to banish him from their midst Zalman was officially associated with the movement. "I was a good apparatchik," he told me. Sent out by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early 1950s, along with the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, as the movement's first rabbinic shlichim (envoys), Zalman spent years as a kind of itinerant rabbi and community jack-of all-trades.
Despite his mystical leanings, Zalman is also extraordinarily gifted in the realm of praxis: He has served, at various times, as a mohel (ritual circumciser), scribe, and even as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in an industrial slaughterhouse, where he would gather the chickens together and talk to them about God before dispatching them, much to the amusement of the mostly gentile workers watching him dressed in overalls covered with feathers and blood.
Voraciously intelligent and unstoppably curious, Zalman's loyalty to Lubavitch did not prevent him from nourishing a fascination with other religions, including Sufi Islam, Buddhism and American Indian Shamanism. By 1956, he had earned a master's degree in the psychology of religion at Boston University, and soon after took up a teaching post in Manitoba University in Canada.
Meanwhile, Zalman was beginning to experiment with Jewish ritual. At Camp Ramah, a Conservative movement summer camp where he served as the "religious environmentalist," he encouraged teenage girls to write prayers reflecting or celebrating the onset and cessation of menstruation, and sent each camper in turn for 24-hour prayer retreats in an isolated cabin in the woods. He designed the colorfully striped "rainbow tallit" (prayer shawl) that is popular now even in some Orthodox circles. Zalman's campers were later instrumental in founding the Havura movement, an informal network of students and intellectuals influenced by the spirit of the 1960s, who sought to express Judaism in ways that circumvented the Jewish establishment. It was his students who also wrote and published "The Jewish Catalog," an enormously popular hippie-style compendium of resources for creating a do-it-yourself Jewish community.
It was while on a field trip with students that Zalman first encountered Timothy Leary, the apostle of LSD and one of the key figures in the cultural ferment of the 1960s, at Ananda, a center for Eastern spirituality. "He was a big guy and he was teasing me, making barbed comments about the Holocaust and about the Old Testament," Zalman recalled. "When I found out who he was, I told him that I had heard about LSD and was interested in trying it".
The group's first stop had been Lubavitch headquarter in Brooklyn, where Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson made a point of plying Zalman with tall tumblers of vodka, and blessing him so that he would have "a successful retreat" and "a successful meditation." In retrospect, Zalman believes that the Rebbe was presciently blessing his upcoming LSD trip. Zalman later asked the Rebbe if he would be interested in taking LSD himself, but Rabbi Schneerson politely declined.
Watershed trip The LSD trip itself, a week later, was a watershed for Zalman liberating and confusing, an experience that simultaneously undermined and confirmed his faith. In 1966, asked to contribute to a special Commentary Magazine colloquium on the state of Jewish belief, he wrote:
"The most serious challenges to Judaism posed by modern thought and experience are to me game theory and psychedelic experience. Once I realize the game structure of my commitments, once I see how all my theologizing is just an elaborate death struggle between my soul and the God within her, or when I can undergo the deepest cosmic experience via some minuscule quantity of organic alkaloids or LSD, then the whole validity of my ontological assertions is in doubt. But game theory works the other way too. God too is playing a game of hide-and-seek with himself and me. The psychedelic experience can be not only a challenge, but also a support of my faith. After seeing what really happens at the point where all is one and where God-immanent surprises God-transcendent and they merge in cosmic laughter, I can also see Judaism in a new and amazing light. "
The religious power of psychedelic experience was only the most visceral and personal of a series of challenges and shaping events that prompted the development of Zalman's central premise that Judaism was in the midst of a "paradigm shift" in which its traditional theology and religious practices would rightly and necessarily have to be rearranged or replaced in order to fit the new "reality map" that was in the process of emerging.
Thomas Kuhn, a historian of science, had first used the notion of paradigm shift in his seminal book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." He had argued that the reigning scientific worldview often ignores anomalies that challenge its theories until too many of these build up and, after a period of crisis, a new, revolutionary model is born. One example of this process is the Copernican revolution in which it was suddenly realized that the earth revolves around the sun and not visa versa; another would be the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics.
Zalman's list of world-shaking trends and events that demand a new reality map is long, varied and far from systematic: It includes the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of manmade environmental disaster, the picture of the earth as a single blue-tinged orb taken from outer space, the wholesale assimilation of much of American Jewry, and the new and undeniable access of the world's religious believers to each other's faith system and even esoteric traditions. Whereas Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism had emerged as a response to modernity's rationalist and scientific challenge to religious belief, Zalman's search for a paradigm shift was not a reaction to the sway of reason, but to the demands of a new social and spiritual awareness that grasped all of humanity and the earth itself as a single entity with a single fate. The alternative to more Hiroshimas or to an ecological holocaust, was the development of a new kind of global spirituality that respected even revered religious tradition, but recognized that its elements would have to be experimented with and rearranged in order to create new religious forms that could speak to humanity's current crisis.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now