The Merging of Two Oceans

The Making of a Sufi-Hasidic Lineage and a Universal Priesthood

Netanel Miles-Yépez

 Swami Satchidananda, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan in dialogue, ca. 1981. From the "Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Collection" of the University of Colorado Archives.

Swami Satchidananda, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan in dialogue, ca. 1981. From the "Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Collection" of the University of Colorado Archives.

 

Toward the One

The Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty

The Only Being

United with all the Illuminated Souls

Who form the Embodiment of the Master

The Spirit of Guidance

 

Likhrat ha-ehad

Ha-yahid ha-ehad v’ha-m’yuhad

Shleimut ha-ahavah, ha-tzedek v’ha-tif’eret

Ha-nimtza ha-yahid

Ha-kolel kol ha-n’shamot ha-ne’orot

Yotzrei hag’shammat ha-rabbi

Ha-ruah ha-kodesh

 

Sometime in the mid-to-late 70s, my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi—better known as ‘Reb Zalman’—took it upon himself to translate the universalist Sufi prayer “Toward the One” into the traditional Hebrew of Hasidic Jews in Eastern Europe. The prayer itself was composed in English by the first Sufi master to bring Sufism to the West, Hazrat Inayat Khan, and is arguably one of the most popular non-sectarian prayers in the world today.[1]

Many years after he first encountered it, Reb Zalman wrote that he initially had trouble getting through a single recitation of the prayer . . .

For even as I was speaking, I would be lifted “Toward the One” to regions of “Love, Harmony, and Beauty” where my feet no longer touched the ground of materiality, but instead were grounded in “The Only Being.” I was overwhelmed by the energetic qurb—‘proximity’ to the One—in the words themselves. There was such holy precision in them and manifest spiritual energy that my heart could not fail to respond to them. And, as with other things that touched me powerfully from outside of the Jewish tradition, I immediately wanted to translate it into Hebrew, the language of my spiritual upbringing.[2]

As many people have often asked me how such an important Hasidic rabbi, trained in the traditional world of Judaism, could become a Sufi—indeed, a Sufi sheikh interested in translating the “Toward the One” into Hebrew—I want to tell the story of how this happened, and indeed, of how this same Hasidic rabbi also contributed significantly to universalist Sufism through his relationship with Sufi master, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan.[3]

 

From Hasidism to Universalist Sufism

Meshullam Zalman Schachter was born in Zholkiew, Poland, in 1924, and raised in Vienna, Austria, where his parents ran a small store selling textiles. In 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, the family fled with their teenage son to Belgium where, in Antwerp, he first encountered Hasidim of the famous Habad lineage of Hasidism.

Hasidism is the name given to a series of communal mystical movements in Judaism, the latest initiated by Yisra’el ben Eliezer (1698-1760), called the Ba’al Shem Tov, from whom all latter-day Hasidic lineages stem. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that God could be served joyfully through the body in ecstatic prayer, song and dance, instead of the harsh ascetic disciplines commonly practiced among mystics of the time. He taught that “worlds, souls, and divinity” were all overlapping, interpenetrating realities, ultimately reducible to one divine reality, as it says in Isaiah 6:3, “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.” Thus, the step between us and divinity is only a matter of perspective, overcome through a powerful intentionality (kavvanah) and cleaving to the Divine (devekut).

Among the Hasidic lineages that sprang from the inspiration of the Ba’al Shem Tov was the Habad lineage, founded by Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), a genius known for the tremendous sophistication of his mystical thought and his emphasis on deep contemplative practice.

In Antwerp, although from a family of Belzer Hasidim himself, the 14-year old Zalman joined a radical group of young Habad Hasidism with whom he began to experiment in authentic spiritual living. But when Antwerp was bombed by the Nazis a few months later, he and his family were quickly forced to flee in a coal train heading into France. After a period of internment in a refugee camp, the family made their way to Marseille, where Zalman met the son-in-law and future rebbe (master) of the Habad-Lubavitch lineage, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), who provided him with an introduction to Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (1880-1950), the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, to whom he attached himself shortly after his arrival in the United States in 1941.[4]

The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, himself a refugee from the Holocaust, had recently established his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where young Zalman entered his yeshiva (seminary), training to become a Hasidic rabbi. In 1947, he was ordained and soon sent out by his rebbe to college campuses to bring Jews back to the traditional fold. A naturally talented and charismatic teacher with broad interests, he studied pastoral psychology at Boston University, and eventually (after a short period as a pulpit rabbi) became a college professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, teaching psychology of religion and Jewish mysticism.

