Buy Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's new book, Jewish With Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice.
By Jay Michaelson
May 13, 2005
Forward Newspaper Online
Jewish With Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi With Joel Segel
Riverhead, 288 pages, $23.95.
Is spiritual development really as important as intellectual development? Today, one often finds in Jewish culture a mutual suspicion between those who value intellectual education (and its likely material consequences) and the "spiritual" types who like to chant, meditate and "explore their feelings." On the one side, many well-schooled Jewish adults regard today's would-be mystics with contempt, seeing them as little more than deluded hippies. On the other side, many spiritual seekers see bourgeois Judaism, in both its secular and religious forms, as a calcified shell, devoid of inner life.
Owing to the mutual suspicion between "spiritual seekers" and, well, everyone else, much of the literature in the spirituality genre has a tendency to preach to the converted, with unexplained assumptions and muddy thinking that leave the rest of us more skeptical than ever.
A refreshing exception is Jewish With Feeling, the latest book by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
Born in Poland in 1924, Schachter-Shalomi is probably most associated with the mystically infused, psychologically attuned movement called "Jewish Renewal." But his spiritual wandering has taken him on a far wider path, from an Orthodox European upbringing to the world of Lubavitch Hasidism and the life of a religious emissary – and then on the much wider, yet perhaps more familiar, arc of a countercultural religious figure: "mind expansion" in the 1960s, the New Age in the '70s and '80s, places like Dharamsala and the Naropa Institute (where, until recently, he held the Chair in World Wisdom) in the last two decades.
"Throughout my life I have revised and readjusted my beliefs," the rabbi writes in his new book, adding, "just as I grew into the world of Lubavitch, I moved beyond it. I wanted to learn from the spiritually experienced of other faiths: Sufi sheiks, Buddhist monks, Christian contemplatives, American savants. I received something from all of them."
Today, Schachter-Shalomi has his devoted followers – who call him Reb Zalman and regard him as their rebbe – as well as his detractors, who regard him as an eccentric, a rabble-rouser or worse. He still teaches occasionally, often (as this coming Shavuot) at Elat Chayyim, the upstate New York spiritual retreat center he inspired – but not as widely or as frequently as in his younger years. And now there is the Reb Zalman Legacy Project, an initiative of the Yesod Foundation, which aims to preserve for future generations the teachings of this master of contradictions.
The seeming contradictions are many. Schachter-Shalomi, a former college professor and academic, is an amateur anthropologist of all things spiritual who looks every bit the "neo-Hasidic" rebbe. He is known for his unorthodox approaches to Jewish life, yet he speaks English with unmistakable Yiddish inflection. He has written 150 books and articles; chanted zikr (remembrance of God); sat at long, silent meditation retreats – and even taught environmental education at Camp Ramah.
And now he has written Jewish With Feeling. Without question the best, most readable introduction to Reb Zalman's philosophy of Judaism, it is also, in this reviewer's experience, the best "beginner's guide to Jewish spirituality" available today. Unlike other spiritual works (including some of Schachter-Shalomi's own), the book is clearly written and takes nothing for granted. Many "guides to Jewish practice" assume that the wheels are moving already, taking you to a predetermined endpoint: a traditional Jewish life with all the trimmings. Jewish With Feeling, thankfully, does not, which is why it is the perfect book for a both the spiritual seeker ("a person whose soul is awake," in Reb Zalman's terms) and the "curious skeptic" – or, for that matter, an inquisitive bar mitzvah boy. It meets doubters and skeptics where they are, and proceeds with intellectual credibility and rigor. And it has no preset ending, no prewritten prescription for how to solve your problems.
Schachter-Shalomi begins his book not with assumptions but with questions. "If my children asked me, 'Abba, is there a God?' I would say, 'Yes, there is a God.' But if you ask me for a categorical statement: 'Does God exist?' I might demur." This seems radical ?? a rabbi doubting God's existence ?? but, Zalman writes, "exists" is a property (or state of being) of nouns, of objects. God, however, is not an object. If anything, God is, for Reb Zalman, a verb – and an interactive verb, at that; less a being than a mode of being, or the way of being itself. "Too abstract?" he asks at one point. "Perhaps. The important point here is to open up new vistas of god-thought and to realize that even the objections to 'god-language' fall into the limitations they would have us transcend."
"New vistas of god-thought" could be an apt summary of much of Zalman's life project, including his latest work.
