• Print

Reviewed by JOSEPH LEVEN
The December Project came about at Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi’s initiative in 2009. He wanted a book written about his ideas and reflections as he entered the final years of his life, and invited Sara Davidson to be his collaborator.

They met almost weekly for two years and Davidson put their conversations into book form.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi was the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, best known to Winnipeggers for the years spent here in the 1950s teaching at the University of Manitoba, directing the Hillel program at the university and being involved in the Jewish community. He passed away in 2014.
Sara Davidson is a professional writer who has written eight books.
Interspersed with their conversations are chapters with highlights of Reb Zalman’s life, as well as a few of Donaldson’s own life stories. The book concludes with a series of exercises and meditations for the reader to attempt.

For any of you not that familiar with Jewish renewal, the movement came about through Reb Zalman’s work with university students in Hillel in the 1950s. These were Jewish kids who, in many cases, had grown up with little knowledge of Shabbat or kashrut or Jewish prayer, but who were hungry for a spiritual life.
Reb Zalman, who was a practising Lubavitcher Hassid, had the revelation that Lubavitch was not the answer for most of these young men and women, and that something new was needed within Judaism that would reach them. He began to innovate and to draw upon all sorts of non-traditional sources. He used English, he introduced meditation, he preached tolerance for other faiths and learning from them, and he worked on making the new practices equally open to men and women.

Over the next 60 years Jewish Renewal grew into a full-fledged stream of Judaism. There are many Jewish Renewal congregations and rabbis ordained in the movement, and many of the Jewish Renewal innovations have been picked up by other more mainstream movements.

Returning to The December Project, the book begins with Reb Zalman’s view of what lies ahead after death:
‘Something continues. It’s as if the body and soul are tied together with little strings. The closer you get to leaving, the more the strings loosen and the more you connect with greater awareness, the expanded mind... I want to merge back with the infinite; I want to dissolve like a drop in the greater ocean.’
He goes on to say that these are traditional Jewish views, just that they have been de-emphasized in recent years. ‘At birth the soul enters the body, and at death the soul survives.’

The book then moves from death to physical decline, the body weakening and getting old. Reb Zalman talks about disidentifying with the body. He would like to get to the point where: ‘I’d be able to see myself sitting in the chair and feel compassion for the legs, for the stomach. I could say, “Oy, poor body,” as if I were speaking to someone else. I’d feel free and unencumbered.’
Reb Zalman prescribes prayer, meditation and reflection in order to develop the intuition that is required to disidentify with the body and get ready for death.

Another topic covered in The December Project is forgiveness. Reb Zalman emphasizes the importance of forgiving and being forgiven before one dies. In this way you close the account books with your fellow beings. Having been married four times and having fathered eleven children, Reb Zalman had some real work to do asking forgiveness from his own family.
As for those who have done us harm, he says:
‘It’s really tough to forgive people who’ve wounded us. But in every wound there’s a gem, just as an irritant in the oyster produces a pearl. The challenge is to find that pearl, something you learned, and say thank you.’

Finally, the most difficult part of forgiving and being forgiven for many people is forgiving oneself. There are exercises in the book for each aspect of forgiving.
The December Project is very well written. Davidson’s prose flows easily and the many dialogues between her and Reb Zalman are a delight. The picture on the back cover of her hugging Reb Zalman, both of them smiling brightly, clearly reveals their feelings about one another and that warmth pervades the book. It is a book to enjoy and learn from.

The December Project
An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery
Written by Sara Davidson
HarperOne, New York, 2014, 187 pages