A Tribute to My Rebbe on the
First Anniversary of His Death
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was born August 17, 1924 in Zholkiew, Poland and died in Boulder, Colorado on July 3, 2014, almost reaching his 90th birthday.
I first met my “Rebbe” in July of 2004, when we both spoke at a conference on death and dying in Aspen. I was “dying” myself at the time, an excruciating interior death from post-traumatic-stress disorder as a result of leaving the Spiritual Life Institute community after almost forty years (a story for another time). Reb Zalman called me regularly for over a year, simply to ask how I was feeling. Then he invited me to his home to celebrate the Jewish Passover and my own personal Passover from death to new life. When my father died in 2008, Reb Zalman visited my hermitage in Crestone and said special blessings in both Hebrew and Polish.
The Rebbe had a Prayer Room in his basement: a true “Holy of Holies,” small, dark, mysterious, and filled with what I affectionately called “Jewish stuff.” I loved to pray there together with him. We usually sat in silence, in the deep contemplative Presence where all religious traditions meet. He’d end by singing in Hebrew. I didn’t know the words in that ancient language, but my heart soared, and I understood the meaning behind the words.
One morning, at the discussion group Reb Zalman gathered weekly in his library, I spoke about Mt. Carmel, outside of modern Haifa in Israel, a site sacred to both Jews and Christians. The prophet Elijah, who lived on Mt. Carmel, is the “spiritual father” of all Carmelites. Sixteenth-century Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, describes the whole spiritual journey as an “Ascent of Mt. Carmel,” also the title of one of his great mystical works.
That day the Rebbe asked me to talk instead about a deeper and more interior connection between Christians and Jews, the mysterious realm of “bridal mysticism” described in the Song of Songs, where we experience God not as Lord or Creator, not even as father, mother, or brother, but as our Divine Spouse. (I have written extensively about this in Holy Daring, to be republished later this year.)
Reb Zalman was the visionary father of the Jewish Renewal Movement, holder of the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University, author of numerous books, including From Age-ing to Sage-ing, an innovator in ecumenical dialogue, and a spiritual revolutionary who infused religion with new vitality and depth.
But I remember “my” Rebbe most for his simple loving kindness, the sign of spiritual authenticity in any religious tradition.