TWO summers ago, when Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was 87, he asked his close friend Rabbi Marc Soloway of Boulder’s Bonai Shalom to allow him to use his backyard for an unprecedented ritual.
It was, to put it bluntly, a rehearsal for death.
“Reb Zalman has been preparing us for death for years now,” Soloway emailed the Intermountain Jewish News after the July 3, 2014, death of the father of the Jewish Renewal movement.
“In fact, he has been teaching us to die with grace and with love.
“But in the way that only Reb Zalman could conceive, he decided he wanted to experience tahara, the ritual washing and preparing of a body before burial, while still alive!”
Schachter-Shalomi, a kohen whose footprints expanded the boundaries of Jewish outreach, was born to an Orthodox family with Belzer chasidic roots.
Soloway, also a kohen, says the process was also a first for him.
“At first I had resistance to the whole idea,” Soloway says, “as I often did to Reb Zalman’s iconoclastic reworking of tradition, his holy chutzpah, so to speak.
“The times when I have overcome these resistances have been when I learned the most in my life, challenging my own perception of what is the right way to do things in our tradition.”
Soloway describes the experience.
Reb Zalman, covered in a bathing suit, was placed on a massage table near the garden overlooking a creek. The men gently poured water over his body and chanted prayers.
Granted, this was just a dry run. Still, the ritual heightened everyone’s awareness of the body’s fragility and the soul’s elevation.
When Schachter-Shalomi died in the early morning hours of July 3, Soloway donned his tefilin and recited the morning prayers in the garden that served as the rehearsal site two years before.
“I asked Reb Zalman for guidance to help me with the awesome and awful task of laying him to rest,” Soloway says.
“This time, for real.”
Soloway, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski, head of Chabad of South Metro Denver, spoke at the July 4 graveside service at Green Mountain Cemetery in Boulder.
Reb Zalman had requested a small service, in part to reduce carbon emissions. He also scheduled an early start time to beat the heat.
Rabbi Yisroel Wilhem of Chabad at CU, who conversed regularly with Reb Zalman, was in New York City and unable to attend. Wilhelm tells the IJN that they had planned to meet upon his return to Boulder.
The meeting never took place.
FOR Serebryanski, the call from Boulder’s chevra kadisha asking him to help with Reb Zalman’s tahara and speak at the funeral service hit like a bolt out of the blue.
“We talked a few times, usually with Rabbi Wilhelm, and we shared the chasidic culture,” he says. “But to think that Reb Zalman wanted me to partake in his tahara and funeral — I don’t know why.”
Serebryanski, who performs tahara for homeless Jews and regards it as a crucial mitzvah, immediately agreed to participate in the ritual washing for Reb Zalman.
“Evie Cohen of Boulder’s chevra kadisha asked me, and I said yes,” Serebryanski says. “Then, on my way back to Denver, she called again and told me I would be saying a few words at the service.
“It was one of those rare times that I showed up at a funeral, looked around and didn’t recognize any faces in the community.
“This is a time when a lot of people are basking in reflected glory,” Serebryanski says of numerous acquaintances of Reb Zalman who regarded him as their personal advisor.
“I don’t even have his phone number! But for some reason he felt a connection, and wanted Rabbi Wilhelm and I to deliver eulogies. Why me? I can’t say for sure.
“Reb Zalman and I had good chemistry from the moment we met. I do remember that.”
Cohen says that telephoning Serebryanski was one of her first priorities that chaotic Thursday.
She suspects that having a Chabad presence at the service may have carried symbolic weight for Reb Zalman.
“I just think he wanted to honor their outreach efforts and keeping Judaism alive,” she says.
Cohen, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, says she grew up with a blasé attitude toward Judaism. She credits Reb Zalman for reigniting the fires of Judaism in both her and her sister.
“He was totally ecumenical,” she says. “He knew so much about everything, and he wanted peace for all of us.”
Did Serebryanski’s presence at the service represent a partial act of teshuva on Reb Zalman’s part?
“Perhaps,” Cohen says. “Reb Zalman always said, ‘Chabad is the regular army and I’m the CIA.’ In other words, they had the same mission.
“Reb Zalman was certainly not abandoning his own beliefs. I think he wanted to acknowledge Chabad’s outreach to Jews. This was important to him.”
There has been speculation that the inclusion of a Chabad emissary, the genesis of Schachter-Shalomi’s rabbinic quest, might indicate a form of teshuva.
“I have no idea,” Sebryanski says. “I did make sure that many things I did were based according to Halachah (Jewish law) and Shabbat traditions, and followed the rituals to the best of my ability.
“We had different traditions. But you must listen to the requests of the deceased.”
Serebryanski did say that Reb Zalman was buried in his father’s thick European talit, a symbol of the Judaic explorer’s chasidic past.
“I attended the service as an individual, not as a rabbi or representative of the chasidic movement,” Serebryanski says. “I came as a friend, a chaver.”
