Sisterhood Blog

When Reb Zalman Met the Dalai Lama

By Joy Levitt

  • Print
  • Share Share

The Dalai Lama speaks during a visit to Germany. / Getty Images

It was, and will always remain, one of the most mysteriously significant experiences of my life. In 1990, eight of us travelled to Dharmsala, India at the invitation of his Holiness the Dalai Lama under the auspices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The Dalai Lama wanted some simple information he thought we Jews possessed: how to survive diaspora.

I went on this trip filled with anxiety and trepidation. I was a young mother with huge responsibilities at home and totally unsure whether I had anything at all to offer. But this was not the case for Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, my fellow traveller. He knew exactly why he was there. He and the Dalai Lama were brothers, soul mates; you only had to be there in the library witnessing Reb Zalman’s teaching and you’d have seen it immediately.

Each of us brought a teaching that we hoped would be helpful to the Dalai Lama in his quest to keep his people together in India and beyond as they waited to return to Tibet, then and now under the control of China. Naturally, I worried as much about what to wear as what to teach. But not Zalman. He knew exactly what to wear when meeting royalty and he showed up for our first session in full Hasidic regalia, streimel, kapota, the works. I wore a pants suit.

Zalman chose to teach the esoteric tradition in Judaism. Taking his allotted hour, he simply captivated the Dalai Lama with the breadth and depth of his knowledge of Kabbalah, which the Dalai Lama seemed to have studied a bit. As I remember it, the Dalai Lama was focused on Zalman in an extraordinary way, listening to every word as though it held great significance.

At one point, as Zalman was describing angels, the Dalai Lama asked if Jewish angels had colors. I held my breadth. In the entirety of my fairly traditional Jewish education, colored angels had simply never come up.

“Oh yes, ” replied Zalman, “some are blue and some are orange.”

I tried not to choke. What on earth (or in the heavens) was he talking about? But the Dalai Lama remained fascinated and urged Zalman to continue. When the time was up, the Dalai Lama commented on how interesting Zalman’s teaching was and how he had not heard it before.

“Neither have we, ” I quipped, unable to contain myself.

The rest of the group chuckled, but not Zalman. I suddenly felt ashamed, as though I had gotten off a cheap laugh at his expense. Still, I remember feeling confused. Was this Judaism? What was he talking about?

The next morning, before we went back to the library to continue our session, we davenned overlooking the Kanga valley. It was a magnificent sight and there was some thing very grounding in immersing ourselves in Hebrew liturgy before going into the otherness of Buddhism. I asked Zalman to show me how to lay tefillin – I had actually never wanted to try before. Without a moment’s hesitation, he removed his own tefillin and showed me how to wrap it. He did it with such kindness and gentleness and with no judgement. It was a pure act of generosity.

Years later, when we were building the JCC in Manhattan, I called on Zalman to help us design the meditation room, which took on added significance following the Dharmsala trip. Again, with complete openness he designed the room, suggesting it be oval (to the chagrin of the architects!) so people could feel the embrace of the room.

After our meeting, I asked him to forgive me for my careless remark in India. Either he pretended not to remember or he literally had no memory of the moment, so radiant from the experience that a silly comment couldn’t mar it for him. In any event, he simply put his hand in mine and squeezed it and that was that.

Thirteen years later, thousands of people have felt the embrace of our meditation room designed by Zalman and his spirit hovers whenever I sit there in silence trying to quiet my mind. Rest in peace, Reb Zalman. Your angels of many colors are by your side.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: zalman Schachter-Shalomi, renewal, rabbi, obituary, judaism, hasidic

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.