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Encounters with Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi

Alan Briskin Posted by Alan Briskin, Management consultant , Alan Briskin.

Alan Briskin consults to corporate, nonprofit, and public service organizations helping business leaders, executives, and managers navigate change, re-define their work roles, and transform their work settings.

Encounters with Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi

Reb Zalman passed over today.  I’ve known he has been slowly slipping away and was preparing himself and others for this day.  Still, my spirit is heavy, and my gratitude overflowing.

This is a photograph from a time we had together in Colorado. We were exploring ways to enter states of consciousness that would allow healing energies to be directed to what he called “hot spots” in the world. To do so required joining with other forms of spiritual intelligences and with personal guides both living and dead.

Reb Zalman embodied a curiosity, boldness, brilliance, and warmth that blew sacred breath on the embers of our souls.  I am grateful.

I met Reb Zalman when I first interviewed him for the Collective Wisdom Initiative in August, 2000. We met at his home in Boulder and I still recall the instant connection that was made when he first began speaking. Well, maybe not instant. He was telling me a story that began 300 years ago about the age of reason and I wasn’t sure we would have enough time for him to get to the point.

I was about to interrupt him when he sensed my impatience and held up his hand. “Wait,” he said. I paused, gathered myself, and had something like an epiphany. He was telling me a story that was critical if I was to have any direction for the work that was still to unfold for me.

I still have my notes from that session and his words read like poetry:

We have not learned much in our
current conventional morality
and politics about togethering.

The last century with the
scientism sought to see everything
in the reductive form. We wanted
to get to the atom and beyond the
atom, to the smallest part.

But even in the atom, the nucleus
and the electrons that dance
around it are in relationship with
each other.

We believed we couldn’t know anything
until we got to the smallest
component, and so we forgot to seek


My last conversation of length with Reb Zalman was in February of 2010. Here are examples of the breadth of his insights and the sparks that flew between us:

  • Reb Zalman is aware that, according to his own life span metaphor, this is the month of December for himself. The elder work he wrote about was more in the months of October and November. December is more about transition and what we leave for others. This final period for him is about how he will take leave of his mortal body.
  • I tell him a story from our mutual friend Aryae Coopersmith about Shlomo Carlebach. Shlomo was Reb Zalman’s dear friend and colleague in Jewish Renewal. When Shlomo was asked to speak to a class about the mystical Zohar, he said what he will say about Zohar will be a little disturbing to some and may not be immediately understood. Shlomo said: In the beginning man created god and heaven but beyond that god and heaven is another god and heaven and it is that one he wants to talk about. Reb Zalman enjoyed the tale and adds that Carlebach was pointing to a transcendent understanding.
  • Reb Zalman describes the 4th turning, which follows the first 3 cycles of Judaic history, beginning with the Dead Sea Scrolls, then in the medieval times by association with Sufis and people from the Rhineland, followed by the emergence of Hasidic networks led by Baal Shem Tov. The 4th turning involves a renouncing of triumphalism, but not of tribalism. Triumphalism is a belief that your vision of divinity is the best or highest and others are weak replicas. Going beyond triumphalism means a real pleasure in understanding and engagement with other traditions. It is not solely mental engagement but embodied. He tells me of the time Tarthang Tulku, the Tibetan teacher, joined him in the synagogue and danced with the Torah.
  • Tribalism has a role. We are each an organ of a larger organismic body and the lungs should not try to be the kidneys. Tribalism, however, has many shadow elements that must be accounted for. We should not be surprised by the urge toward tribalism, as it is about our central social bonds.
  • The 4th turning will be a time of integration for male and female energies and be guided by the work of the divine feminine. This will also be a time for the acceptance and integration of diverse sexual orientations.
  • Reb Zalman’s ends with a story of being brought into the inner rooms at Red Feather Lodge (Shambhala Mountain Center). He sees figures of male and female figures in yab-yum poses of sexual union. In one image, the female is sticking her tongue out at the male figure whose face is filled with desire. Reb Zalman describes the powerful effect this image had on him. He tells me we need to appreciate the many levels we live on simultaneously. The concept of a transpersonal sociology suggests we are each differentiated entities that move in concert with multiple levels of reality. This work is not that of just the mind. We work from the limbic levels and through synchronizing our mirror neurons with each other.

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