07/27/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2014

Reb Zalman's Unique Funeral

His leaving was as unconventional as his teaching and his life.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wanted no casket, no plain pine box. For his funeral, held on the Fourth of July, he wanted to be clothed in his white kittel (prayer robe), enfolded in his father's tallis (prayer shawl), sprinkled with ashes brought from Auschwitz, then shrouded in white linen and lowered directly into the earth near his home in Boulder, Colorado.

He wanted the ashes buried with him in honor of his uncle, cousins, and the millions who'd died without receiving "a holy burial."

It felt wrenching to shovel dirt onto his body. It also felt a privilege.

The week before he died, I had planned to write a blog, "The Rabbi Has 9 Lives," because each time he'd fallen sick -- with heart problems, lung disease, cancer -- he'd bounced back.

This time, in early June, after teaching at a Shavuot retreat in Connecticut, he came down with pneumonia. He'd sworn that he wasn't going to travel anymore, but decided to go because he'd taught at this retreat for decades and felt he could manage it.

The pneumonia triggered his heart and lung problems, and he was rushed to the Intensive Care unit at a nearby hospital. He yearned to be at home, and after 10 days, was deemed well enough to be medevaced to Boulder Community Hospital. Five days later, as his community rejoiced, he was cleared to go back to his house. His wife, Eve Ilsen, reported that he was getting stronger and clearer each day; he seemed to be out of the woods, and then he wasn't.

The funeral was held at the Green Mountain Cemetery on Independence Day, a fact that people found significant. Three rabbis conducted the service, reflecting the many strands of faith Reb Zalman had woven together. There was a Chabad rebbe, Yossi Serebryanski, wearing a black wool coat and hat in the heat, a Conservative rabbi, Marc Soloway, and a Jewish Renewal rabbi, Tirzah Firestone.

Reb Tirzah was one of the pallbearers who carried Reb Zalman to the grave. Following tradition, they halted seven times to show their reluctance to set him in the ground. In her eulogy, Tirzah reminded the hundreds present that Reb Zalman's innovations, which have now been adopted by mainstream Judaism and other faiths, were radical and heretical when he began introducing them in the 1970s. They caused him to be denounced by Chabad, which had ordained him.

In developing Jewish Renewal, he wanted to encourage everyone to have a direct experience of God. To overcome the language barrier for those who don't read Hebrew, he taught them to daven or pray in English, using the sing-song rhythms and body movements used by the Orthodox. He believed that body movement help to lift the soul.

Reb Zalman told me that in the early days, Jewish Renewal was "wild and wooly." He would darken the prayer room, set strobe lights flashing, and ask people to start "dancing in the dark with God." He held Shabbat dinners where people didn't feed themselves but fed each other, as, according to legend, it's done in heaven. He conducted a seder where people took four puffs of marijuana instead of drinking four cups of wine. He was one of the first to count women in the minyan -- the quorum required to pray, and welcomed gays and lesbians as full participants.

"Despite the pushback and condemnation that Reb Zalman received," Reb Tirzah said, "he always moved forward." This was possible because "his love outsized his fear," she said. "He had remarkably little fear of social pressure and disapproval, because his commitment to the Living God was simply greater than any other force around."

Reb Yossi invited people to give tzedakah, or charity, passing around the
black hat Reb Zalman had worn at Chabad events. It's customary to give tzedakah, or charity, at funerals, and Reb Yossi told the story of Rabbi Akiva, who, when his daughter was born, was warned by astrologers that she would die on her wedding night. The rabbi prayed to God to protect his daughter, and rejoiced when he saw her alive and happy the day after her wedding.

He asked if she'd done a good deed the day before. She said a poor, hungry man had begged for food at the wedding, and when no one else heard him, she took her own portion of the wedding feast and gave it to him. Later that night, she removed a gold pin that had held her veil in place and, in the darkness, stuck it in the wall by her bed. When she awoke the next morning and reached for her gold pin, she saw a poisonous snake had been impaled by it.

Rabbi Akiva told her that her act of kindness saved her life. So when Reb Zalman passed his hat at funerals, he repeated what sages have been saying since the time of Akiva: "Tzedakah saves from death."

After hearing that story, we found it impossible not to reach deep and put money in Reb Zalman's hat.

I'd often heard him say that the "exit moment" from life is important. He'd wanted to be held by his wife and hear Albinoni's "Adagio for Organ and Strings."

He quoted Woody Allen, who said, "I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." But Reb Zalman said "I do want to be there. It's such a holy moment... I want to watch the last breath going out and whisper the Shema. I want to merge back with the infinite... like a drop in the greater ocean."

He began training for that moment when he was 16. Riding the subway to his yeshiva, he would close his eyes and imagine, "When I reach the Atlantic Avenue station, I'll be gone. So let me say the shema, as I'll say it with my last breath."

He took his last breath on July 3, at 8:40 in the morning, while he was sleeping. His wife was there, and said later, "Who knows if he whispered the Shema in his sleep?"

I'm inclined to believe he did.

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