From Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, affectionately known as Reb Zalman, are two new volumes that help illuminate the life and times of this rabbi, rebbe, maggid, master of religious integration, and one of the most illustrious religious leaders of the modern world: Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Prayer (with Joel Segel), and My Life in Jewish Renewal (with Edward Hoffman).
In these two new books, we read about Reb Zalman’s life, which encompasses the full spectrum of Jewish experience, from pre-Shoah enlightened Eastern Europe to the Canadian, American, and Israeli emergence of new Jewish movements, as well as his Jewish worldview, specifically the Jewish Renewal he created. There is new and revealing information even for people who have followed him for decades.
For example, in the early 1960s, Reb Zalman spoke at Yale University. In lieu of monetary payment, he was given the opportunity to design a tallit for himself, woven by the students out of reindeer wool! He chose the rainbow colors of the lower Sephirot, including intervening black and white spaces, and the kabbalistic interpretations.
This amazing creation is a metaphor for Reb Zalman’s life, teaching, and writings: full-colored possibilities in which we can be enveloped within G‑d’s guidance and goodness. In his creative, innovative lifework, Reb Zalman opens us to new perspectives within Judaic and world traditions.
In Davening, we see how these far-reaching influences can enhance our own Jewish experience in every aspect of Jewish observance, how we can expand our prayer horizon to uplift our spirit, leading beyond the words of the sacred texts.
Davening is a welcoming volume, a vehicle for us to be more at home with the belief of our hearts, with our prayers, with our congregations, and with God. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Reb Zalman draws together the kavannah (intention) of this book:
“When I see what has happened to congregational prayer, I feel that even in the places where people observe the liturgy meticulously, there is a lack of soul. I wanted to have one more book out there that would help the average davener to enter the sacred realm of prayer and to feel the reality of the encounter with God.”
As he states, “Prayer is not a switch with which we can control the universe. But I do believe that we can, with our prayers, reach dimensions of existence that we do not otherwise have access to and that the openings in those higher worlds bring blessings down to us…. Prayer may not bring world peace, but it gives my heart peace….. A prayer, truly prayed, is the beginning of its own answer.”
We leave this book with Reb Zalman’s vision and blessing: “We strive to make our prayers a vessel for our own experiences — and yet, at the same time, to transcend all that heart and mind can grasp. We aim to be most truly ourselves, to stand in our own fullness before the living God.”
Reb Zalman’s book My Life in Jewish Renewal centers on his storied journey. His evolution, from Chabad student to Shaliah (messenger) to rabbi, is only the beginning. His life is a journey from Viennese Hassidic diamond cutter, to shochet (butcher), to creator of Jewish Renewal.
The book follows Reb Zalman’s life of discovery and integration, learning from Chabad, Reform Judaism, Christianity, Eastern religions, college Hillel, psychology, philosophy, and worlds of ecstatic experience. Each of these contributes to Reb Zalman’s creation of Jewish Renewal, which is explored in the book as an integration of traditional Jewish practice with informed, immersed, universal wisdom, leading to more intentional spiritual awareness and action. We can see in the biography how many of the nuances Reb Zalman has brought (or brought back) to Judaism emerged: the rainbow tallit, chanted niggunim (melodies), more silent prayer, English davening, meditation, movement in prayer, and so much more.
What a remarkable life we encounter in this book. We discover major influences on Reb Zalman’s evolving sense of Judaism: deep friendships with such luminaries as both Reb Schneersons, Abraham Heschel, Howard Thurman, Timothy Leary, Thomas Merton, and the Dalai Lama. Seeing the depth of Reb Zalman’s journey far and wide in Judaism, the reader can recognize and honor the value of his life work, which is steeped in deep knowledge and experience.
The last section of My Life in Jewish Renewal is “My Unfulfilled Projects.” In humility, Reb Zalman outlines ideas he proposed for Chabad, the Jewish community in India, government outreach in Israel, and “industrial kabbalah.” No matter where you are in the spectrum of Jewish observance, belief, and practice, these two books will provide thought-provoking introspection and the tools to continue and broaden your search for meaning within Judaism and in the world.