Dav­en­ing: A Guide to Mean­ing­ful Jew­ish Prayer

Rab­bi Zal­man Schachter-Shalo­mi, Joel Segel; Kush­n­er, fwd.
  • Review
By – January 7, 2013

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.

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

Cherie Karo Schwartz is a sto­ry­teller, author, and edu­ca­tor from Den­ver Col­orado. She was a co-found­ing coor­di­na­tor of the Jew­ish Sto­ry­telling Net­work of the Coali­tion for the Advance­ment of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. She has writ­ten My Lucky Drei­del, The Kids’ Cat­a­logue of Passover (with Bar­bara Rush), and Cir­cle Spin­ning: Jew­ish Turn­ing and Return­ing Tales. Cherie has shared spir­it-filled, engag­ing sto­ries, per­for­mances and work­shops around the USA and abroad for over forty years. www​.ham​sa​pubs​.com.

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