‘Reb Zalman’ on Aging, and Then Awakening

Influential spiritual leader Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi explained that, as he approached his 60th year, there came a moment that he wasn't expecting and wasn't ready for: feeling an achiness all over his body — a "cumulative tiredness." At some point, he related at a recent program, "you have to come to terms with your own mortality," and listen to your body telling you that you're getting older.

Coming to this "awakening" — that he needed to make the transition from adulthood to elderhood — the rabbi, affectionately known as "Reb Zalman," explained that he realized he needed to talk to his body before he could talk to God.

"When you do that," he continued, "you become wiser."

He said that, when he became an elder, then retired and was deemed by society as no longer productive, he didn't know what to do with himself; he had no "models" for what came next and "didn't see it anywhere else among our people." However, the rabbi explained, he did find the necessary change in spiritual consciousness expressed in other cultures, such as the Pueblos, and was inspired to become a model for others reaching later life — to educate them on how to acquire and develop the skills for successful, satisfying aging.

For Schachter-Shalomi, seeking fulfillment of the soul is nothing new. Born in Poland, he was raised in Vienna, and eventually had to flee the Nazis. He came to the United States in 1941 and became a Chasidic-trained rabbi, ordained in the Lubavitch movement. But he is probably best known for his break with Orthodox Judaism in the 1960s, and then helping to found, along with others, the Jewish Renewal movement, which aspires to reinvigorate modern Judaism by bringing Kabbalistic and Chasidic theory and practice into non-Orthodox, egalitarian settings. With its roots in the chavurah movement, Jewish Renewal combines study and worship with elements, like meditation and song and dance, to create a more emotional and spiritual prayer experience.

Now 84, Schachter-Shalomi, a prolific writer, explained that he made the decision several years ago to use the majority of his strength to focus on his life's work — which he defined as the "living legacy" he will leave for future generations — and therefore limits his travel these days.

So in July, Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, traveled to Boulder, Colo., to interview Schachter-Shalomi about growing older and wiser. The taped conversation, infused with the rabbi's humorous quips, was viewed for the first time by 50 or so people gathered in the Beit Hamidrash at RRC on Nov. 18. The rabbi himself, with a broad smile on his face, watched along with the suburban Philly audience via a two-way videoconference on Skype; afterwards, he took a few questions.

The videoconference, said Friedman, was part of an ongoing intergenerational lecture series, now in its sixth year, called "On Being an Elder," where a distinguished member of the Jewish community reflects on his or her later-life journeys.

The goal of this series, continued Friedman (who was recently named one of the "Forward 50" for 2008 by the Forward newspaper for her work with responding to a graying Jewish community), is to have RRC students and faculty made aware of the spiritual components of aging.

Once you become an elder –a period that Schachter-Shalomi called "the October years" in the calendar of one's life — you have to look to the past for those "gems" that have allowed you to become the person you are. He said that you have to sift out from your consciousness "what you don't want to inhabit," and decide what values, experiences and thoughts are worth saving — and what needs to be left behind.



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