Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, born in Poland in 1924, fled Nazi genocide and came to the United States when he was 17. Already learned in traditional Judaism, he had become a disciple of the leading Chabad rabbi and was sent as an emissary to bring Jewish mystical wisdom and orthodox practice to small town congregations and college campuses across America and Canada. He soon came to feel constrained by the limits of Orthodoxy and sought a new paradigm for Judaism that would speak to liberal Jews starved for meaning in their religious lives. He introduced radical changes: lively music, equal voices for women, integration of body, mind and spirit, joyful prayer services with changed and contemporary words, meditation and chanting. He valued progressive causes, and created a new system of kashrut that was based on ecological values rather than traditional religious laws. And above all he reached out to leaders of other faiths. He became deeply knowledgeable of Eastern religions and their practices as well as the teachings and practices of Sufi masters, and visited Father Thomas Merton at his monastery. He believed that in today’s world, no religion can claim universal truth. Each depends on the others to evoke the wisdom necessary for the survival of the human species – each human created equally in the image of God.
He delighted in and treasured his relationship with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In the above photograph of their meeting in Dharamsala, India you can see their intimacy. You can see Reb Zalman’s essence: his joy, his intensity, his deep roots in traditional Judaism and his love of the Holy One whose light shone with such brightness through the eyes of the Dalai Lama.
In his last few years he devoted himself to passing on his wisdom and human legacy to his students, and to what he called The December Project, the spiritual preparation for dying with acceptance, blessing and joy. He left blessings for his family, his circle of friends and supporters and for those he saw as his spiritual heirs – the leaders of the next generation of religious teachers and guides.
Reb Zalman was a spiritual genius, a giant who walked ten steps in front of the rest of us. The Garrison Institute has been blessed by his counsel, and is blessed to carry on his work – bringing the wisdom of ancient traditions to bear in evolving, creative ways – on issues that have challenged humanity since our origins and are now more important than ever.
— Rabbi Rachel B. Cowan, Trustee, Garrison Institute