By the late 50s and early 60s, Reb Zalman had noticed a generational shift among his Jewish students. Passionate in his desire to serve them, he sought to understand where they were coming from, exploring their questions as his own. It was clear that there was a deep spiritual impulse in them that was not being fed in the synagogues of the time. Though thoroughly grounded in the mystically-oriented tradition of Hasidism, he could see how the Jewish tradition in general was failing to meet Jewish needs in the wake of the Holocaust. Judaism in North America was a wasteland. Thus, many young Jews were finding their paths outside of Judaism in so-called ‘Eastern religions.’

Already curious about other religious traditions, in the mid 1950s—in a move that separated him from other traditional Hasidim—he had begun to read deeply in mystical traditions at Boston University under the famous African-American Christian mystic, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman (1899- 1981), and soon began to seek out encounters with their practitioners. Before long, his knowledge of other traditions was considerable and an integral part of the courses he taught in the psychology of religion.[5]

By the late 1960s, Reb Zalman was familiar with traditional Sufism through the writings of Idries Shah and had also read the universalist Sufi writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan. But it was not until the early 1970s that he made his first real connections with Sufis.[6] These were the disciples of Murshid Samuel or S.A.M. (Sufi Ahmed Murad) Lewis (1896-1971), a direct disciple of Hazrat Inayat Khan, who had become the leader of a new generation of universalist or Inayati Sufis, mostly “flower children” who had found their way to San Francisco. Contrary to common belief, Reb Zalman never met Murshid S.A.M., but first became acquainted with his successor, Pir Moineddin Jablonski (1942-2002), after being invited to teach in the Bay Area and connecting with the Sufi Choir. Remembering those first encounters, Reb Zalman told me: “I just fell in love with Moineddin, the kind of human being he was, and […] still to this day, I thrill to the music of that Sufi Choir.”[7]

As most of Murshid S.A.M.’s students were still in their twenties when he passed, they naturally looked to Reb Zalman, then approaching fifty, as an elder mentor. Many also wanted “a Jewish connection” through him and reciprocated by introducing the Hasidic master to Murshid S.A.M.’s Sufi dances and walking practices, as well as the waza’if practices using the ninety-nine ‘beautiful names’ of Allah. Thus, Reb Zalman began to study Inayati Sufism and practice zikr (the mantric repetition of the divine names) on his own. “I liked doing zikr,” he said. “My sense in zikr was that it doesn’t quite ‘take’ until you’re passed boredom […] you really needed to do it for a while.”[8]

During one visit to the Bay Area, Reb Zalman was invited to a “holy man jam” (as these early interfaith gatherings were sometimes called) organized by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan in Santa Rosa, and at which the Sufi Choir would be performing. This was his first meeting with the charismatic son and successor of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The two men hugged, then Pir Vilayat looked Reb Zalman in the eyes and exclaimed, “Majdhub!”—‘drunk’—recognizing Reb Zalman’s God-intoxicated state. It was a Sufi compliment, and Reb Zalman said that he felt a clear heart attraction to Pir Vilayat at that time.[9]

 Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in celebration. From the "Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Collection" of the University of Colorado Archives.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in celebration. From the "Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Collection" of the University of Colorado Archives.

In 1975, Reb Zalman was invited to teach for a semester at the University of California at Santa Cruz, allowing him to deepen his connections to the Bay Area Sufis. By now, he loved the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan and the practices of the Sufis. Of all the traditions to which he was exposed through the years, he said, “I was most at home among Sufis.”[10] Thus, he decided to take initiation in the Inayati lineage of Sufism. As the lineage was universalist (and not confessionally bound to Islam), he felt this was not in conflict with his own commitments as a Jew and a rabbi. So he approached Pir Moineddin and asked him for initiation. Perhaps not surprisingly, Pir Moineddin demurred, feeling it was not his place to initiate an older and more accomplished master from another tradition. Instead, he suggested that Reb Zalman take initiation with Pir Vilayat.[11] Reb Zalman agreed to the suggestion, but only if Pir Moineddin would confirm the initiation afterward.

As it turned out, Pir Vilayat and Reb Zalman were both to participate in another ‘holy man jam’ soon after, and thus the initiation was arranged to take place during the break. In preparation, Reb Zalman wished to go to a mikveh in order to do a ritual immersion. But, unable to find a kosher mikveh anywhere nearby, he immersed in a local pool. He then dressed to honor the occasion in a black silk caftan, a black silk belt, and a large fur hat, the traditional clothing of a Hasid. He would go to his Sufi initiation as a Jew. It was a statement.

