The rabbi who created the rainbow tallit

We talk to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.


Rabbi Zalman  Schachter-Shalomi (third from left) at last week’s Windsor Castle eco-conference

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (third from left) at last week’s Windsor Castle eco-conference

As the Jewish delegates strolled to the opening of last week’s interfaith conference on the environment at Windsor Castle, one in particular would have caught your eye: a man with a white beard, black hat and a multi-coloured tallit. Its wearer is one of the true innovators in contemporary Judaism, the neo-Chasidic rebbe who gave birth to the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, over here on a rare visit here from the United States.

It is not uncommon to spot a rainbow, or as it is sometimes called Joseph’s Coat, tallit in some synagogues these days. But many people are unaware that it was Reb Zalman who designed it. The idea came into his mind some 50 years ago when he was meditating on a verse in the Midrah “How did God create the world? He wrapped himself in a robe of light and it began to shine.” Its vivid stripes, arranged in a set pattern, allude to the kabbalistic sefirot, the emanations of Divine energy through the cosmos.

Renewal represents the avant garde of Judaism, a post-war movement that caught on among a younger generation in America disaffected with the “jumbo-jet congregations” of suburbia, as he has referred to them. Whereas many of the new currents in Judaism in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought change in the name of rationalism, Renewal shares some of the features of Chasidism: an emphasis on emotion, an attempt to find a personal connection with God, joy and feeling in practice. And the ideas of Kabbalah, once shunned in respectable Jewish society, which he has adapted and applied to the modern-day world, are integral to his thinking.

It was no accident that he came out of the Lubavitch stable, with its focus on outreach, and was once an emissary for it. Explaining the origins of Renewal in the 60s in an interview shortly before his visit here, he said; “My friend [and fellow-Lubavitcher] Shlomo Carlebach and I had brought things that had to do with Chasidism into the so-called Age of Aquarius, who were the people in California at that time. He did this with song and story, and I did this with a certain kind of teaching that had to do with bringing the cosmology up to date and in harmony with the Kabbalah.”

When he says “up to date”, he means that in the world of quantum mechanics, one could no longer seriously think of the universe beginning in 5770 — the kind of critical thinking that ultimately carried him beyond the confines of official Lubavitch.

Renewal is best-known for its experimentation in worship — its inclusion of meditation, breathing exercises, dance and other spiritual techniques. Its early pioneers started the chavurot, the small prayer circles that offered freedom, informality and intimacy in contrast to the often stifling conformity of mainstream synagogues which had made Judaism a turn-off to many of the young.

“I wrote a book called Jewish with Feeling,” he said. “I am sorry the publisher didn’t want to give it my title, which was If You’re so Universal, Why be Jewish? For many Jews have gone to Sufis, to Hindus, to Buddhists, what have you. They were looking for a spirituality they didn’t find in the suburban synagogue which had largely become a mazeltov factory.”

Renewal’s spiritual openness was coupled with a willing to learn from other traditions; Reb Zalman himself has been initiated as a Sufi sheikh. He has written of the time when at a mysticism conference in Canada, he ascended to the roof of his motel at dawn to pray with his tefillin and shofar, there to find also an Indian medicine man with his prayer blanket, incense and whistle. Their affinity helped him to realise the “common element of all religion, the inner experience which transcends external variations and differences,” he wrote. No one has the “exclusive franchise on the Truth”.

Renewal has also been at the forefront of an emerging Jewish environmentalism, in particular what he has called “eco-kosher”, extending the notion of kashrut to questions such as how was the food on our plates grown or what kind of packaging it was wrapped in. Hence his willingness to make the journey to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation conference at Windsor: he also took a Shabbaton at London’s Ruach Chavurah, the group inspired by his ideas, and lectured at the New London Synagogue.

Based in Philadelphia, his movement now has its own communities, institutions and rabbis. But rather than some new denomination, he looks on it as “a virus. From Reform to Orthodox, we have in some way infected them.”

Taking a holistic view of Judaism, he said: “Klal Yisrael, all of Israel, is just one body and that there are different organs in the body. I would say that the ultra-Orthodox are the skeleton that holds it together, I think we are closer to the nervous system in Renewal. Other people are the alimentary system — the tzedakah people who collect money for Eretz Israel and that’s wonderful too. We all part of the same body, so it’s not to say that we want to separate ourselves. From an organism point of view, [if] the liver is stronger, then the kidneys will be stronger and the lungs will be stronger.”

So rather than talk of schisms, “I like to speak about how we are really integral to each other.”

While some see truth in black or white, for Reb Zalman it is manifestly more varied — just like his tallit of many colours.

Reb Zalman bio

1924: born in Poland, moved to Vienna the following year

1938: fled to Belgium, reaching New York in 1941

1947: ordained in a Lubavitch yeshivah, served congregations in Massachusetts

1969: founded the B’nai Or Religious Fellowship, which became Aleph: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in Philadelphia

1975: became professor of Jewish mysticism at Temple University, Philadelphia

2004: retired as World Wisdom Chair from Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, where he now lives

2005: published Jewish with Feeling: a Guide to a Meaningful Jewish Practice (with Joel Segel) and Credo of a Modern Kabbalist (with Daniel Siegel)

    Last updated: 10:29am, November 12 2009