So many others knew him longer than I did. And so many others have written, and will write, about how his extraordinary life and work have shaped Jewish life today. I only knew his work for the last twenty years; I only knew him in person for ten years. Many of his students, colleagues, and friends spent a lifetime with him.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written, "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." (Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried Like A Seed -- To Sprout.)
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan has written, "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." (A Special Person at a Special Time: Reb Zalman's Jewish Renewal.)
Rabbi Jay Michaelson has written, "Hundreds of teachers, rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders found in Reb Zalman’s 'translation' of traditional Judaism into contemporary life a way to savor the blessings of Jewish life and practice, while consciously confronting those aspects of Jewish tradition which needed to be renewed — or discarded outright." (Reb Zalman, the Prophet of Both-And)
Other people have written about him wisely and well, is what I'm saying. But his teachings and his life have been so foundational to my sense of what Judaism is and can be -- I can't let his passing elapse without writing something here. Writing is how I remember, and I want to remember him. Have you ever been around someone who -- the moment you enter into their presence -- you can just feel that they really have it together, that they're tapped into something deep? Reb Zalman was one of those people.
I said last week that Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. And he is. I became a rabbi because I wanted to serve God and the Jewish people. But for many years I thought that was a yearning which would go unfulfilled. I found my teachers, my community, and ultimately my rabbinic lineage through Reb Zalman.
And I found Reb Zalman through Rodger Kamenetz.
In 1994, my dear friend David (who is now soon to be ordained a rabbi himself) gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus. The story it tells is a true one: about the delegation of rabbis spanning the breadth of Judaism and Jewish practice who went together to Dharamsala, India to meet with the Dalai Lama and answer his question of how the Jewish poeple had survived 2000 years of Diaspora.
I remember reading that book -- I was in college at the time -- and being deeply moved by Rodger's descriptions of Reb Zalman. I remember in particular the scene where Reb Zalman goes to daven alongside Sikhs at prayer in their temple. Rodger writes:
Reb Zalman's spontaneous davening in a Sikh temple had placed him squarely on the side of total immersion dialogue. Explaining to me later, he quoted from the Psalms, "I am a friend to all who respect you, O Lord." The Sikh guru and he are "in the same business, struggling to see holy values don't get lost. I see every other practitioner as organically doing in his bailiwick what I am doing in mine. When a non-Jewish person affirms me, I feel strengthened in my work. When I affirm a non-Jewish person, he or she feels strengthened in their work." Zalman also cited Isaiah's prophecy, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations."
...I was electrified by his joyous crossing of boundaries, his davening chutzpah. It broke through my own neat categories. I associated Orthodox practice with insularity. Yet here was Zalman, making contact with another religion by davening maariv.
I read that and I thought: holy wow -- his roots are so deep, and his wings are so broad.