After the first half of the program led by Pir Vilayat was finished, and a beautiful performance by Pandit Pran Nath, the Sufi pir and Hasidic rebbe, dressed in the robes of their respective traditions, went aside to do a thing rarely seen in the history of religions, to unite two esoteric traditions born from different religions.

Pir Vilayat closed his eyes for a long time, and then proceeded with the initiation. When it came to the moment of “taking hand”—initiation is often referred to as ‘taking hand’ in Sufism, as one takes the right hand of the master—at the moment when one would expect to be called a murid or disciple, Pir Vilayat called Reb Zalman “a sheikh,” a master.

Afterward, surprised by the turn the initiation had taken, Reb Zalman asked Pir Vilayat why he had called him a sheikh and not a murid.

Pir Vilayat answered, “As I was attuning to your presence, I found that I could not utter the word, ‘murid’ . . . You are already a master.”

Of course, it is well known that one of the great gifts of Pir Vilayat was his ability to attune and respond to the consciousness of the person before him. Thus, it seems that, somehow sensing Reb Zalman’s ‘state and station’ within his own tradition—being already a Hasidic rebbe—he found that he could only acknowledge him as a sheikh in the Sufi tradition.

Reb Zalman asked, “What are my duties then?”

Pir Vilayat responded, “Treat it as a degree honoris causa until you know.”[12]

And this is just what he did for many years. Though he remained close to the Sufi communities of both Murshid S.A.M. and Pir Vilayat, often teaching in them and offering guidance to many of their senior disciples, he always claimed, “In Sufism, I’m ‘uncle’ and not a ‘papa,’” explaining that an uncle can give you advice, but doesn’t have the responsibilities of a parent. As the spiritual leader of a burgeoning movement within Judaism at the time (later known as “Jewish Renewal”), it might be supposed that he did not want to take on the added responsibilities of being a Sufi sheikh to another community of disciples. And yet, this is not the end of the story; for the friendship between Reb Zalman and Pir Vilayat had only just begun and would continue to unfold in unexpected ways.

 

Universalist Sufism and the Priesthood of Melchizedek

The eldest son of Hazrat Inayat Khan, Vilayat Inayat Khan was born in 1916 in London, England, and grew up in the suburbs of Paris. When he was just ten years old, in an act of great foresight, his father publically declared him his successor before departing on a trip to India, during which he died after a short illness in 1927.

When Vilayat was 18, reminded of his father’s desire that he succeed him, he began to study philosophy, psychology and Sufism (with academic scholar, Louis Massignon), commuting between Paris and Oxford. Four years later, with all of Europe threatened by the Nazis, Vilayat returned to England, the country of his birth, and joined the Royal Air Force, and later the Royal Navy. As a mine sweeping officer, Vilayat (then going by the name, Victor) served on a flotilla of motor launches that swept the channels for mines. Often under heavy fire, his boat was once capsized and he only narrowly escaped with his life.[13]

After the war, he worked for a time at the India High Commissioner’s office in London, and at the Pakistani Embassy, where he served for a time as Private Secretary to Ghulam Mohammed, the Finance Minister of Pakistan, and finally as a reporter for the Karachi-based newspaper Dawn, exposing atrocities by the French colonial regime in Algeria. But by then, having reached his early thirties, Vilayat felt that the time had come at last to dedicate himself entirely to Sufism.

The mystical movement of Sufism had first arisen in the early centuries of Islam, its principle teaching and practice being zikr-ullah, continual ‘remembrance of God.’ Although beginning as a highly ascetic tradition, it soon evolved into a tradition of divine love (utilizing the transformative power of love to yield the self for the sake of the divine Beloved) under the influence of a former slave, Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (ca. 717-801). In time, Sufism developed sacralized approaches to music, dance and the recitation of love poetry, cultivating a state of ecstasy (wajd) in which the self is annihilated in the experience of union with God.

In search of his own Sufi roots, Vilayat sought out the masters of his father’s Chishti lineage in India and Pakistan; for, in the 13th-century, the great Sufi master, Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti (1141-1236), carried the originally Central Asian lineage of Chishti Sufism into India, where it gave birth to a unique fusion of Indian and Middle Eastern spirituality, as well as new Sufi musical traditions (qawwali) and new breath practices influenced by the Yoga tradition.