"In this book," he writes in the introduction, "I make no assumptions about how much you know about Judaism, what holidays you keep, or whether you believe in God. I want us to put experience first, to start from your soul's experience and carry on from there." He argues that "theology is the after-thought of spiritual experience, not the other way around. We are not trying to construct some top-down authoritative system, but to nourish the seeds of our own personal spiritual experience. We start with wonder, or with thankfulness, or yearning, or even rage, and we ask ourselves: Wonder or rage at what? Thankfulness toward what? Yearning for what? It was simple, searching questions like these that started our ancestors thinking in terms of 'God.'"
Naturally, putting experience first is different from a more traditional Judaism, which places emphasis on the authority of revealed text. Reb Zalman admits as much. "A mystical approach to Judaism is... less dogmatic and more experimental. It doesn't have a low ceiling, capping the mind and frustrating its desire to unify in love and awe with a vital, living universe. It is open minded, open souled. It says, 'Try this. If you feel it as a living reality, we're getting somewhere.'"
There is a natural fit between this experiential model of religion and the fact that, in Schachter-Shalomi's words, we are all today "Jews by choice," freely able to embrace or reject different aspects of our religious and cultural traditions. Then again, if it's all about personal experience, what's the point in a book by an 81-year-old Lubavitch-trained, sometimes-heretical rabbi? Reb Zalman quotes the late Lubavitcher Rebbe: "The earth contains all kinds of treasures, but you have to do know where to dig. If you do not, you will come up with nothing but rocks or mud." At the same time, "a rebbe can only show you where to dig. You must do the digging yourself."
To be sure, Schachter-Shalomi points his readers in many directions, suggesting hundreds of different spiritual practices: ways to make the Sabbath meaningful, ways to interpret kashrut in an ecological framework, new understandings of commandment, prayer, and social justice. But he says, over and over, practice is the critical ingredient. You have to try, experiment, discard what isn't working, investigate what is. "The leap that Judaism asks us to make is not a leap of faith, but a leap of action," he writes, adding, "Do you hunger for spirituality? Take on some form of spiritual practice and you will begin to satisfy that hunger."
Without a practice – without actually doing something, exploring the territory instead of reading the map – we literally have no idea what religious people are talking about. Books won't do it. Even "hungering for spirituality" is a meaningless term if you don't know what spirituality is – and yet, paradoxically, you can't know until you've tried, pushed yourself, experimented and explored. (Based on a Hasidic teaching, Schachter-Shalomi says you should try a practice for 40 days before deciding it doesn't work for you.) A map is not territory, and reading a menu is not the same as eating the meal.
Jewish With Feeling is an easy read, filled with Zalmanisms, which combine Schachter-Shalomi's old world roots with his very up-to-date technological life, complete with AOL screen names, Palm Pilot and TiVo. "Underblessed reality is like empty calories," he writes. Or, "Good prayer, like good sex, good exercise, good learning, good conversation, needs to have a chance to build." And, Reb Zalman writes, don't forget the "fore-pray."
It remains to be seen what the Zalman Legacy really will be. Perhaps Reb Zalman will become a mere footnote – the leader of a small, fringe sect of Jewish Renewal, another smart, iconoclastic spiritual wanderer. But signs are emerging that he might be remembered as a pioneer, building new bridges between spiritual and secular communities. Maybe, like the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a fellow Lubavitch emissary who went his own way, Schachter-Shalomi will have his once-radical teachings filter into the Jewish mainstream.
Already, the wider mainstream Jewish community is beginning to warm to the former outsider; it's notable that Jewish With Feeling carries endorsements from several popular literary figures: Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Harold Kushner and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Jewish meditation groups are common, colorful P'nai Or prayer shawls are ubiquitous and spiritual growth is, in many circles, accorded as much respect as growth in intellectual, emotional and physical realms. Perhaps, like the radical beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who in his later years became a respected literary figure, Schachter-Shalomi, the onetime founder of the Aquarian Minyan, will find acceptance in the very institutions he often seeks to subvert, gaining an influence far larger than even his original dreams. If that happens, I think it will owe less to how Reb Zalman speaks and teaches than to how, as Ethics of the Fathers advises, he listens and learns from everyone.
Jay Michaelson holds a Master of Arts degree in religious studies from Hebrew University and has studied with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He is the creator of learnkabbalah.com.
