Portrait: Zalman Schacter-Shalomi
By Rahel Musleah

Rebbe or Rebel?

He's called Reb Zalman, and with his white hair and beard framing his face like a mantle of wisdom, he looks every inch the venerable sage.
When Reb Zalman speaks, traces of the Polish shtetl he was born into 72 years ago fade into the background. Yiddish blends with cosmology, Kabbala with Buddhism, psychospiritual jargon with computer lingo. Like a chameleon, he adapts to his surroundings, sometimes wearing kapote and streimel, sometimes shorts topped by a rainbow-colored talit and Birkenstock sandals.
There is no squeezing Zalman Schachter-Shalomi into conventional boxes. His distinctiveness lies in his ability to break through neat categories like scholar, sage, rebbe. He grew up in the cosmopolitan Vienna of Beethoven and of Freud, and attended a Zionist gymnasium and a Hungarian yeshiva. After fleeing war-torn Europe, he arrived in New York in 1941, entered the Lubavitch yeshiva and was ordained in 1947. He has a degree in psychology from Boston University and a doctorate of Hebrew literature from the Hebrew Union College.
Reb Zalman has woven these seemingly disparate strands into a brand of countercultural Judaism. He was active in the inception of the havura movement and in 1962 founded the P'nai Or (Faces of Light) Religious Fellowship. Now called ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, it seeks to update Jewish theology and enhance Jewish spirituality. Its literature describes its "full inclusion of women, respect for other spiritual paths and a commitment to healing the world on personal, sociopolitical and ecological levels."
When the Camp David peace accord was signed, Reb Zalman adopted the name Shalomi, meaning "my peace." "The intent was to drop Schachter when peace became reality," he says. "In the meantime I'm still waiting."
"Reb Zalman is one of the most controversial rabbis on the American Jewish scene," writes Roger Kamenetz in The Jew in the Lotus (HarperSanFrancisco), his journal of the historic 1990 meeting between the Dalai Lama and eight Jewish leaders. "He was our loosest, freest spirit-heir to the joy and zest of the Hasidic masters. He has been a canny and perceptive theoretician of Jewish renewal and a source of contact with the vast wealth of wisdom that might otherwise be inaccessible. To his detractors, he is irresponsible, condemned for his excesses, personal and doctrinal....He has danced with Sufi masters and meditated with Buddhists and has been a pioneer in interfaith dialogue."
Almost as radical as exploring other religions is for a Chabad rabbi, Reb Zalman served as "religious environmentalist" at Camp Ramah in Connecticut over 30 years ago. He helped kids make their own mezuzot, meditate in a hermitage and sew rainbow-colored talitot, each color corresponding to a mystical sphere. Those talitot, he says, chuckling, are now everywhere. Like the prayer shawls, much of his pioneering work has been absorbed by the established movements. His sensitive translations of prayers have been included in Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer books and songbooks. He valued the role of feminism early on, ordaining a woman even before the Reform movement did.
"Women are the white letters of the Torah," he says borrowing Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev's metaphor. "As long as we looked at the black letters-the men-we also saw the white spaces, but we didn't take account of them. If Judaism wants to survive, we have to bring in the feminine mind." He closes his eyes as he answers each question. "Every person has a certain amount of ruah hakodesh-holy spirit. My job has been to love people to God," he stresses the creative conjugation, "and to empower their ruah hakodesh."
To do that, he bestows blessings liberally. A bookseller at a convention voices his need for a new sales manager-and Reb Zalman takes his hands and makes a brakha that the right person should come along. When a woman shares her painful search for God, he takes her hands in his and makes a blessing that God should answer her.
To redeem prayer from the realm of mere recitation, Reb Zalman has coined the term davvennology, attuning body, heart, mind and being. Each phase of prayer corresponds to a letter of God's name, which together symbolize a mystical pattern of four worlds: earth-doing, water-feeling, air-knowing, and fire-being.
Davvening, Reb Zalman points out, comes from the Latin divinum, which means "to do the Divine thing. Davvenen [his spelling] is living the liturgical life in the presence of God," he explains. "As there is a science in everything, there is a science and an art to davvenen. When people learn how to do this right, instead of a burden it becomes something to give them an uplift."
His memories go back to his early childhood when his father led the congregation in prayer on the High Holidays. "I saw how he worked himself up," Reb Zalman recalls. "It wasn't merely singing or chanting. There was something else happening. I once asked him, 'Papa, why are you crying? Does it hurt?' Papa said, 'No, it doesn't hurt when you talk to God. You're just sad that you waited so long to daven.'
