Community Blog Reb Zalman: In Memoriam
Among the countless things I learned from my dear teacher and friend Reb Zalman z”l, is the statement of our shared master and teacher R. Nahman of Bratslav, צריך לעשות מהתורה תפילה, that “you need to turn teachings into prayer.” Zalman especially loved that idea. He would ask about a teaching or wise saying, sometimes about a way you formulated your belief about something: “But can you daven it?”
I think that meant two things. First: Do you really mean it? Are you saying it with your whole heart? But beyond that: Does it have a devotional quality to it? Can you say it in a worshipful way? Can you serve God with it?
Zalman, like Heschel and few others (I am so incredibly blessed to have had them both as teachers!), understood that Judaism is all about the devotional life. יידישקייט איז א דרך אין עבודת השם, he would say in clearly understood Yiddish, “Judaism is a pathway for the service of God.” We are here to serve, and a teaching takes on real meaning only if it inspires you to that service. in both its inward and outward forms.
So my line for talking about Zalman here is a line from tefillah (prayer), rather than a verse from Torah. It is a line we know well from the Ne’ilah service:
פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער כי פנה יום — Open for us a gate, at the time when the gate is closing, for the day is passing away.
As I talk about it, or say some things about Reb Zalman through it, I also ask you to daven it, hopefully taking my words as a kavvanah (intention), as he always wanted his words to be taken.
פתח לנו שער (Open for us a gate) — Zalman was a gate opener. He gave special care to people at the beginning of their Jewish journeys. He always taught and wrote accessibly, warmly welcoming people into the tradition. Of course he didn’t care who you were: Jewish, non-Jewish, committed Sufi, Christian monk or nun, Buddhist practitioner — you were all welcome. He recognized how difficult a path mystical Judaism could be for beginners and he tried to change that. In a completely transformed world, one following the paradigm shift of which he spoke so often, he was in this following the example of the head of his spiritual lineage, R. Shne’ur Zalman of Liadi, in writing the Tanya. What are the things you really need to know, RaSHaZ asked himself, and how can I say them in a devotionally stirring manner? That was R. Zalman as well.
The gate. That of teshuvah (repentance/return), of course. But also the gate to the great palace, the hekhala de-hekhlin (sanctuary of sanctuaries) of religious experience, of being in the presence. Zalman wanted to open the gate for you in an experiential way, to give you – even at the beginning of your journey – a glimpse of the great light that he saw shining within. Zalman was, to those of us who knew him well and not only reverentially, something of a religious experience junkie. He wanted to take you along with him in that. Yes, of course he had read the Ba’al Shem Tov’s parable about the king who builds a grand palace of optical illusion – he knew the palace was an illusory one – and here comes a great belly laugh from Zalman, saying “Yes, OF COURSE I’ve seen through it all” – but in knowing that the palace is illusion, the light that shines through is even brighter…”Only you and the King are there alone.”
The gate is also that of Kafka’s famous parable “Before the Law,” which Zalman knew well. “This gate was made for you alone,” says the gatekeeper as he swings it shut at the end of our lives. For Kafka, that was the gate we never entered, too shy, uncomfortable, insecure, ambivalent, to step through it. Zalman wanted to be sure he was right there at your gate – the unique way in that would work only for your שורש נשמה, the root of your soul. “Welcome,” he would say. Don’t just stand there saying פתחו לי שערי צדק ”someone open the gate for me!” זה השערלה ‘צדיקים יבואו בו – Learn to do like the tsaddikim, who just walk right through. Welcome to being, speaking, and feeling like an insider to the tradition. Zalman taught us to speak unselfconsciously of Avrohom Ovinu (Abraham, our Father) and the Riboino shel Oilem (Master of the World), instead of “Abraham” and “God.” He made us understand that the tradition was ours, ours to inherit, to love, and to make better – especially more inclusive – as we pass it on. The Hasidic phrase הרחבת גבול הקדושה, “broadening the boundaries of the holy,” also much loved by Rav Kook — was key to Zalman, and he gave it to us with a sense of authenticity that allowed us to go in his path. That was a great gift, one that we need to use with great love and great responsibility.
בעת נעילת שער ”At a time when the gate is closing.” Zalman felt the terrible loss caused to the Jewish spiritual tradition as well as to the Jewish people by the Holocaust. In the early years – and I had the privilege of knowing and hearing him first in the late 1950’s – he would speak often of the lost masters and teachings that had gone up in smoke, the shittot (methods) in ‘avodat ha-shem (service of God) that we would need to recover or re-create, because they’d been obliterated. Lineage was terribly important to him; it remained so when he saw it being called upon by various Indian and Eastern teachers who claimed unbroken chains of tradition. His heart ached for the closing of gateways that had been brought upon us by this terrible history and that of our long history of victimhood. He wanted to recover pathways from the past that had been lost along the way, even long prior to the Shoah. The Jewish/Sufi path of R. Avraham ben ha-RaMBaM, for example, or the meditations on oneness of R. Aharon of Starroselye, the great disciple of RaSHaZ. “Don’t let any of those gates close!” Zalman would say. “There are souls out here who can enter only through them!” Yes, that would also include musical gateways, so-called “secular” gateways through the path of Yiddish literature, which he appreciated and loved, and lots more.
But he also saw the נעילת שער ”locking of the gates” that an overly insular and sometimes xenophobic community of the pious had brought about. “Unless you are willing to be completely frum (observant) in the traditional sense, there is no entry for you.” Zalman fought against this his whole life. (I recall his “sliding scale” of kashrut observance, back in the ‘60’s, as an early example.) He tried in those hard years of transition to make for a broadened and open-minded HaBaD Hasidism. Eventually he saw that he had to make the break, doing so with wrenching pain that was never entirely healed – on either side. He saw the locking down of those gates as a tragedy for the tradition as well as for those souls – Jewish and non-Jewish – who would be left outside. We who stand within the tradition NEED them! “Why are they such seekers?” He would ask. “Why are the ranks of every guru’s followers in the world overloaded with Jews? Because of ‘ibbur neshamah,” he would say. Those millions of souls slaughtered in the Shoah, especially the children who had not yet found their spiritual paths in life, wander about the world and impregnate the souls of Jews and others in the next generation with a longing for Torah. “How DARE we keep them out?” he would say.
כי פנה יום ”For the day is passing away.” Zalman was fully aware of the times in which we live and of the urgency of great teshuvah, not only for us Jews but for the human community as a whole. This was where Zalman and his special disciple Arthur Waskow became brothers. Beyond the “paradigm shift” was “the great urgency of Now.” Learning to translate the Tanya’s שער היחוד והאמונה (the Gate of Unity and Faith) into the language of Gaya, with its sense that the divinity within the earth, that which is dressed in the garb of nature, so much needs us to change the way we live, to recognize the sacred within all things and to respect it, to turn toward a greater simplicity of living in the world in order that we all survive and thrive – this became an essential part of Zalman’s message. It is indeed very late. We stand before the closing of gates greater than any we can imagine. This vision of a renewed sacred path of living – a spiritually reinvigorated, but open and embracing Judaism, alongside the same version of every other great spiritual tradition in the world, is all we have to save us. It is indeed very late in this day of at-one-ment (Zalman’s quip, of course), a day that needs to be every day.