Jewish With Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, with Joel Segel
Riverhead 03/05 Hardcover $23.95
Spirituality & Health
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi fled Nazi-occupied Vienna and immigrated to the United States in 1941. Educated by Hasidic masters, he was ordained in 1947 and received a Ph.D in 1968 from Hebrew Union College. A professor emeritus at Temple University in Pennsylania, he now lives in Colorado and teaches at Naropa University. Reb Zalman is the inspiration of the Jewish Renewal movement.
In this bellwether volume, he and Joel Segel, a former editor at Shambhala Books, present an inspiring and expansive vision of Judaism that is informed by mysticism, Hasidism, everyday spirituality, creative use of ritual, and an intriguing understanding of meaningful Jewish practice: "Today, I feel more than ever we Jews are integral and necessary to life in the larger body of nations on planet Earth, that we need to be the healthy vital organ of the whole Earth that we are meant to be. By being the best and most enlightened Jews we can, we place ourselves at the service of all other beings with whom we share the here and now."
Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi explains that Judaism is a "householder religion" where rituals and prayers are done in the home among family and friends. He begins with a spiritual exploration of the relationship with God and sees it founded not on belief but on a deep yearning in the heart. Faith, he writes, is "like swimming the backstroke, reaching above and behind into an unknown we cannot see." He presents a rich discussion of the rituals of the Sabbath and explores the vitality of prayer once we "turn off our mental computers and tune in to our feelings." Tallying up the distinctive dimensions of Judaism, he comes up with: its special gift for aligning individuals with nature's clock, its teachings on conscious consumption, its living dialogue with the texts that are the beating heart of the universe, its down-to-earth spirituality, and its ability to maintain faith and connection to God despite powerlessness and uncertainty. He also is convinced that Jews can contribute mightily to conscious environmental practices that will benefit the planet and future generations.
Reb Zalman is a major advocate of the multifaith movement in which the world's religions acknowledge their unity in diversity. He has long been friends with the Dalai Lama, Ram Dass, and others religious leaders. "The thing that allows people of different faiths to make a true and deep connection, whatever differences, is our yeaning and love for God. That is what we keep coming back to. This is true for Muslims as well as Christians."
More than ten years ago, the author wrote a pioneering work on spiritual eldering, which he described as a process whereby older people took time to "contemplate their life journey, harvest the wisdom of their years, and transmit a legacy to future generations." Reb Zalman admirably fulfills all three of those objectives in this enlightening mystical masterpiece that is practice-oriented and filled with exciting visions of the future.
By Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segel
288 pages. Riverhead Hardcover. $23.95.
The past decade has seen an explosion in the genre of Jewish how-to books, each written for an audience with little experience in Jewish life and each reflecting the particular ideology and religious outlook of the writer. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (known as Reb Zalman), the spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, adds his own contribution with his latest volume, Jewish With Feeling. Like others of its type, Reb Zalman's book offers a way into Judaism through spiritual and ritual practice. This book also presents a distillation of Jewish Renewal thought and an argument for a Jewish particularism that is grounded in universalism.
The first section of the book addresses itself to a theoretical reader who feels distanced from traditional Jewish practice, but who seeks spiritual meaning. To this reader, Reb Zalman introduces a Jewish practice that begins with kavvanah (intention) but which is also deeply ritualistic in nature. As such, Reb Zalman emphasizes spirit over law, encouraging readers to "get some Sabbath" by meditating, playing music, or relaxing with one's family. At the same time, he acquaints the reader with aspects of traditional ritual practice, such as reciting kiddush, refraining from using electricity or telephones, and abstaining from work. For his theoretical reader, just beginning an exploration of Judaism, Reb Zalman's approach and style will prove accessible and undemanding, while also offering a window into a more ritualistic practice.
Jewish Renewal in general, and Reb Zalman's work in particular, offers a translation and reconstruction of Judaism for the contemporary world. While deeply grounded in the Hasidic tradition from which Reb Zalman emerges, this Judaism is not bound or restricted by Hasidism. Reb Zalman attempts to create a new Hasidism for the present. By weaving into his text stories of rebbes of the past, as well as elements of his own biography, Reb Zalman establishes himself as a rebbe, firmly within the tradition of the Hasidic rebbes who have preceded him. When he innovates or reinterprets, he does so only in the footsteps of the great innovators of Hasidism, whose works serve as a model for his own.