ZALMAN Meshullam Schachter was born in 1924 in Poland to a chasidic family. For three years he fled Nazi oppression. His family moved from Vienna to Belgium, France, North Africa and the Caribbean before landing in the US in 1941.
Reb Zalman studied under the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, in Brooklyn. He was ordained a chasidic rabbi in 1947.
He told the IJN in 1992 that it “was precisely because the Lubavitch had a great vision that I was attracted to them in the first place.
“If it hadn’t been for the teachings of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, for instance — about how one is to achieve the wider consciousness — I would not have bothered to go to the yeshiva.
“The promise that this implied was to begin with great and awesome consciousness.”
Reb Zalman’s intellectual and spiritual curiosity eventually forced him to look outside the chasidic framework — but this life-changing transformation occurred without epiphanies or revelations.
“As I started working with the people as an emissary [under the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] I realized that it’s a two-way street,” he told the IJN. “The more I heard their questions, the more I shared my cosmology with them.”
Reb Zalman said the gradual evolution that spawned the Jewish Renewal movement did not manifest itself as a crisis of faith. It was, in his view, a ticket to a higher dimension grounded in the tenets of Judaism.
He redefined his relationship with his rebbe, his religion and himself.
“So when people say, ‘Are you angry with Chabad?’ I say no, I just graduated,” he told the IJN. “It’s a very good school and I still honor my alma matter, but I graduated.”
In the mid-1950s, Reb Zalman embarked on an exploration of Oriental meditation, Buddhism, Sufism, Roman Catholicism and Native American traditions. He developed friendships with the Dalai Lama, Ram Dass, Eli Wiesel, Father Thomas Keating and Catholic mystic Thomas Merton.
The photographs that appeared in the IJN — collected from his youth until his last interview here in 2003 — document a life of constant fluctuation: Reb Zalman in short hair; wearing peyos; dressed in business attire; sporting a cap and sunglasses; his aging, white- bearded nobility.
THROUGHOUT his mental travels, Reb Zalman used chasidic Judaism as his base of operations. Soon, however, his independent approach to Judaism resulted in a heated break with traditional Orthodoxy.
“I learned a lot from Lubavitch and Bobov and these other chasidic movements,” Reb Zalman told the IJN, “but then I learned something else — that there is such a thing as generic spirituality.
“So many Jews, in order to get to G-d, had to sort of go around” to reach a spiritual plane.
In 1962, Reb Zalman met Timothy Leary and dropped LSD. “It was clear that what I’d experienced in prayer and meditation before — the oneness and connection with G-d — was true, but it wasn’t just Jewish,” he told author Sara Davidson in The December Project.
During this period, Reb Zalman helped nurture a Jewish group in 1968 that ultimately morphed into the Chavurah movement. And at some point, he changed his name to Schachter-Shalomi.
Reb Zalman, who lived in Philadelphia from 1975 to 1995 (often described as his most fertile decades) founded a Jewish Renewal congregation there in 1978. The concept spread slowly but surely throughout the US.
In 1993, P’nai Or merged with Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center to form Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. This marked the official launch of the Jewish Renewal movement.
Reb Zalman earned his MA in the psychology of religion from Boston University, a PhD from HUC and taught at Temple University, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and major institutions.
The Dalai Lama invited Reb Zalman and a diverse group of Jewish leaders to travel to Dharamsala, India, in 1990. Author Rodger Kamanetz wrote about the encounter in The Jew and the Lotus.
In the 1992 interview, the IJN asked Reb Zalman why, considering his immersion into a wide swath of faiths, he still practiced as a rabbi.
“The answer is very clear to me,” he said. “Everybody has a call, and my call is to work with Jews. It’s as simple as that. And I find those Jews all over the place.”
When Reb Zalman moved to Boulder in 1995 to assume the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa Institute, he landed in a city teeming with unaffiliated Jews, some starving for a spiritual gateway to their religion.
It was a perfect marriage that blessed Boulder’s Jewish community with many public gifts and infinite private memories.
Reb Zalman founded the Boulder-based Center for Engaged Jewish Studies and launched the Jewish Renewal’s ordination program.
Several years ago he “retired” as head of the Renewal movement in order to train a new generation of leadership. He also donated the Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi Collection to CU’s Program in Jewish Studies.
As those “December years” gathered him in their arms, Reb Zalman continued speaking at retreats and writing books. And he loved taking part in services representing all Boulder affiliations — including Lubavitch.
In his final interview with the IJN in 2003, Reb Zalman hoped that people appropriated his guru-like status to realize their own potential.
“It’s a wonderful thing because people need to have a symbol,” he said. “But if I can be a model, I don’t want to be an archetypal model. I want to be an accessible model.
“If I’m an accessible model, it says that you can do likewise.”
Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi is survived by his wife of 20 years Eve Ilsen; 10 children from three previous marriages; grandchildren; great-grandchildren; and two siblings.
Contributions may be sent to the Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Endowment Fund for Jewish Renewal.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News