1924: A Rabbi Who Sought the Light Anywhere, Including in LSD, Is Born

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, scholar and author, thought Judaism should evolve, which took him beyond Chabad.

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Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, shown laughing, wearing black hat, brown glasses, white hair and white beard and mustache, open black coat, white shirt with top button open, standing in open air, with a big tree far behind him, in Denver, Colorado.
Zalman Schachter-ShalomiCredit: Edis Jurcys, 2005, Wikimedia Commons

August 28, 1924, is the birthdate of the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the man often credited with being the father of the Jewish Renewal movement.

Schachter-Shalomi began his rabbinical career doing campus outreach in North America for Lubavitch-Chabad. But he parted ways with that movement after he began publicly talking about the spiritual experiences he had while taking LSD.

Meshullam Zalman Schachter was born in Zolkiew, Poland (today Zhovka, Ukraine), and he grew up in Vienna. His father, Shlomo Schachter was a worldly Belzer Hasid, who saw to it that his son was exposed to both Hasidic and non-Hasidic Judaism. The son attended both Yeshivat Yesod Torah and a socialist-Zionist high school. His mother was Hayyah Gittel Schachter.

In December 1938, the family fled to Antwerp, Belgium. That is where Zalman had his first contact with Lubavitch Hasidism, while working as an apprentice diamond polisher.

After the start of the war, the family was interned and later imprisoned in France; at a detention camp in Marseille, Zalman had his first meeting with Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Schachters eventually ended up in the U.S., but only after an odyssey that took them to Spain, North Africa, and eventually to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Zalman's brother Akiva remained behind with his family in Oswiecim, Poland – also known as Auschwitz, where he died.  

Chabad mission in Massachusetts

Once in New York, Zalman sought out the Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe (and the father-in-law of Menachem Mendel), who had recently relocated the movement’s center from Europe to Brooklyn. He attended the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva, receiving ordination in 1947, and was sent to Massachusetts to work as a Chabad emissary.

In 1948, Schachter and a younger Lubavitch yeshiva student, Shlomo Carlebach, attended a Hanukkah party at the newly established Brandeis University, outside Boston. Carlebach later became the so-called “singing rabbi,” like Schachter-Shalomi, someone who would expand the boundaries of Judaism, reaching many Jews who lacked traditional backgrounds.

Schachter (he only added “Shalomi” to his name in the 1980s) earned a master's in the psychology of religion at Boston University. Later he would earn a doctorate in from Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati. He would teach at the University of Manitoba (1956-75), Temple University (1975-87) , the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and at Naropa, the Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado, where he held the "World Wisdom Chair."

But Reb Zalman, as he liked being called, is at least as well known for his non-academic work as for his university posts and scholarly books. He believed strongly that Judaism had to change and evolve, and he was willing to look outside its traditional boundaries for inspiration.

In his search for spiritual enlightenment, he took LSD with Timothy Leary (and lectured about "the sacramental value of lysergic acid"), led prayers for a free-love community in Berkeley where on Friday nights, there was a rule that "no one goes home alone," and collaborated with Sufis, African-Americans, Catholic monks and Buddhists. Schachter-Shalomi was part of the delegation of Jewish religious leaders who visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, in 1990, to talk about sustaining a religious community in exile. He also developed a new approach to kashrut, which combined the principles of sustainability and animal rights with traditional dietary law.

The Havurah movement was an outgrowth of his efforts to open up Judaism, and to integrate into religious practice meditation and mysticism. It started with a community in Somerville, Massachusetts, but grew into a national movement. In 1993, the Pnai Or movement he founded merged with the political and environmental action group the Shalom Center to become Aleph: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Based in Philadelphia, Aleph has a rabbinical ordination program, and serves as an umbrella for a number of Renewal communities.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was married four times, and was father to 10 children. He died on July 4, 2014, at age 89.