In Hyderabad, Sayyid Fakhruddin Jili-Kalimi guided Vilayat in a traditional forty-day retreat, teaching him the methods of the Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi lineage, and ordaining him a Sufi pir or master upon its completion. But, on returning to Europe, he found that the organizational body of the Sufi Movement founded by his father had gone in its own direction. Thus, he founded a new organization to spread the teachings of universalist Sufism.

Universalist Sufism can be traced back to 1910, when Pir Vilayat’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1880-1927)—then a brilliant young practitioner of Indian Classical music and a Chishti Sufi master—was charged by his own master, Abu Hashim Madani with bringing Sufism into the West:  “Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and the West with the harmony of your music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.”[14] Coming to America, ostensibly as a musician, he gave concerts, after which, he would lecture on Sufism. In San Francisco in 1911, he met his first Western student, a Jewish woman named Ada (Rabia) Martin (1871-1947), who became the first American Sufi murid, and also the first American murshida, or acknowledged spiritual teacher of Sufism.[15]

But in taking a Western murid, it soon became clear to Inayat Khan that it was not necessary, nor his mission, to spread Islamic Sufism in the West. The people he was teaching were already Jews and Christians, and there seemed no reason to interfere with their religion. Thus, he introduced them to Sufism without Islam, as an esoteric path and set of teachings that would catalyze or ‘turn on’ what was dormant in their existing religious practice. Later, he would say, “If anybody asks you, ‘What is Sufism?’ […] you may answer: ‘Sufism is the religion of the heart, the religion in which the most important thing is to seek God in the heart of humanity.’”[16] Thus, universalist Sufism was born, and at the same time, the Inayati lineage.[17]

One aspect of Inayati Sufism’s universalism was expressed in Hazrat Inayat Khan’s teachings on “Universal Worship,” a service honoring the major religious traditions, with its own prayers, rituals, and in some sense, a universal priesthood ordained to carry out the service and these rites.[18] Thus, Pir Vilayat began to deepen in his studies of all the major religions and their mystical traditions, learning their teachings and practices.

In 1969, he met Murshid Samuel Lewis, who introduced him to the Bay Area Sufi community, and for a time, the students of both teachers were closely affiliated, as we have seen. In 1975, Pir Vilayat’s organization purchased a set of buildings (built in the eighteenth century by the Shakers) in New Lebanon, New York, which they now called the Abode of the Message. Pir Vilayat then took up part-time residence there, along with some seventy-five students and their children.[19] At about the same time, Reb Zalman accepted a permanent position as professor of Jewish Mysticism and Psychology of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. From that time on, the two were more closely associated, and Reb Zalman was a frequent visitor at the Abode, as well as at Sufi circles in Philadelphia and Boston.

 Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan in the late 1970s. From the "Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Collection" of the University of Colorado Archives.

Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan in the late 1970s. From the "Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Collection" of the University of Colorado Archives.

Thus, it was in this period that another important and possibly unprecedented initiation took place. Pir Vilayat now sought initiation from his friend Reb Zalman into nothing less than the Priesthood of Melchizedek. To understand the context of this request, we need to make a little excursus . . .

 

In the Book of Genesis, chapter 14:1-12, we find that Chedorlaomer, the king of Elam, has held numerous other kingdoms under his control for over a decade. When these kingdoms eventually rebel, he and his allies go out to defeat the rebel armies, taking still more lands and kingdoms. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah then go out to face Chedorlaomer in battle, but are quickly scattered, leaving him to plunder those cities, taking their stores and treasures as spoils of war and their people as slaves. Among the captives is Lot, the nephew of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (then called, Abram).

Now Abraham was not a king of a land or a city, but something like a great tribal chieftain, leading a caravan of people and livestock, a traveling nation for whom he was profit and provider. Thus, when he received the news about Lot’s captivity, Abraham gathered over three hundred of his strongest young men to get him back. They pursued Chedorlaomer and his armies as far as Dan and attacked them at night, putting them to flight and taking back all the treasures and captives of Sodom and Gomorrah. With just three hundred men, Abraham defeated and scattered Chedorlaomer’s four armies in a single raid![20] (13-16)

Returning from his victory, he was soon met by two kings—the king of Sodom, and the king of Salem. (17) The king of Sodom, whose army had just been defeated, and whose lands were sacked by Chedorlaomer, was grateful and  astounded by Abraham’s victory over the mighty king. Thus, he offered Abraham a reward, saying, “Return my people to me; the property you may keep.” But Abraham refused the gift and returned all. He was not going to have people saying that the king of Sodom made him rich. He was rich enough—God provides. (21-24) But when the king of Salem approached Abraham, he received quite a different response. Genesis 14:19-20 says:

Now Melchizedek, the king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, for he was a priest of God, Most High, and he blessed him, saying, “Blessed is Abram by God, Most High, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”

Abraham then gave him a tenth of the spoils and poof!—Melchizedek disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. But both his identity and the meaning of this episode are biblical mysteries about which many have wondered and speculated through the centuries.

