Beyond Jewish Triumphalism

Reb ZalmanPatheos team

Patheos spoke to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi recently on how he sees the evolution of Judaism over the past one hundred years and what he foresees for the next one hundred years. At 86, Reb Zalman saw Judaism pre-Holocaust and has watched it develop in its contact with modernity and the American experience. Reb Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement ordained Reb Zalman, who is known for developing the Jewish Renewal movement, who has served as the World Wisdom Chair for Naropa University, and who has sat in council with the Dalai Lama.

Thank you so much, Reb Zalman, for taking the time to sit with us. Can you give us a little background on your perspective of Judaism, pre- and post-Holocaust, and its evolution?

Judaism pre-Holocaust and Judaism post-Holocaust have wholly different qualities. In pre-Holocaust Judaism, it was very clear that we (traditional Jews) believed Judaism was going to win over all the other religions in the world and in the end we would triumph. That feeling has changed in Judaism today, at least with the people who have a more liberal outlook on things.

Now the question is, how does change happen in these things? There is in every religion and in every teaching what is called a magisterium, the basic teaching of the religion. In the past, Earth was at the center and all the stars were going around. Many parts of Jewish theology did not change from the Ptolemaic system -- even up to last century they hadn't switched yet to Galileo's discoveries. But now that we are in a post-triumphalist period, post-Holocaust, and now that we have seen the earth from outer space, it has become clear that the Judaism we are talking about right now is just one of the vital organs of the planet. And as such its future must be to become the healthiest organ that it can. What does it mean to be healthy? It is to be part of the totality of the planet and not to be a set of rogue cells like cancers that would like to consume the whole body and bring it to its death. You have to be able to come to a kind of balance.  

To find that balance, the Judaism of the future is going to require a lot more feminism, it will be ecological, it will be friendly to other religions, and it will be using more of its mystical know-how. Judaism will borrow from other disciplines outside of the religion that have certain kinds of transformational knowledge. Judaism is going to have more and more things to say about how we are to live in the world, just as it has in the past. For instance, Judaism has agricultural laws -- every seventh year the land is to lay fallow; it has social laws -- it calls for a cancelation of debt every seven years so that we don't fall into feudalism.

We had all kinds of wonderful laws that were fitting for the time and for the technological period we were in. Now we are moving to a whole new technology, and information is traveling with great speed from one side of the planet to the other and beyond with the signals that we send to other possible citizens of the cosmos. So it is very likely that the Judaism we are talking about is going to shift in such a way that it will show us how we can be most harmonious with life on the planet and how that will lead us to divinity. That is the next phase that Teilhard de Chardin talked about -- the divinization of the planet.


Read More from: The Future of Judaism

I like this organ concept. Can you tell us a bit more?

When I refer to a vital organ, I mean to say that the liver cells will not become lung cells, they will not become kidney cells, they will not become bone cells. Each organ is really important to the function of life within the planet, and what the planet needs from Jews is very specific. In general, we will all participate in the life of the planet. But each religion has a different approach, just as each organ has a different function. The totality is to enhance the life of the planet of consciousness and make it a place where G-d can manifest him/her/itself. The other religions are doing the same thing but they have to do it with their moment, their organ.

So, for example, the teachings about morals and ethics and family life and all that kind of stuff are very, very strong in Judaism. At the same time there is something about the total forgiveness that Christianity offers that is also very important in the world. And the surrender to G-d that Islam demands is very important; and the Buddhist invitation to see it all as illusion is very important. Each one of us (each religion and faith) produces something that is special, specific to our contribution to keep the world healthy.