Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a spearhead of interfaith dialogue, died peacefully Thursday morning in his Boulder home. He was 89.
"In our community of his students and the many teachers who he empowered, we are deeply, deeply grieving his loss," said Rabbi Marcia Prager, director of ALEPH, the Renewal alliance Schachter-Shalomi, better known as Reb Zalman, founded more than 40 years ago and which produced an entirely new denomination of Judaism.
The Renewal movement, which blends Kabbalistic and Hasidic elements with several other faiths, was the product of Zalman's lifelong mission to, in his words, "take the blinders off Judaism."
"He really changed the face of the religion," said Netanel Miles-Yepez, Zalman's friend and co-author. "After the Holocaust, things didn't look good. Jewish tradition was burning out, but boy, he breathed life into it."
Born in Poland, Zalman spent three years as a teenager on the run from Nazi oppression, moving with his family from Vienna through Belgium, France, North Africa and the Caribbean before landing in New York City in 1941.
He was ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn in 1947, but Zalman's emergence as a universalist leader, accepting of and fascinated by all modes of spirituality, gradually repelled him from the orthodoxy, and vice-versa.
Zalman became a champion of progressive theology, defining and promoting religion as transcendent of borders and labels. The spiritual maverick met with Buddhist, Sufi and Christian leaders and formed friendships with the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel and Thomas Merton.
In 1962, Zalman met psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary and took LSD for the first time. In Boulder author Sara Davidson's book "The December Project," Zalman credited the experience with broadening his views.
"It was clear that what I'd experienced in prayer and meditation before — the oneness and connection with God — was true, but it wasn't just Jewish," he told the author. "I realized that all forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us. Behind all religions, there's a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people."
Longtime friend and co-author Netanel Miles-Yepez used the Hebrew term "neshamah klalit," meaning "general soul," to describe Zalman.
"There are some people that are born into the world with a soul so broad that they connect with hundreds and hundreds of people. They can find a way to access many, many types. He was definitely one of those," Miles-Yepez said.
The accessibility so many relished in Zalman came, in large part, from an innate ability to blend the ancient with the modern-day, and mine relevance from the most abstruse aspects of religious philosophy.
"He was the guy who connected the dots," said Jack Kessler, lead cantor at ALEPH. "He could make the link between thousand-year-old Jewish mystical teachings and contemporary theoretical physics. He was really an amazing cat — like Leonardo da Vinci of spiritual renewal."
Friends said that, in addition to Zalman's extraordinary intellectual reach, he was also highly musically talented and had a lifelong passion for technology. He'd often refer to one's personal spiritual connection as a way of "logging on" to an idea or higher being.
"He had a particular facility with the language of technology today and could use it for examples to teach about spiritual truths," Miles-Yepez said. "He always talked about spiritual practices as spiritual technology, technology that allowed you to talk to God. Even a small shift in language like that really made things feel accessible."
That skill garnered Zalman throngs of followers, but he resented being characterized as somehow exceptional. In the late 1990s, he gathered a group of his students and told them he did not want Renewal to die with him, as so many movements flare out with the passing of the charismatic guru.
"I hereby resign as your leader," he said to the students. "I'm turning it over to everybody."
Zalman moved to Colorado in 1995, where he accepted the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University. He held the position until his retirement in 2004, and he remained in Boulder until his death.
"Reb Zalman was at once sweet and fierce, spacious and impatient," said Naropa President Charles Lief, in a statement Thursday. "He did as much as anyone of his generation to nurture the deep spiritual and ethical roots of his Jewish tradition."
Zalman, who was married four times, is survived by his wife, Eve Ilsen, and 11 children.
A funeral will be at 9 a.m. today at Green Mountain Cemetery, 290 20th St., followed by a memorial service at Congregation Har Hashem, 3950 Baseline Road.
Naropa University also plans to hold a celebration of Zalman's life in the near future, though details are still being worked out.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Alex Burness at 303-473-1389 or firstname.lastname@example.org.