Akeida #2: The Binding of Isaac - Reb Zalman’s Hineini
Those of you who were here last year may recall that I gave the dvar Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah then. I focused on Avraham Avinu, our Patriarch Abraham, and the theme of hineini, emotional and spiritual presence. I talked about what it means to say hineini when we are called, as Avraham was in the Akeida, not once, but three times. I talked about how I hoped to live a hineini life, a life of deep presence in holy conversation, sichah kedoshah, about Israel and Zionism and the Zion cycle in the following year, this past year.
A lot has happened since then. It’s been a very full year - for me personally, for members of my family, for many of my friends, for Or Shalom as a community, for the Jewish Renewal world, for the whole world, for our earth and her climate, and, most especially, for the Middle East. Oy!
My dvar Torah last year opened the gates in Or Shalom and enabled us to engage in sichah kedoshah, holy conversation, about Israel and Palestine. We formed a book discussion group which met on six occasions to discuss Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism. We had originally scheduled four meetings, but there was such enthusiasm, we had to extend it. 15 to 20 people participated in respectful and sometimes difficult conversation each time. It required deep presence, hineini consciousness, and holy conversation, sichah kedoshah from every one of us.
Having a holy conversation about anything to do with the Middle East is difficult and requires a sophisticated exercise of hineini presence in the face of extreme and sometimes conflicting emotions, but this past year’s events have made it all the more difficult, if not nearly impossible. Which makes it all the more important. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that everyone of us, regardless of our perspective, has been extremely affected by the war in Gaza this summer, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and perhaps most frightening of all, the rise of ISIL/ISIS/the Islamic State.
From the perspective of the world of Jewish Renewal, the most significant event of this past year was the death, at the age of 89, of Reb Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal. Or Shalom is part of his legacy, a very important part. We are affiliated with the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the umbrella organization that is also his legacy.
But what does that mean for us, really? We live in Vancouver and tend to concentrate on our local issues and concerns. We don’t often think of ourselves beyond that. While I can’t do it in any great detail, today I want to give over some of the theme’s in Reb Zalman's life and teachings.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of The Shalom Center, a prophetic voice in Jewish, multi religious, and American life, wrote: “No one else in the 20th/21st century brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited - and transformed.”
Rabbi Shaul Magid, author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society said: “Not since Mordecai Kaplan’s founding of the Reconstructionist movement has an American Jewish spiritual leader offered as detailed and as systematic a vision for Judaism in the twentieth [and twenty first] century. Part of Schachter-Shalomi’s project is founded on his belief that exploring the untapped commonalities between religious traditions and spiritual practices would both enhance Judaism and move human civilization further toward overcoming oppositional barriers.”
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, Rabbi Emerita of Or Shalom, wrote: “Reb Zalman was an extraordinary individual who appeared at an extraordinary moment in time, and helped shape a response. In many ways, all of Judaism today is a renewed Judaism.”
Reb Zalman believed in and practiced, not merely interfaith conversations on a surface or superficial level, but deep ecumenism. Although he didn’t coin that term, he embodied it - the need to enter into deep conversations with other people of faith, not only for our own sakes, but for God’s sake and the sake of the planet. He said: “I’d like us to enter into dialogue with devoutness, a dialogue of devoutness. There is a dialogue of theology, and that’s mostly futile. Why? Because it begins with what we should finish with. All theology is the afterthought of a believer. If we can’t get to the primary stuff of belief … how do you get to the primary stuff of belief? By simply talking about how do you davven, how do you pray? If you show me your way that works for you I’ll show you mine and we can share.”
Reb Zalman taught that every religion is an organ in the body of humanity - that we need each one to be what it most uniquely is (after all, if the heart tried to do the liver’s work, we’d be in trouble) and we also need each one to be in conversation and connection with the others (if the heart stopped speaking to the lungs, that wouldn’t be so good either.)
Reb Zalman loved computer metaphors. He used to say that his first computer had only 36k of memory, and what he can do now on his computer, he couldn’t have imagined then; just so, our increasing consciousness allows us to bring added holiness into the world in our generation. He would draw an analogy between how different religious traditions call on different names and faces of God, and “log on” in different ways to the Cosmic life-source which we call God. Our chants and prayers are the “password” which connects us with the Holy One of Blessing, and maybe our blessings connect us with this “port” and someone else’s words connect them with that “port”, but we’re all connecting with the same One. And, he would point out, in the past we saw a difference between praying, e.g. in the name of the God of Israel, or praying Bismillah ir rahman ir rahim (in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate) or praying in Jesus’ name. That kind of triumphalism is no longer fruitful.
