Remembering Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, for Many Voices

While I’ve lived in Boulder since 1979, it has been home to at least two spiritual teachers whose work will outlast them. The first was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist who founded Boulder’s Naropa University and its local Vajradhatu community, who died in 1987. The other was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who is credited with founding what has come to be known as the Jewish Renewal movement, and who died last week.

I never worked with Rabbi Zalman directly. I even had to search online to see if Sounds True had ever published him (we have—one title, from not that long ago). But I’ve been aware of him through his very active and articulate spiritual presence in Boulder for the last 20 years, including nearly a decade that he spent as holder of the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University. But I’m a double-graduate of Naropa Institute, which means I was long gone before Rabbi Zalman arrived to take the seat in 1995.

You should look elsewhere for Rabbi Zalman’s remarkable life story (which begins with fleeing the Nazis across Eastern Europe as a young adult and extends way beyond the unlikely success of his attempt to create a reformist movement from within Judaism in early-‘60s New York City).

Although it may be true that—as Rabbi Zalman claimed—the success of the Jewish Renewal Movement was and continues to be that so many people resonate with the basic sanity of its unitarian message and its humanitarian focus, I’m still amazed at what he was able to make out of his own personal awakening. We all have spiritual experiences, but how many of us have taken those realizations and created something of lasting value to others?

And then to be able to live long enough to see it grow from a proclamation into an international, self-governing, self-sustaining, and multigenerational humanitarian action committee in his own lifetime! And that’s only one of Rabbi Zalman’s many accomplishments.

His answer to a question about what effect taking LSD with Timothy Leary in 1962 had on his spiritual practice was quoted in the local paper in a news story on the day after his funeral: “It was clear that what I’d experienced in prayer and meditation before — the oneness and connection with God—was true, but it wasn’t just Jewish. I realized that all forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us. Behind all religions, there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people.”

I can almost hear the excitement in Rabbi Zalman’s voice as he relates his revelation. It’s the same excitement I heard every time I heard him speak. He was so excited! To be alive! Here with us!

Part of the reason people felt so good in Rabbi Zalman’s presence was that he felt so good to be in theirs. People saw themselves as better people reflected in his eyes. He brought hope to a wide variety of people in the same way Pope Francis unexpectedly brought hope to so many Catholics and humanists.

When I heard the not-unexpected news that Rabbi Zalman had died, I thought, Okay, transmission over. But no: Zalman had one more surprise; one last teaching that even made the front page of the local paper the day after his body was returned to the earth. He had asked not to be buried in a coffin, but wrapped only in brightly striped linens.

And I could hear that same excitement in his voice as his body was lowered into the ground: “Don’t hide it in a box, even when it’s death! Even when it’s painful, put your hands right on it!”

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