In Memoriam

Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l



 One of my teachers, Rabbi Alan Lew, passed away in January.  As I was re-reading his awesome book about the transformative power of the High Holidays, "This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared" I was reminded of how much I miss him, and how much the world has lost with his passing.

I don't knw why I didn't write something about Rabbi Lew earlier, right when he died; probably because I was too shocked and surprised.

Rabbi Lew was a fascinating character: he was in line to be the head of the San Francisco Zen Center when he changed gears and decided to become a rabbi.  He was a great author, teacher, and social activist.  You can read a short obituary here, for his full story read his memoir, link below.

I first met Rabbi Lew in the San Francisco Bay Area, it must have been around 1996, before I even thought about becoming a rabbi.  He taught a Jewish Meditation class at the synagogue I belonged to, Temple Beth Jacob, as part of the Bay Area's adult Jewish learning consortium.  Considering how I was making my way back to Judaism — after a period of time exploring other religions, like Buddhism — his teachings had a profound impact on me.  I had meditated in the past, and at that time I was starting to get into Judaism, and Rabbi Lew's teachings very much helped me connect these two seemingly disparate disciplines.  He opened my eyes to the ancient Jewish meditative tradition, which got me started on reading a lot of books on the subject (such as his spiritual memoir, "One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi" and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's excellent books "Jewish Meditation," "Meditation and the Bible," and "Meditation and Kabbalah)."  Jewish meditation has become an important part of my spiritual practice, and I am forever indebted to Rabbi Lew for introducing me to the subject.

I've been to a lot of classes, lectures, etc.  I'm hard to please — there are not many teachers who inspire me to pull out my pocket PC and start taking notes.  Rabbi Lew was one of those who did.  One of the things I wrote down from studying with him is especially applicable to this time of year.  He spoke about the High Holiday period as beginning with Tisha b'Av, the holiday in August when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, and culminating with Sukkot, the holiday in October when we remember our ancestors wandering in the desert by taking our meals and spending time is sukkot, in booths, in flimsy structures that a strong wind is supposed to be able to blow over.  He talked about how this time is a journey from one broken house to another — in one, the destroyed temple, we are sitting and crying.  In the other, the sukkah, the flimsy "booth," we are sitting in rejoicing, commanded to be happy.  In "This is Real" he describes the idea very eloquently:

So this concatenation of ritual — this dance that begins on Tisha B'Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house, this intentional spasm that awakens us and carries us through death and back to life again — stands for the journey the soul is always on.

Another teaching of Rabbi Lew's that I wrote down was one he gave over at Rabbinical Assembly convention in 2005.  Here's what he taught, and I think you'll be able to see from my comments why I felt he was a "kindred spirit:"

At the RA convention, Alan Lew shared a beautiful piece of Torah from the Zohar, with Torah portrayed as a beautiful woman hidden away in a palace, and the serious student hangs out outside the palace all the time, just getting an occasional glimpse of the beautiful princess; others don't even notice the beautiful princess because they are not prepared and are not looking.  Alan asked whether we related to this teaching or not.  I did: I said it was how my daf yomi experience was, hours of hanging around outside, maybe a little bored, and then a glimpse of something really cool and exciting.  One colleague (female) couldn't get into the whole metaphor because of the male oriented sexual metaphors; another didn't get the "passion."  He said he likes Torah, but if he didn't study Torah for a week he wouldn't "pine away" as the Zohar model seems to imply.  To me, that lukewarm response to Torah is one of the problems we have.  I don't mean to sound immodest or overly pious, but I would feel that pining away–I couldn't imagine going two days, let alone a week, without studying Torah.

I have to admit to having kind of a weird relationship with books.  I like buying books.  I'll spend $15-20 to buy a book and have it on my shelf, rather than borrow it from a library.  Even though the vast majority of books on my shelf are books I just read once.  And maybe refer to later.  Maybe.  If it was good.  As a result, when we move we have about 50 boxes of books that go with us.  Maybe it's a rabbi thing.  "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared" is an exception to my "read once" custom.  It's a book I reread every year at this time.  Unfortunately, Rabbi Lew is no longer with us — God called his soul home while he was out for a jog — but, fortunately his teachings endure forever in his books.  "This is Real" is a book that can completely transform the way you look at the High Holidays…and it's beautifully written, to boot!

I think of Rabbi Lew as a spiritual guide in the style of the Peshischa chasidim — not one who sought to be a rebbe with followers, but rather one encouraging you to be authentic, helping by giving you some tools for your own spiritual journey.

May his memory be a blessing…

G'mar chatimah tovah,

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

One thought on “Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l

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