A prime mover in the founding of the liberal Jewish Renewal movement in the early 1970s, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 88, will host prayers and teachings today through Sunday at the Havurah Shir Hadash, focusing on a mystic spirituality that is founded in peace, environmentalism and the divine feminine.
The famed author and spiritual leader is now 88 and living in Boulder, Colo., so his trips are few these days, said Havurah Rabbi David Zaslow.
"Reb Zalman blends mystic, Hasidic thought with a modern progressive vision that includes the divine feminine, the living planet and a faith that can touch all religions," Zaslow said.
Schachter-Shalomi has ordained eight rabbis in Oregon, including Zaslow and three others in the Rogue Valley, and has had a big impact on Judaism in the state, Zaslow said.
"Oregon is a place that honors the sea and earth and rivers," Schachter-Shalomi said in a phone interview. "I have a feel for it and they have a feeling for Jewish Renewal. What is it with Oregon and me that so many have felt they should study with me?"
Ashland Rabbi Jacqueline Brodsky, who was ordained by Schachter-Shalomi, said the synergy dates back to the 1960s, when many of young Jews migrated to Ashland and other parts of Oregon.
Nothing the alternative cultural and spiritual ways of the time, Brodsky said, "They thought Judaism was irrelevant."
Schachter-Shalomi was able to "see the potential of people and read a person's soul and possibilities and empower them as wonderful rabbinic leaders," Brodsky said. "He was visionary in so many ways — environmentally, empowering women, finding alternate rituals and music, bringing joyfulness. He brought a whole generation in on it, and it was a way to merge with our alternate culture."
Schachter-Shalomi has taught widely, connecting with well-known spiritual leaders — Ram Dass, Thomas Merton, Jean Houston, the Dalai Lama — and calling many his friends and colleagues.
"Each year, he comes to Ashland," Zaslow said. "The rabbis lead prayers and chanting around his prayers. We surround him. It's quite ecstatic, very beautiful. All the rabbis, cantors and prayer leaders on the West Coast want to see their rebbe."
This weekend, Schachter-Shalomi will talk about theology and "ethics necessary for our own time," Zaslow said. "We're all learning about the planet as a living being. ... The nature of nature has not taken hold."
Working from the model that the left brain is rational and the right brain is intuitive, Schachter-Shalomi said people must embrace both, with the right brain being the place of heart, feeling and compassion.
The 1960s triggered an era of shift, he said, and "we were all under the influence of change. Many who represented the linear tradition of the past could not change, but I did, and my students did. It showed Judaism could evolve. It has always evolved."
Bringing the divine feminine into Judaism is key to the Renewal movement, said Zaslow, as is developing a good relationship between Jew and non-Jew.
"He always preaches to the rabbis the urgency of not forgetting the planet as a living being," Zaslow said. "We can't do the spiritual work without that. The interfaith work can only be done with a planetary consciousness and the rise of the Divine Feminine."
A Polish native, Schachter-Shalomi was interned by the Vichy French. After fleeing to New York at 17, he was ordained and won his master's degree in the psychology of religion from Boston University and his doctor of Hebrew letters at Hebrew Union College. He was professor of Jewish Mysticism and Psychology of Religion at Temple University and in 1995 took the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University in Boulder. He founded the Spiritual Eldering Institute.
The visit of Schachter-Shalomi is important, noted Zaslow, because he is among the last of his generation to survive the Nazi Holocaust.
From this experience, Schachter-Shalomi said he got "a feeling of greater compassion."
"I've been back to Germany, to teach at the university," he said. "The good people of today are not the ones who created the problems for us. They want to be met where they are today. Every human being has to be honored and not treated like vermin."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.