"I just felt I wanted to learn to daven, too. There were times it was dark at Maariv and there were no siddurim [prayer books]. I would shukkel [sway] and say, 'God, I'm sorry I don't know the words by heart but if I did I'd do it like the big people do.' "
"Zalman has a constancy of love of God that's almost palpable," says his wife, Eve Penner Ilsen. "That's the beacon, the motivation that wants to come through. Surrounding it is..." "A mischievous gonif," Reb Zalman interrupts gleefully. "Sometimes a gonif steals from you, but sometimes he puts something in your pocket. Like you come to zaide and he gives you a candy so no one should see."
Reb Zalman's penchant for bending the rules even pervades his off-time. He plays multilingual Hangman, Scrabble with self-made rules, 3-D tic-tac-toe. A creative cook whose trademark is cholent spiced differently each time, he also enjoys daily walks, music and chess and backgammon. His work, too, is infused with a vision for a better future. "I'm a big risk-taker, but not foolhardy," he explains. "The reason I can trust myself vis-ˆ-vis the future is that I feel so much of the past alive within me."
The constant crossing of boundaries led Reb Zalman to separate himself from Chabad. When the Rebbe sent him and rabbi-singer Shlomo Carlebach to college campuses, he found his calling was a two-way street. He learned from Reform, Sefardim, Hindus and Native Americans. "There was a parting of the ways," he recalls. "Sometimes what my intuition told me and Chabad ideology didn't match. I asked questions like: 'Does a Jew only get incarnated as a Jew?' My intuition is that I was not a Jew in an earlier incarnation. Or, 'Does a goy have a Divine soul?' I certainly wouldn't say no."
A year ago, Reb Zalman moved from Philadelphia to Boulder, Colorado, to take the chair in world wisdom at Naropa University, a Buddhist college that offers the position to a different religious leader every two years.
Despite his openness, Reb Zalman's deeply Jewish soul draws people seeking a place and meaning within Judaism: gays and lesbians; people who have done psychotherapy and growth work; those who have explored Zen, Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, EST, miracles; non-Jews who want to learn about Judaism.
"We begin where people's questions are," he says. "If someone is interested in Kabbala, we don't say, 'You have to first pay your dues in Torah and mitzvot.' By honoring their questions and receiving them we empower them.
"Nowadays everyone is a Jew by choice. We have wonderful traditions and we are looking for people to buy from our store. If you don't make it attractive there are other stores they will go to. Our approach is to be inviting."
The challenge of Jewish renewal, Reb Zalman says, is to "take the faith deposit of Torah and Yiddishkeit and integrate it with the shifting cosmology. The old cosmology was that the earth is in the center. Then the whole thing shifted. It took a while for people in Jewish theology to adapt to that cosmology.
"Now we are looking at a time after Auschwitz, a time of information superhighways and fifth-generation computers. This time is different than any other time because we are looking at nature with different eyes."
ALEPH has adopted the concept of eco-kashrut that stretches the literal meaning to ask: Do pesticides makes food nonkosher? Is an investment in an oil company that befouls the ocean kosher?
"The contribution people make to planetocide is the worst defamation of God's name there can be," Reb Zalman argues. "Judaism as a whole faces that challenge. I think of Jews as the white corpuscles of humanity. Wherever there is infection, we go there."
Reb Zalman's most pressing cause today is what he calls spiritual eldering. "Instead of preparing for our elder years," he says, "we back into aging with fear and ignorance. Life has to be harvested to be completed. If people in the November or December of their lives close down their consciousness, they sleep through the end of their lives."
He envisions workshops where participants learn to understand life's transitions with the goal of a society in which elders can transmit wisdom to the young. His book, From Aging to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, was published last year by Time-Warner. The Spiritual Eldering Institute he founded is based in Philadelphia.
He has transmitted his personal wisdom to his 10 children and 21 grandchildren, the 50 students he has ordained and the countless others who have learned from him. Because he cannot teach all who come to him, each student works with three approved mentors and a spiritual coach. Students must study traditional and mystical texts and liturgy, understand the "difference between Judaism of the past and an evolving Judaism," have a spiritual practice and learn how to become spiritual coaches themselves.
"Judaism needs older people who can teach and mentor, but the real activity has to be done by the younger people. One has to create a vacuum for them to step in," Reb Zalman says.
That does not mean Reb Zalman is tired. "When you start talking about interesting things in davvenen, wake me up in the middle of the night, you know? Up to 120 I'll be interested in Jewish renewal."