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Standup, Sit-down, See the Light

by Gaby Wenig

September 12, 2002 | 8:00 pm

"Reb Zalman" leads Yom Kippur services at Makom Ohr Shalom in Woodland Hills.

"Reb Zalman" leads Yom Kippur services at Makom Ohr Shalom in Woodland Hills.

Picture 20 massage tables, with people lying down and being gently touched, with music playing in the background. On Yom Kippur.

That was the custom at Makom Ohr Shalom in Woodland Hills. Although it's been modified to sitting on tables, it's one of the off-beat traditions at the XX synagogue. "Each time I had the opportunity to do that to others, and to lie on the table myself, I had the sense that not only does your mind, heart and soul experience Yom Kippur, but also your body," said Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who leads services at the Woodland Hills synagogue every Yom Kippur.

"It is simply holding people in a gentle way to say that you can let go and relax, and all the knots that are in your body, that feel unforgiven, on Yom Kippur, you can let go of that."

It is the 10th year that 78-year-old Reb Zalman (as Schachter-Shlomi is known), will be traveling from his home in Boulder, Colo. to lead the Yom Kippur services at Makom Ohr Shalom. Like congregants in most other Los Angeles synagogues on Yom Kippur, Makom Ohr Shalom members do the typical Yom Kippur thing -- fasting and praying -- but the service is not your average sit-all-day-in-your-seat affair. The service at Makom Ohr Shalom includes elements of meditation, teaching, questions and music, and eschews the practice of only giving aliyot to the synagogue big shots. Instead, they have mass aliyot, where everyone can share the aliyah, so that no one feels left out.

For Reb Zalman, it is a service that has all the spiritual characteristics he is looking for. "When you enter a synagogue," said Reb Zalman, "it is not only that you enter the synagogue with your body, but you are entering the sacred space, a safe and sacred space where you are allowed to enter into altered consciousness. This is what Makom Ohr Shalom provides."

While Yom Kippur massages are not the norm in most synagogues, neither is Reb Zalman. He is a Chabad renegade who is as at home with Buddhists and Sufis as he is with the many thousands of Jews that he bought back to Judaism.

He began his rabbinical career as an outreach rabbi and student of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who taught him in all matters spiritual. "Chabad had wonderful things that nobody had in Judaism," Reb Zalman said. "They taught you how to meditate, they taught you how to daven in depth, they taught you how to understand the kabbalistic cosmology, and the psychology, so that you can work on your own transformation."

Still, Reb Zalman eventually broke with Chabad and Orthodoxy, because he felt that traditions needed to move forward. "It is not as if all of a sudden I had these ideas and there was a rebellion," he said of his break. "The point here is that Orthodoxy said 'as we used to do it before, so we always have to do it,' which doesn't allow for historical development. I looked in Jewish history, and I saw that the Baal Shem Tov [the rabbi credited with founding the Chasidic movement] did not just restore things to what it was earlier, he was renewing things, which is to say, 'How do we do in our generation what they did in their generation?'"

It was his passion for rejuvenation that lead Reb Zalman to start the Jewish Renewal Movement in the 1960s. Jewish Renewal is an approach to Judaism that is based on five tenets: an appreciation of Jewish mysticism, davenology (a term Reb Zalman coined, which is a way of approaching prayer so that it becomes "experiential"), feminism, environmentalism (which Reb Zalman calls being eco-kosher) and a nontriumphalist approach to Judaism. "Most of the religions in the past have said that when their messiah comes, that will show that they have been right and all the others are wrong," said Reb Zalman, explaining the last tenet. "Our point is no. All religions are like vital organs of the planet, and you can't cut one out and expect that [it] will live."

Reb Zalman has also been instrumental in promoting interreligious dialogue. He was part of an eight-member delegation of Jewish religious leaders who traveled to Dharamsala, India, to visit the Dalai Lama in exile to have an exchange of spiritual ideas. He encourages his congregants to have a Muslim come and hold the baby and read the opening of the Koran before a brit milah, because Muslims also practice circumcision. He also invites Muslims to his house for dinner during Ramadan, so that they don't have to cook while they are fasting. He does this because he believes that spiritual dialogue will accomplish what politics cannot.

For Reb Zalman, it is the passion he feels for his religion that drives him. "It is not a burning angry intensity," he said, "but a very loving intensity."

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