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Reb Zalman z”l and the Tree of Life

Dear All,

As the week goes on, and despite events in Israel and so many other things, I remain profoundly aware of the death of Reb Zalman, may his memory be for a blessing. A sense of him and the memory of him is never far away. He had such a beautiful voice, his beautiful accent, and those twinkly eyes. He was irrepressible, joyous, and a font of ideas and connections. It was a pleasure and a challenge to try to keep up with him and his richly associative mind. His presence continues to echo. I will miss him very much.

He was intimately involved with Hazon and our programs over many years. The staff at Isabella Freedman loved him; he made it a habit always to meet with the behind-the-scenes staff, not just front-of-house folk. He taught at Shavuot, was a central figure at Elat Chayyim since its earliest days, was a very special presence at our benefit last year, and came to England with us for a climate change conference a few years back. He was deeply interested in, and supportive of, our work on shmita. And he and Eve have been incredibly kind and generous to me personally. So I wanted to take this moment to remember Reb Zalman, to offer condolences to all those who feel his loss, and to share one of his teachings for those who never knew him.

What I found most fascinating and inspiring was how he bridged and connected between the tradition, on the one hand, and openness, creativity and change on the other. In watching how one’s rebbe ties his shoelaces, this, above all things, was what I learned from Reb Zalman.

I remember in particular a rather remarkable teaching he gave at Elat Chayyim, in 1998.  He was with the rabbis and rabbinical students of the Jewish Renewal movement. I was struck, over many years, by what a curious relationship he had with them. He was very proud of them, and very conscious of having established a legacy which he believed in, but simultaneously I think he sometimes also felt slightly constricted by them. To the end he was eclectic in his interests and his affiliations.

On this occasion he made a remarkable analogy. In a tree, he pointed out, the heartwood – the apoplast – is not alive, though without it the tree could not stand. It is the outer growing edge – the phloem and xylem – that is the living part of the tree. (One way to cut trees, for instance, is to cut a ridge around the side of a tree; this will kill the tree and it is then that much easier, a year later, to cut it down.)

In his teaching the orthodox, or perhaps the ultra-orthodox, were like the heartwood; the Jewish Renewal movement was the outer growing edge.

This is a fascinating analogy, and it is important to understand it. On the face of it, his words could be understood offensively in either direction. It could be offensive to the orthodox – to say that the orthodox world is in some sense “dead.”  And it could be offensive to the renewal movement: to suggest that it cannot stand by itself, that it is in some sense reliant on the orthodox or the ultra-orthodox.

Yet Reb Zalman, in saying this to the leaders of the Renewal movement, was saying something very profound. He was arguing for us to understand Jewish life as a complex ecosystem, which is what a tree, all by itself, is. This idea underpinned how he understood the world, the different elements of Jewish life, and the Jewish community within the wider world.

Reb Zalman’s understanding was that we each of us – each of us as individuals; and also each of us as distinct communities – has a unique gift, that is ours to share and to offer. And we need to understand not only the distinctiveness of our own gifts, but the extent to which they are reliant upon the different gifts of others.

This was what he was saying to the Renewal movement: the Jewish community needs you to innovate, to be creative, to develop new liturgy, new theology, to incorporate feminism and eco-theology and the wisdom of the Sufis and the Buddhists and the Christians. But in doing this, do not forget that the tree of Jewish life is at least partially upheld by the institutions of orthodoxy and tradition – shuls, mikvaot, yeshivot, a range of institutions that change far less, or more slowly, but upon which the growing edge partly depends.

And he would have said, equivalently, to the orthodox: you may not (yet) feel able to incorporate certain sorts of changes. But do not doubt that your world is enriched by the innovations of others. When we count the rings of a tree, we see that what was a new ring 20 years ago is now incorporated today within the body of the tree. And so it is, for instance, with bat mitzvah, or, as we saw last week, with an orthodox woman very publicly saying kaddish – innovations that began with Reb Zalman, or Mordechai Kaplan and which have now begun to be incorporated into orthodoxy.

This metaphor of Reb Zalman’s is so needed in the world today. It requires of us, at its heart, to be able to see the value and the necessity of the work and the ideas of people with whom we may not agree – that is what he was teaching. This is a radical idea. It is true in relation to Jewish life. True in relation to Israel. There are people and organizations out there – for each of us – that we do not directly “believe in” or support, but which – in fact – play a vital role in the ecosystems in which we thrive.

So…. Peace be upon you, Reb Zalman. You lived a rich life, and had an unusually thoughtful death. (I was one of a good number of people who got a call on Friday: “Reb Zalman had asked me to phone you to let you know directly that he has died….”)

Blessings and love to Eve, to your children and grandchildren, to your students of all sorts around the world. May we be inspired by your teachings, by your kindness, and by that twinkle in your eye; also by the dollar coins you gave out, the Torah you taught, and the link that you represented in an ancient and beautiful chain.

PS: If you have not yet read it, the very beautiful December Project by Sara Davidson is not only an extraordinary book on preparing for death; it is also a very lovely biography of Reb Zalman.