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Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and the long history of Jewish-Sufism

The TV news crawl at the bottom of the Al Jazeera screen read: “Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, father of Jewish Renewal, dies in Colorado.” Reb Zalman, as he was called by his followers, would have loved this announcement on this news agency, which was voted as the fifth most influential global brand, and which is financed by the House of Thani, an Arab tribe, and the ruling family of Qatar, a sovereign Arab country bordering Saudi Arabia.

Zalman Schacter-SHalomi participates in "Deep Ecumenicalism" with the Dalai Lama
Photo by Don MacKinnon/Getty Images

Why? Why would a Jewish leader who dresses up in ultra-orthodox garb be delighted with this announcement?

Because he fostered interfaith dialogue, possibly more than any other observant Jewish leader, with what he called “deep ecumenism.” Here’s an example.

Less than a year ago, on Tisha B’Av 2013, he prayed this prayer during the annual liturgy mourning the destruction of the Jewish Holy Temple in 70 BCE wherein he asked for a “House of Prayer for all peoples:”

“Dear Yah, comfort especially those who are so broken by the world that they’ve become bitter and alienated from the holiness they could love, but have lost touch with because of its remoteness from them. And comfort those who reside in Yerushalayim because they feel these things more acutely and basically than we; residents of Yerushalayim, the capital of the state of Israel which is the place from where the first signs of our redemption begin; the city also called Al Quds, the holy place for Palestinians. Please may there be quiet and ease. Please assuage their anger and reduce their terror of being attacked. Please pour down to them a spirit of wisdom and the wherewithal to support one another that one reaches out one to another with words of respect and honor. Please establish in support of them the bringing about of a government of ease and calm in which the representatives of the people treat one another with honesty and integrity.”

Especially today, on the eve of new battles between Israelis and the residents of Gaza at the murder of three young Jewish boys and one Palestinian boy in revenge, Reb Zalman’s vote for ecumenism is in the camp as the Catholic Pope. But as a religious leader Reb Zalman did not merely visit the ecumenical banquet, but he cooked for it. While the New York Times ignored his passing, the Sufi Order’s website Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, grandson of the musician and mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) brought Sufism from his native India to the West, writes that “the great soul” of

“Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, (Meshullam Zalman Hiyya HaKohen ben Hayyah Gittel) . . . was a dear friend of my father’s, and was an initiate in the Order, invested by my father with the rank of Shaikh. In this capacity, Reb Zalman revived the legacy of Rabbi Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon and established a Judeo-Sufi branch of the Inayati lineage known as the Maimuniyya.

… My most cherished memory of Reb Zalman is the memory of having climbed with him, and with many other peacemakers and pilgrims, the rocky path that leads to the peak of Mt. Sinai in the Egyptian desert. We ascended the holy mountain in the predawn darkness, and as the sun slowly rose over the horizon Reb Zalman sang joyous chants of divine praise. Standing on the summit, one could see the wiratha of Hazrat Musa (‘alayhi as-salam)—the inheritance of Moses (peace be upon him)— radiating from his face.

To me, Reb Zalman was a wise and affectionate spiritual uncle to whom I would turn at times for counsel and inspiration.”

It is interesting to note that this is the only obituary that mentions Reb Zalman’s Hebrew name and the fact that he was born a high priest, a Kohen. The Maimuniyya lineage was begun by Maimonides’ son who succeeded his father as leader of the Egyptian Jewish community, and who fostered a Jewish-Sufi form of piety. According to Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, a Masorti rabbi in the UK:

“The Hasidic doctrine of annihilation of selfhood also seems to have had its origin in Sufi thought, whence it came through various channels to the latter-day Hasidim. And there are echoes of Sufi thought in the Hasidic idea, developed especially in Habad, that from God's point of view there is no world at all, only God enjoying true existence. “

In an interview for a Sufi website Reb Zalman who was called Pir Zalman Sulayman Schachter-Shalomi | Reb Zalman, the Sufi Shaykh, stated that:

“I don't think any religion will survive without renewal, which means they have to take into consideration what comes from the earth, and what comes from above and what comes from women, and what comes from nature.”

Reb Zalman was known for popularizing the term “Paradigm Shift,” and nothing demonstrates this more than his involvement with the Sufi branch of Islam. Jewish Renewal to him included the mystical branches of all religions and a dedication to renewing the Axial Age of their common values. He came a long way from his origins in Zholkiew Poland, now the Ukraine, as the soon of a distinguished family of Belzer Hasidim, adopting the Lubavitcher movement of Chabad. He was raised in Vienna, but in 1938 at 13, his family fled Nazi oppression and wandered until they landed in New York in 1941, where he began following the Lubavitcher Rebbe who ordained him in 1947. With his good friend Shlomo Carlebach, he was sent as an emissary to Massachusetts where he studied the Psychology of Religion at Boston University and received a master’s degree. He taught at the University of Manitoba while earning a Doctor of Letters from Hebrew Union College. His new education influenced his departure from the Lubavitcher fold and he founded B’nai Or in 1964, the first Neo-Hasidic community, and was inspired by the Dead Sea Scrolls which mentioned “Children of the Light” associated with the early Hasidim of Qumram. He was also part of the founding group in Somerville MA of the Havurah movement. He introduced the rainbow tallis, which has become a trademark of the movement.

At the same time in the 1960s, he began walking the history of his Sufi path and to associate with the Ruhaniat Sufis and in 1975, after several years of study, finally requested initiation into the path of Inayati Sufism, a universalist spiritual movement founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan who was instructed to bring Sufism to the west. The day of the initiation by Pir Vilayat, the son of Inayat Khan, he took the ritual bath and dressed in his best Hasidic caftan and fur hat. To his surprise, in recognition of his knowledge and spiritual status within Hasidism, Pir Vilayat bestowed on him the title of Sufi "Sheikh." The following year, Pir Vilayat requested and was granted an initiation from Schachter into the priesthood of Malkhit Zedek, being made a kohen l'Ey Eliyon, "priest of God, Most High."

From that time on, Schachter remained close to Sufi circles, associating with numerous Sufi orders and forming relationships with several renowned Sufi masters - even as he continued to function as a Rebbe (spiritual leader) to the emerging Neo-Hasidic Jewish Renewal community.Sufi-Hasidim began to take shape, consolidated the teachings and practices of both traditions from the very start.

He earned an invitation from Prince Philip in 2009 to convene with the Alliance of Religions and Convservation, on the theme of "Many Heavens, One Earth" at Windsor Castle in England. According to Eve, his wife, there were “Nine major religions were represented (Baha’ism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism and Sikhism), and many countries (Saudi Arabia, US, UK, Egypt, Russia, China, Kenya, South Africa, Israel, Tanzania, Cameroon, India, Cambodia,[ among others]. . . .And we heard from distinguished individuals—the Archbishop of London; the Mufti of Cairo; Naomi Tsur, deputy mayor of Jerusalem; Olav Kjorven and Ban Ki-Moon of the UN; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and more. Participants represented the religious and international rainbow: South American Jesuit, Franciscan, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Shinto, Sikh, Hindu, Moslems from the Middle East and from Indonesia, Hindus, Lutherans from Tanzania and Presbyterians from Ghana, even an American Evangelical, and more. The goal was to quickly reduce our energy footprints so that we can slow down the warming of our planet and to do so quickly. "

So the ecumenical Shiekh and the tree-huggin rabbi came to lend his voice in "deep ecumenicalism."

For more on Jewish Sufism see: ,

FOr more on how Reb Zalman taught how to "daven" your ideals, see Rabbi Art Green's teaching at:

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