As he wrote: “In the past every religious community wanted to make the deposit in the God-field in their own name. They even saw it as a great combat in Heaven. Which religion is going to win? Which is going to be the victor in the religious sphere? It may have been necessary at one time in our development that we have such an attitude. But, today, this attitude just doesn’t work. The question now is not who is going to be the champion of all religions, but how can we potentiate all the memory, all the energy, all the awareness, all the spirituality of all those forces in order to raise them?”
The question isn’t who’s going to “win” - it’s how can we all bring our energy, our spiritual technologies, our hearts and souls, together in order to effectively transform the broken world? Reb Zalman used to say “The only way to get it together is … together!”
Reb Zalman designed the rainbow tallit years ago which many of you are wearing. You’ll see rainbow tallitot in synagogues of all denominations, including Orthodox, all over the world. This is a small, but significant example of Reb Zalman’s influence in renewing all of Judaism.
Reb Zalman taught about paradigm shift. He saw the great events of the 20th century (from the horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust, to the wonder of seeing Earth from space) as part of a new paradigm, a new turning. Judaism has undergone several paradigm shifts throughout its long history, like the period after the destructions of the First and Second Temples when all of our practices and beliefs had to be reframed. He taught that, while Jewish Renewal doesn’t want to abandon sacred and cherished traditions, we must recognize that there are newly emerging ways of looking at reality. Just as our understanding of our world has undergone significant change, we must let go of the old paradigms rather than cling to obsolete ways of thinking. He called for recontextualization of Judaism as helped by Hasidism and Jewish mysticism of which he was a master.
Reb Zalman taught about the importance of integral thinking, of seeking to build change which could both include and transcend what had come before. This very much shapes the way Jewish Renewal rabbis think about halakha - in terms of backwards compatibility. He embodied that teaching that the past has a vote, not a veto. Many halakhic issues are being discussed and rediscussed in many sectors of the non-Orthodox Jewish community as they arise for reevaluation. Eco-kashrut/food consciousness being one of them. Jewish Renewal rabbis are intensely involved in grappling with how to embrace and foster the Jewish community of this millennium.
Reb Zalman taught us new (old) ways of entering deeply into prayer. The words of prayer, he taught us, are like a recipe book - but in order to be sustained by the recipes, we have to enact them, to feel them in our hearts and souls. He coined the term “davenology”. He taught us not to talk about God, but to talk to God, to have a daily conversation with the holy Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, as the way to keep on track. He brought the Divine feminine into focus and reclaimed Her, introducing feminine and non-gendered God-language. He playfully experimented with many different things - from recorded prayers designed to be heard on a walkman (remember those?) so that Hebrew would flow into one ear and English into the other, to bringing ancient Jewish meditation practices to the forefront of modern Jewish life, to chanting English translations of Torah and haftarah to the ancient melodies of trop, to calling people to the Torah in group aliyot and giving group blessings, to praying in dyads and triads to the God within each person.
Reb Zalman was deeply rooted in the soil of our tradition, and also stretched branches out toward the highest heavens. He said: “Ours is the beta version of what klal Yisrael needs. And in a beta version, not everything that’s being tried is going to be finally adopted! But we have to continue to experiment, to experience so that the things that come from the past, we can see how can they be updated and shaped. In this way the past can serve us in the present and in the future. And when we realize that there are certain things that cannot be updated, and we open ourselves to the Ruach haKodesh [the Holy Spirit] and ask ourselves what the future needs, then we learn to see in the present what we need to create.” As one official ALEPH obituary notes “Where others saw walls, Reb Zalman saw doors.”
Reb Zalman lived a hineini life. Oy! Did he live a hineini life. At the OHALAH conference last January (the annual conference of Jewish Renewal clergy) he said: “It’s such a wonderful trip the Ribbono Shel Olam put me on. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the movie in which I acted in life! It is so amazing. And yet. Movies come to an end too. When my tour of duty is over, the One who deployed me will find others to deploy.”
My wish for us this year, in Reb Zalman’s memory and to support the elevation of his soul, is to study the transformational themes in his work and in his writing, and to discern our individual and communal deployment, our role(s) in continuing the work of renewing Judaism.