In contrast to his earlier works, Jewish With Feeling makes little attempt to explain or to justify the ways in which Reb Zalman's theology and practice develop or depart from earlier Hasidic thought. Rather, as a Hasidic text in and of itself, the book presents Jewish renewal concepts developed elsewhere in a matter-of-fact way – as though these were standard elements of Jewish belief and not innovations. For instance, one of the innovations of his previous work, Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters, was the reinterpretation of the Hasidic concept of bittul ha'yesh or self-nullification, as "becoming transparent." There, he writes:
If you do bittul ha'yesh, if you take your "selfness," your ego, and you annihilate it, you "bash" it, that is going to take you closer to the love of God. But today I don't even think it is a good strategy to bash the ego. I think the better strategy is to make the ego "transparent." And the whole notion of transparency is so that light should be able to shine through. This idea is a lot more consistent with where we are today.
With this explanation, Reb Zalman self-consciously introduces a new formulation of a Hasidic concept. He does not make a claim of linguistic or historical accuracy for this new interpretation, but rather openly rejects an existing concept in favor of one that better meets contemporary needs. Now, in Jewish With Feeling, Reb Zalman merely refers to the concept of transparency without presenting it as a reworking of an older idea, saying only "On Shabbos, we give our bodies pleasure and a rest so we can become transparent to nefesh, to soul... become transparent: instead of staying in your head, become transparent to what is happening."
Similarly, the doctrine of pantheism, which is present in older Hasidic texts and which Reb Zalman elsewhere argues should form the core of contemporary theology, is simply integrated into discussions of God, without significant acknowledgment of the ways in which a belief in pantheism represents a departure from so-called "normative" Jewish thought. Once introduced into the Jewish lexicon, these terms and ideas no longer demand justification or explanation. Rather, like the Hasidic rebbes in whose footsteps he follows, Reb Zalman innovates while insisting on the authenticity of these innovations.
The second half of the book more consciously reconstructs traditional Jewish thought and practice in a way that struggles to find a balance between particularism and universalism. The crucial chapter of this section, and arguably of the book, responds to the question "Why be Jewish?" by suggesting that Jews have a particular role and responsibility in the world. Jewish ritual practice offers a means of responding to and fulfilling certain universal needs and emotions. At the same time – and this is perhaps the most radical element of Reb Zalman's theology – Judaism alone is not enough to fulfill one's spiritual yearnings. He writes, "We've gone about as far as we can go as separate and isolated faiths... God has given each faith some vitamins that the others need, and we won't be able to survive in health unless we exchange those vitamins."
Judaism, in Reb Zalman's conception, provides many of the necessary elements for spiritual practice, but will never be complete on its own. This insistence on universalism as necessary to full spiritual fulfillment ultimately weakens his argument for Jewish particularism. In concluding this section, he writes:
The answer we have offered to "Why be Jewish?" then, is that Judaism has many deep teachings to offer that we still need today: Judaism reminds us to recalibrate ourselves by nature's clock. Judaism teaches us conscious consumption... Judaism helps us maintain faith and a connection to God despite powerlessness and uncertainty. These treasures are the birthright of each and every one of us. For these reasons, we can be proud of our heritage and feel that it is still something that the world needs.
The book's target reader, an unaffiliated Jew seeking spiritual fulfillment, is unlikely to be convinced by this answer. Jewish practice, according to this formulation, may offer guidance about how to live in the world. However, if Judaism alone can never fully meet the needs of the spiritual seeker without the addition of other "vitamins," there ultimately is no reason to cling to a particularistic Jewish identification. Rather, the seeker might be better served by drawing from the best of many traditions, without locating him/herself primarily in any one of these faiths.
Throughout Jewish With Feeling, Reb Zalman illustrates his commitment to bringing other religious beliefs into dialogue with Judaism by interspersing stories of Jesus with stories of Hasidic rebbes, and by introducing the reader to concepts drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions. At one point, he tells a story in which he recites the Shahadah, the Muslim proclamation of faith in God and acceptance of Muhammad as a divine prophet, and justifies this recitation by explaining that Muhammad brought the Muslims to "faith in the oneness of God" and therefore should be regarded as "a true messenger of God."
Reciting another religion's primary declaration of faith, or role-playing Jesus during an encounter with Christian clergy, as Reb Zalman does in another story recounted in the book, may cross the line of comfort for many Jews – this author included. At the same time, the challenge to understand both the ways in which other religions have influenced Judaism and the ways in which "a fuller, richer dialogue with those of other faiths" can make us "more fully Jews" is a serious one, and one to which anyone committed to living a particularistic Jewish lifestyle in a world with increasingly permeable boundaries must learn to answer.