There was a story Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi told me that I wasn’t able to include in The December Project. It’s about Maimonides, the venerated rabbi, physician, astronomer and philosopher of the 13th century who’s considered one of the key Torah scholars in Jewish history.
Reb Zalman first learned about Maimonides at 14, when he’d just escaped from the Nazis with his family, stealing over the border to Belgium. After the horrors he’d witnessed, he thought that the God he’d been taught to believe in at his yeshiva had “finked out.” Zalman could no longer accept that there was a “world to come,” when the Messiah would resurrect the dead, the rivers would flow with wine, and bagels would grow on trees.
He was angry and wanted to fight, and since he couldn’t fight God, he was looking for a stand-in. He visited a Torah class and called out, “Do you really believe that when the Messiah comes, the dead will crawl out from their graves to be resurrected? This is stupid! Opiate of the masses. Rob the people in this world but promise they’ll get something in the next.”
The students started yelling at him, but the teacher asked if Zalman wanted to hear from “someone who agrees with you.” The teacher brought out a text by Maimonides which, according to Zalman, presents a sense of God as universal spirit and “debunks all the magical thinking about the afterlife.” Paraphrasing Maimonides, Zalman said, “Just as a blind man doesn’t know what color is, a deaf man doesn’t know what music is, and a eunuch doesn’t know what sex is, human beings can’t comprehend the afterlife because it’s with the soul, the spirit, it’s not merely an idea.”
Zalman felt vindicated. “To hear someone as great as Maimonides renounce foolish notions and affirm that there is more than this physical world… it made me feel I wasn’t a heretic but someone who belongs.”
Reb Zalman then told me a story he’d heard some years later. “When Maimonides was teaching, he would disappear from his students every day for half an hour. He’d go into a private room, lock the door, and after thirty minutes, return to the study hall and take up where he’d left off.”
His students couldn’t help wondering what the revered rabbi might be doing for those 30 minutes. Praying? Being intimate with his wife? Rising to heaven? Receiving special teaching from the angels?
One of the brashest students hid in the private room one day, in a spot where he could observe the rabbi without being seen. At the customary time, Maimonides walked inside, locked the door, then took off his turban, his coat and slippers. “He started jumping around, making noises, moving his arms in wild motions, and screaming,” Reb Zalman said. After a half hour of this, he put back on his turban, his coat, and slippers and was preparing to leave when the student came out from his hiding place.
“Master, what is it you were doing in here?” the student said.
Maimonides admonished him. “You have no business being here. But since you are, let me tell you. Every person, within a 24 hour period, has at least a half hour of madness in him. I don’t want mine to mix in with the rest of the day.”
When Reb Zalman finished the story, I asked, “What is your half hour of madness?”
He laughed. “I mix it in with the rest of the day. I don’t separate it out.” He said what impressed him about the story is that Maimonides respected his own madness. “Nu? I like my craziness also.”
REMINDER! Please join Reb Zalman and me for the Book Launch of The December Project, Wednesday, March 26, 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, 1128 Pine St, Boulder.
Sponsored by Boulder Book Store. $8 voucher can be applied to purchase. Buy voucher at book store, by phone, or at the door of the church.
To find more appearances in Colorado, N.Y. and California, click here.