Nevertheless, there is much that can be understood from the Hebrew and the cultural context.

The first clues are given in his name and titles. Melchizedek in Hebrew is malkhi-tzedek, ‘king of righteousness.’ The Bible often names qualities rather than persons; thus, Adam is ‘earthling’ and Eve is ‘life-giver.’ Likewise, in the Jewish mystical tradition, we are taught that when Adam named all the creatures of the earth, he named them according to their essence. So the Bible is telling us that Melchizedek was indeed a ‘king of righteousness,’ or a ‘righteous king.’

Then we are given his titles. We are told that he is the king of Salem, or shalem in Hebrew. This is generally understood to be a reference to Jerusalem—Yeru-shalayim—the ‘city of peace.’ But in this form, king of Salem, or shalem, can mean that he was king of ‘wholeness,’ ‘completion’ or ‘peace.’ This is supported by the fact that he is also “a priest of God, Most High”—kohen l’El Elyon—‘God, above all.’

But what does this mean that he was a “priest of God, Most High”? Aren’t we usually told that Abraham is the ‘father of monotheism.’ Here it sounds like there’s someone else before him holding the monotheistic mantle, a priest of an unknown religion, bringing forth bread and wine in ritual and blessing Abraham from his place as the priest-king of Salem.

As we have already seen, there is an interesting dichotomy in the two kings that come out to meet Abraham. The king of Sodom is treated as a profane king (the later reputation of “Sodom and Gomorrah” perhaps indicating a culture of depravity already present and represented in him) who comes to Abraham offering money. The king of Salem, on the other hand, is righteous and comes offering bread and wine, offerings of peace and friendship. The first offer Abraham rejects, saying, ‘I don’t need your money,’ indicating that he is sovereign or whole-in-himself; he is not indebted to anyone else for his power and position. He is essentially a king. Thus, the offer of the bread and wine from the king of Salem is accepted, as it is an offering between equals to establish friendship, and the tenth of the spoils is not a return gift from Abraham, but a tithe of ten percent to a priest of God, Most High.

In the ancient world, there are three primary archetypes of leadership—an ideal triad of powers that keep each other in check—the king, prophet, and priest. Abraham, of course, was a prophet from the time that he was called by God. Lekh lekha—“Go out from the land of your people […] and be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:1-2) Thus, he goes out into the world, a desert traveler with an open connection to God. In time though, he becomes the wealthy chieftain we have met, capable of defeating an army, and who, when offered money from the king of Sodom, refuses the reward and proves that he is sovereign, a king. And now, the priest-king, Melchizedek, seems to be initiating him into the priesthood of God, Most High, making him at once, king, prophet, and priest, the ideal leader of the ancient world.

Spiritually speaking, the prophet is perhaps most important, having an open connection to God. Being ‘tuned to the right frequency,’ the sacred message comes through the prophet. But the prophet is rarely ‘tame’ in the Bible, and is frequently—if not by definition—at odds with conventional society. Thus, it is the priest who translates what comes through the prophetic connection to the people in a language that they can easily understand and assimilate, like bread and wine. So while it is the function of the prophet to channel the divine message, and the responsibility of the king to take care of the people’s material needs, it is the priest that sees to their basic emotional and spiritual needs.

Now the priestly ritual is one that, even to this day in the Jewish and Christian traditions, is performed with bread and wine, the symbols of sustenance and the joy of life. In the ancient world, there was an idea that bread and wine were divine gifts. They were not natural products—not grain from the earth or fruit from the trees—but substances transformed through an almost magical process (fermentation) into something else, bread and wine. Unlike today, the bread of that time was remarkably nutritious, a staple of the ancient diet, and wine a substance which, when taken moderately, was positively associated with pleasure and could be drunk safely when water was suspect. Thus, both were highly regarded, and the secret of their making was believed to be a gift bestowed by God (whether by an act of revelation, or by granting us the insight and intelligence to see beyond the obvious). Thus, the unusual Hebrew blessing, Barukh attah Yah, Elohenu melekh ha-olam, ha-motzi lehem min ha-aretz, “Blessed are You, Yah or God, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

What is interesting is that both the grain and the grapes, in a sense, have to ‘spoil’ before they are transformed into something else. The priest, whose primary ritual is one with bread and wine, is the person who knows how to work with what seems spoiled, as if patiently observing the fermentation process, waiting for the transformation to happen to the wine, or for the moment to bring the risen dough to the heat. In the same way, the priest, as the guide of souls, is able to say to the broken and contrite hearts (Ps. 51:17) who come for guidance—‘I know you think you’ve messed up, that you’ve sinned, that you’ve gotten off track and your life is in ruin. But I’m here to tell you, this ruin can be salvaged, it can be transformed, it can become the catalyst for a new and different life!’ This is the priestly function, to show us that out of destruction, out of something apparently spoiled, something wonderful and holy is possible, and thus the symbolic presence of the bread and the wine in the priestly ritual.

Having offered Abraham the bread and wine, and having blessed him as a “priest of God, Most High,” Melchizedek promptly disappears. He is mentioned again in Psalm 110:4, where King David (also a prophet), speaks of a victorious ruler who is “a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” Then in the New Testament, Paul echoes this Psalm in the book of Hebrews 5:6, saying that Christ is “a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” This, according to Paul, is a priestly line which stands outside of the inherited priestly line of the Levites (the descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses). Thus, today, all Episcopal and Catholic Christian priests are ordained “after the order of Melchizedek.”

 

Now why would Pir Vilayat ask this initiation of Reb Zalman? About this we can only speculate. According to Reb Zalman, Pir Vilayat believed that Melchizedek was likely the qutb in his time—the spiritual ‘axis’ around which the fate of humanity revolved—who was then passing the mantle of qutb to Abraham.[21] For him, as for many others, Melchizedek was the “father of all priests,” and a figure who did not die, but who was taken up into heaven, like Elijah, or transformed like Khidr, and who can thus come and go between the worlds.[22] This, of course, is close to the Pauline view, which says of Melchizedek, “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life, but resembling the son of God, he remains a priest forever.” (Heb. 7:3)

Given these possible beliefs, I suspect that Pir Vilayat, as the head of the Universal Worship activity established by his father—ordaining religious (cherags) empowered to do ritual and lead the Universal Worship service—wished to anchor himself in the most ancient and authentic transmission of the “father of all priests,” Melchizedek, for the benefit of those whom he ordained. And from whom could he best receive this transmission? Reb Zalman himself believed that his friend had sought this initiation from him with the understanding that the esoteric transmission of the universal priesthood had been passed to Abraham, and thus also through his descendants to our day.[23] And, as Abraham was the father of the Jews, who established and maintained a lineal priesthood (the kohanim, the priestly caste descended from Aaron the Priest, the brother of Moses), and as Reb Zalman was not only a descendant of Abraham, but also a kohen, belonging to the priestly caste of Jews, as well a Hasidic rebbe or master of the Jewish esoteric tradition, Pir Vilayat may have believed Reb Zalman could best offer him this transmission.[24]

It is not clear exactly when the initiation took place. According to Reb Zalman, it was in New York, and possibly connected with Pir Vilayat leading the Cosmic Mass at St. John the Divine in New York City. If that is so, then it may have been as early as the end of October 1975. It may also have followed a seminar in New York by Pir Vilayat (possibly held in conjunction with the Cosmic Mass) which Reb Zalman attended, coming up from his home in Philadelphia.[25]

After the conclusion of the seminar, Reb Zalman said that he performed the initiation for Pir Vilayat, opening the ritual with the question—“Vilayat son of Inayat Khan, do you know that this is merely an initiation from the outside in recognition of something you already possess?”

Pir Vilayat responded, “Yes.”

“Good,” said Reb Zalman, “then we’ll do it.”

We do not know the form of the initiation, but at its conclusion, Reb Zalman wrapped Pir Vilayat in a special tallit or prayer shawl on which he’d written in Hebrew, Kohen l’El Elyon, ‘Priest of God, Most High,’ and proceeded to teach him a kabbalistic text so that he would have some context from within the kabbalistic tradition of what he had just received.

After this, Reb Zalman brought out three loaves of hallah, which his wife had baked in the form of a heart with two wings, and a bottle of old Tokay, which according to him, “poured dark like blood.” He then said to Pir Vilayat, “Priest after the Order of Malki-tzedek, consecrate the bread and wine for the consumption of all present,” commenting to me that the latter did so “beautifully.”[26]

 

Two Pillars of InterSpirituality

In the coming years, Pir Vilayat would speak of these mutual initiations as being of great importance to him, and for the development of the future of religion. In one letter, dated August 9, 1988, he wrote:

Some years ago, Reb Zalman and myself initiated each other into our respective traditions. Our reciprocal blessings represent the thrust of our life’s work, and an example of possible networking among religious leaders in the future. Our sharing of this bonding in the Spirit represents my high regard for Reb Zalman and the authenticity of his teachings. On the many occasions in which we have participated in interfaith conferences, I have been deeply appreciative of his keen insight, in-depth knowledge of the esoteric traditions, and his capacity to open hearts with the fullness of his love and laughter.[27]

In a later letter, dated June 4, 2002, speaking of Reb Zalman’s work and significance in the context of the political crisis in the Middle East, Pir Vilayat also wrote:

I consider that his contribution in the present world situation in the Middle East is particularly pertinent because he is the one rabbi in the world today who is not only familiar with Sufism, but practices it. He is not only a sheik […] but has initiated me in the Order of Melchizedek. This is not only a political statement, but a religious one. I emphasize the importance of the role he is playing by trying to overarch the political structures with unity by making a religious statement.[28]

In his book, Awakening, Pir Vilayat talks about the qualities of Abraham and Melchizedek with regard to the temporal and spiritual, as the naturally paired archetypes of sovereignty and holiness. Abraham represents the ideal of noblesse oblige, the obligation of the noble, or true nobility. This is the chivalrous ideal of obligation based on advantage and blessing, that those who ‘have’ are obliged to assist and serve those who ‘have not.’ Thus, their status exists solely for the purpose of taking care of others. But this in itself is not whole without the quality of holiness, embodied in Melchizedek, the high priest. Of course he is not talking about the religious functionary, but the ideal priest who is connected to the Source, the prophet-priest who counsels the sovereign.[29]

For Reb Zalman, the initiation into Inayati Sufism was also connected with the idea of a ‘universal priesthood.’ It allowed him a freedom that was not possible for him as a Jew and a rabbi. It allowed him to perform non-Jewish weddings, funerals, and other rituals for which he could not find a basis under Jewish law (halakhah), i.e., to function as a priest or cherag of a universal spirituality. Thus, he also encouraged some among his Jewish students to become Inayati Sufis and to train as cherags in order to fulfill this function as well.[30]

In the years to come, Reb Zalman continued to study Sufism, eventually taking initiation into the Qadiri-Rufai tariqa under Sheikh Siddi-Hassan al-Moumani of Balata (who empowered him to lead zikr), and the Halveti-Jerrahi tariqa under his friend, Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak (1916-1985). He also formed important connections and friendships with Bektashi and Melami Sufis. Nevertheless, his closest relationships continued to be with Inayati Sufis. Pir Moineddin would remain a valued friend and colleague until his passing in 2001, and Reb Zalman maintained close ties with his successors, Pir Shabda Kahn and Murshid Wali Ali Meyer. But it was with two of Pir Vilayat’s seniormost disciples that Reb Zalman would develop very special ‘avuncular’ relationships. Puran Bair would become a colleague, sometimes leading Sufi retreats for Reb Zalman, who in turn served as his rabbi and counselor (even conducting his son’s bar mitzvah in green Sufi robes and a turban). And still closer was Thomas Atum O’Kane, former Secretary General of the Sufi Order, and Pir Vilayat’s ‘second’ for many years. Atum would form a close spiritual bond with Reb Zalman, seeking his guidance on spiritual matters and working directly with him as his academic advisor on both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation.

It was not until the year 2000 that Reb Zalman finally broke his ‘avuncular vow’ and initiated his first and only Sufi murid. This story—my own—is perhaps best told elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that out of this relationship was formed a new Sufi-Jewish or Sufi-Hasidic branch of the Inayati lineage, the Inayati-Maimuni tariqa, recognized in 2004 by Pir Vilayat’s son and successor, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan. It is also possible that in my own ordination and initiation as his successor in 2002, that we have an example of the form Pir Vilayat’s initiation into the Priesthood of Melchizedek may have taken, as Reb Zalman also performed some version of it for me at that time.

