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The Pilgrim exchange, part 2: ‘The prayer whisperer’

by Shmuel Rosner

August 21, 2014 | 3:29 am

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 2005

Lee Kravitz is the author of the memoir Unfinished Business and the former editor in chief of Parade magazine. Previously, he was founding editor of React magazine and an editorial director of Scholastic Inc. Kravitz is president of Youth Communication, a publisher of writing by and for inner-city teens and youth in foster care. He is also active on the boards of the Public Education Network and The League: Powered by Learning to Give. A graduate of Yale and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Lee lives with his wife and children in New York City and Clinton Corners, New York.

This exchange focuses on his recently published book Pilgrim (Hudson Street Press, 2014). Part one can be found right here.

***

Dear Lee,

Your book, which describes your personal experiments with many different religions and faiths, also tells us about your experiences with a type of Judaism which many of our readers might not be familiar with - the Jewish Renewal movement. As the face of the movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, has just passed away, I suppose this is a great time to ask you about his role in your personal journey - what did his movement have to offer you that other Jewish denominations and other faiths didn't? Why does the book end there?  

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

When I set out in search of a spiritual home, I didn't think of denominational Judaism as offering a path. Rightly or wrongly, I dismissed the Reform denomination as watered down, the Conservative as stultifying (my experience of it growing up), and the Orthodox as overly rigid. I ached for God. But not the vindictive and punishing God of the Hebrew Bible. I had to find my own path. I didn't think that any of the Jewish denominations would encourage the type of seeking and exploration I had to do.

I spent two years meditating with Buddhists, chanting with Hindus, and attending silent Quaker meetings. All of these roads led to Kehillat Romemu, a Renewal congregation in my neighborhood. The rabbi -- David Ingber -- had been a seeker himself. After studying at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, he had a major spiritual identity crisis and began schooling himself in yoga, meditation and the world’s great mystical traditions. Then he met Reb Zalman, who became his teacher and ordained him. 

The Hassidic-flavored davening at Romemu is soulful and energetic -- filled with wordless nigguns, ecstatic chanting, and spontaneous dancing; it is also grounded in deep Torah study. The first time I went to a service there, I came away thinking: Here is a place where I can refresh my spirit and deepen my relationship to God, where I can heal my brokenness and begin living a more compassionate Jewish life. I continue to feel that way, which is why the book ends there: I found a spiritual home.

I’m glad you ask about Reb Zalman. Rabbi Ingber called him “the prayer whisperer” -- and this is how I’ll remember him, as a spiritual innovator who exulted in the transformative power of prayer. In "Pilgrim," I write at length about the first time I encountered him -- in 2012, at a Shavuot retreat in Connecticut. I had always been suspicious of gurus (most of them end up abusing their power), but the 87-year-old Reb Zalman displayed so much wisdom, humor, and self-knowledge when talking about the challenges he faced growing older that I immediately trusted and respected him and saw him as a role model. 

A month before he died, he and his wife came East to teach at this year’s Shavuot retreat, which I also attended. He was bent over, hooked up to oxygen, and struggled mightily with a cane to walk. And yet, remarkably, he was fully present to us. Every word he spoke seemed directed toward helping us “let go” of him and pour our energies into continuing his legacy of creative, enlivening prayer.

There is so much to say about Reb Zalman. Even when I passed him on the path between our cabins, I never introduced myself to him or asked him a question, for fear of robbing him of any of his remaining breath and words. His deepest legacy to me will be an effort he began 30 years ago. When he was my age, 60, he became depressed at how he had begun to lose energy and a sense of purpose in his life. As he meditated on this challenge, he realized that there was no model for growing old purposefully in our youth-obsessed Western culture. That was the beginning of what became the Spiritual-eldering (now known as Sage-ing) movement, which helps older people see the final phase of their lives as an opportunity for emotional healing and spiritual growth. It’s an area I intend to explore.

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