September 22, 2019

Delving into the mystery of mortality

Sara Davidson is a best-selling memoirist (“Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion”), a biographer (“Rock Hudson: His Story”), and an astute observer of our culture (“Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties”). In her compelling new book, “The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery” (HarperOne, $25.99), however, she achieves a remarkable level of intimacy by allowing us to eavesdrop on two years of conversation with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the charismatic founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, a conversation that began in 2009 when Reb Zalman, as she calls him, was 85 years old and “in the December of [his] years.”

The theme of their encounter, and of Davidson’s book, is the ultimate challenge of life, “what we all must face, regardless of our beliefs or nonbelief: mortality.”   

Of course, it is the wisdom of Reb Zalman that shines out from the book’s pages. Davidson reminds us that he “bridges two worlds — the ancient Orthodox and the current cutting edge,” which gives him a useful perspective on which things change and which things remain the same. Born in Poland, ordained as a Lubavitcher rabbi in Brooklyn, he broke away from the tradition in which he was raised. One of his 11 children, for example, is the offspring of a lesbian rabbi for whom he was a sperm donor. “His life mission,” Davidson writes, “has been ‘to take the blinders off Judaism.’ ” 

Davidson herself, as she readily concedes, “was raised Jewish, but the 613 commandments and all-powerful Hebrew God do not resonate with me as much as do the philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism,” she writes. But the master and the student — he calls her “Saraleh” — find it easy to bridge the generational and religious gap between them. Indeed, the book describes a spiritual journey of two people: “When it’s my time, I’d like you to let me go,” the rabbi once told his wife, who answered: “Okay, on one condition: that you’ll take me with you as far as you can.” To which Davidson adds: “I would make that deal.”

The rabbi and writer travel together back to the early 20th century, covering all of the shattering events Reb Zalman has experienced, not just as an observer but also as an eyewitness. Such as, for example, when he shocked the Chabad community by announcing he wanted to be cremated and was told that if his mortal remains were reduced to ashes, he would not be resurrected when the Messiah comes. To which he answered: “Okay, if God decides not to resurrect the people who were burned at Auschwitz, He can leave me out of it too.”

Some of the book’s liveliest moments describe how Reb Zalman found the courage to come up with radical innovations in Jewish observance while, at the same time, maintaining a lifeline to tradition. Before he called upon Timothy Leary to guide him on an LSD trip, for example, Reb Zalman decided to “check in” with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who seemed to intuit what Reb Zalman was up to and enigmatically toasted him with a large glass of shnapps. Later, while on his acid trip in an ashram, Reb Zalman was visited by a vision of the Rebbe, who wished him “a good meditation and a good retreat!” According to Davidson, “Zalman said to Leary, ‘This is better than schnapps.’ ”

But it was a purely spiritual revelation that set the rabbi on his path toward the invention of Jewish Renewal. “I was sitting in a Hindu ashram with Tim Leary, who was Irish Catholic, and I realized that all forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us,” Reb Zalman tells Saraleh. “Behind all religions, there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people. For Jews, it’s a Torah with a crown. For Christians, the log-on to the infinite is Jesus. But no single point of view alone is right.”

In fact, Reb Zalman’s own relationship with God is one of the most pervasive — and provocative — themes in “The December Project.” He is capable of referring to God in ironic terms in one breath (“the extra-galactic super duper one!”) and mystical terms in the next: “A source of cosmic compassion.” For him, however, God is not a theological construct, but an active agent of care and comfort, as when the skeptic and the rabbi compare their reactions to the distressing experience of memory loss in old age: “If we cultivate the interior — where the One who makes it all happen is present — we don’t need the outer memories,” he says.

Reb Zalman is still alive, but the contemplation of death casts a deep shadow over what is, at its core, a celebratory book. Continuing his experiential exploration, at one chilling moment he undergoes the ceremony by which a corpse is prepared for burial “to experience what it’s like ‘to be a corpse.’ ” He has accepted his fate, which is — after all –— the fate of us all: “God, I’m ready. You can take me now,” he says. “Any way you want me, I’m your man.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright).