My Irish Rebbe

by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Cover drawing and calligraphy by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi from his Feb. 12, 1964 letter to Gerald Heard. Reproduced by kind permission of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved.

I was introduced to Gerald Heard sometime in the early Sixties by a young man named Charles Vernoff, then a student at the University of Chicago, who is now a professor. I was very pleased, because that meeting led to many wonderful things in my life.

When I first met Gerald, I was so surprised about meeting someone who was like a savant, because I had read about savants. Yet there was such a beautiful humility about him. Here was this young rabbi coming to see him, and he was willing to hear about the Kabbalah, about Jewish spirituality, from me in a very open way. Later on I sent him a spiritual poem that I had written, and he would read it from time to time as part of his prayer. He considered himself a tertiary,[1] but he was a monk of all kinds of systems. His main religion was Vedanta, but he also included anything else that would make him feel close to God.

When he told me about his book The Gospel According to Gamaliel, I couldn’t believe when I read it that here is a person who has such a wonderful, wide view of the Jewish-Christian situation. He understood Jesus as depicted in the New Testament as seen through Jewish eyes. Gabriel and the Creatures was also wonderful. And Training for a Life of Growth was an important book for me.

When he wrote The Five Ages of Man, he was for me the great inspiration for work that I later undertook under the name of Spiritual Eldering. The notion of Spiritual Eldering is that we have models for every phase of life in youth and in middle age, but we don’t have anything for what I call the harvest years. Once you are no longer “productive,” then there aren’t any roles for you except to kill time. So it was really important to harness the power that an extended lifespan gave to people if they were to seek expanded awareness. And when he writes in Five Ages about all the ordeals that people have to undergo in order to get to the next phase, that was very important to me. In addition, I co-wrote a book called From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. So these were some of the things that he inspired in me.

But that isn’t quite the whole story. As he got older we would speak from time to time on the phone. We had agreed that when the time came for him to die, he would let me know so that I could be at his side. And that intimacy was a remarkable thing between us. However, he suffered a series of strokes and was in a coma for quite a long time, and then he expired. So it never happened that way. But this was very much the kind of heart connection that we shared.

Gerald was the type of person in whom all the great ones of the Axial Age were alive. So if you needed Confucius, here was there. If you needed Lao Tzu, he was there. If you needed Aristotle, he was there. If you needed Jeremiah and Isaiah, they were there. That was the amazing thing — the breadth of his awareness. He was able to channel the authentic, pure mystical teachings of the ages. And at the same time he knew a great deal about physiology, about neurology as well as the spirit. He would talk about the chemistry of noradrenalin and stuff like that in his books. That’s why I felt he was a savant. There wasn’t an area in philosophy and in science about which he didn’t have some specific and detailed awareness.

In addition, when you come out of any strong religious commitment, there is a certain amount of triumphalism connected with that. “Nobody else does it as well with God as we Jews!” And every religion has something like this. But to meet someone like Gerald, who had that great sense of universality and ecumenism, was very rare.

I considered Gerald not just a peer, an associate, but also a mentor. I would refer to him as “my Irish rebbe” — my Gentile spiritual teacher. A rebbe is like your Hasidic master. You know, here was somebody who really had a sense of what’s going on on the inside. Some people are really natural spiritual geniuses, but they don’t have enough introspection to make it work so they could lead other people there. Gerald had the introspection, and he also had the scope. You know if there was any kind of upaya [spiritual practice] around, he tried it out and he knew how to use it right. He also knew the context from which it came, and he had a cosmology to fit the whole thing together.

And Gerald truly lived in the presence of God. I wouldn’t have called him my Irish rebbe if I didn’t feel that. His wasn’t a conventional sanctity; it was in the sense that the presence of God could be felt tangibly by others. Look, when people talk to each other, they try to attune to each other. As they continue talking to each other, their mutual attunement is growing. So when I went to meet him, obviously I wanted to attune to him, otherwise how could I learn from him? So you make yourself feel like, for example, “I want to be the violin tuned to his strings,” as it were. And then when you get that, the transmission comes on nonverbal levels that are very powerful.

I think I met with Gerald about four or five times. Unfortunately I never saw him lecture. I loved his Irish face — it was a very beautiful face to me. I used to have his picture up to remind me that one could grow old in this way. I really love that man! You see, for all the jnani [analytical approach to God] stuffed in him, he was really a bhakti [devotional approach to God] at heart. And whenever he had any bhakti connections, then he would overflow with this.

Gerald made two major impressions on me. The first was that my horizon expanded. It was amazing being in his presence when he had this vast horizon that took in so much and managed to keep it organically connected. The second, and this is funny to say, but there’s always a question, “Am I fooling myself when I’m doing the pious stuff?” I might say to myself, “Look who just had this epiphany, this theophany!” But then a little later I might think to myself, “Maybe I’m just jazzing myself into believing that.” But then you meet somebody like Gerald, and you get the sense, “It must be true!” I think he was sort of a litmus proof for the reality of that Reality.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, better known as Reb Zalman (1924-2014), was an influential figure in modern Judaism. He was a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and founder of the Spiritual Eldering movement. He had been an innovative leader in the ecumenical dialogue for decades. From 1996 until his passing he served as Spiritual Director of the Yesod Foundation based in Boulder, Colorado. Reb Zalman was one of the preeminent spiritual teachers of our time.

[1] A lay religious person living in the world.

"Gerald was the type of person in whom all the great ones of the Axial Age were alive. So if you needed Confucius, here was there. If you needed Lao Tzu, he was there.... He was able to channel the authentic, pure mystical teachings of the ages."