To the best of my knowledge, the last meeting between Reb Zalman and Pir Vilayat took place in New York City in 2000. On that occasion, both were participants in a plenary session on “Future Visions” during the State of the World Forum.[31] Afterward, they shared a hotel room at the Hilton, staying up late into the night, singing and teaching one another songs from their respective traditions—“Qalbi” (‘my heart’) and “Hashiveinu” (“turn us back’). There were no more teachings to exchange, no more initiations to offer one another; they were simply free to play as children before God.[32]

 

May the Holy One bless you and keep you;

May the Holy One shine favor upon you;

May the Holy One countenance you,

And grant you peace.

Amen. (Num. 6:24-26)

 

Notes

[1] The “Serenity Prayer,” attributed to the famed Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, used by Alcoholics Anonymous, is certainly more widely known and used.

[2] Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman, and Netanel Miles-Yépez. “Translating the Invocation of the Toward the One into the Hebrew of the Jewish Tradition.” Seven Pillars House of Wisdom. June 10, 2009. (http://www.sevenpillarshouse.org)

[3] Over the sixteen years of our relationship, I heard Reb Zalman speak of his connections to Sufism (both traditional and universalist), as well as his relationship to Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, on various occasions and in numerous contexts. The account I give here is synthetic and based upon my own memory of those various occasions. However, most of it can be verified from a recording of an early conversation between us from 2002, recorded in Reb Zalman’s home library for a book we were then writing whose working title was, “A Deep Encounter: A Primer for a Jewish Deep Ecumenism.” The project was later shelved after we realized that a major reorganization of the material was necessary. This recording, titled “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam” and dated March 3rd, 2002, is now available in the Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi Collection of the University of Colorado at Boulder Archives. I cite it and other sources here mostly in support of my personal account.

[4] Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman, and Edward Hoffman. My Life in Jewish Renewal. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman M., and Netanel Miles-Yépez. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.” March 3rd, 2002. (Recording: JRRZ0001S0101N008). Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi Collection of the University of Colorado at Boulder Archives. He may have made the acquaintance of various Perennialist Sufis by this point, having heard Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b.1933) speak, and having been introduced to Jewish zikr by Leo Schaya (1916-1985), though the dates of these meetings are uncertain.

[7] Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] See Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.”

[10] Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.”

[11] At that time, the two organizations springing from Murshid S.A.M. and Pir Vilayat were closely associated, and it was not uncommon for Pir Moineddin to advise others to first seek initiation with his elder, Pir Vilayat.

[12] See Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.”

[13] Inayat-Khan, Zia (ed.). Caravan of Souls: An Introduction to the Sufi Path of Hazrat Inayat Khan. New Lebanon, NY: Suluk Press, 2013: 73-74.

[14] Khan, Inayat. The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan: Volume 12: The Vision of God and Man. Geneva: International Headquarters of the Sufi Movement, 1982: 150.

[15] Khan, Inayat. Biography of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. London: East-West Publications, 1979: 125.

[16] Khan, Inayat. Religious Gathekas, #1.

[17] A new emphasis in a Sufi lineage is often marked by the addition of a name to it, often the name of the innovator.

[18] A term coined in San Francisco in 1923. Van Voorst van Beest, Munira (ed.). The Complete Works of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan” Original Texts: Lectures on Sufism 1923 I: January–June. London: East-West Publications, 1989:: xii.

[19] Inayat-Khan. Caravan of Souls, 75.

[20] Though the passage does mention allies.

[21] Meaning that the fate of a community, a nation, or maybe the world, turn on what this one person might do. A person might be the qutb for years or a single moment. At one point, Pir Vilayat believed the qutb was in Lebanon. All of this was heard directly from Reb Zalman.

In Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, Awakening: A Sufi Experience (ed. Pythia Peay. Jeremy P. Tarcher: New York, 1999: 80-81), Pir Vilayat writes: “Melchizedek is recognized by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and thus represents a religious authority whom they each have in common. No doubt he sacrificed at the altar in Jerusalem, which is probably the stone now housed in the Dome of the Rock. I believe he must have lived in the cave that is at the top of the Mount of Olives—a place where I once took retreat—whereas most of his people at the time were living in tents. When I imagine the being of Melchizedek, I think of him as very, very holy, with a personality that is totally dedicated to attuning to the sacred. […] Can you, for instance, put yourself back in time to that moment when Melchizedek, during a ceremony in which bread and wine were offered as a sacrament, anointed Abraham as king? In a moment of divine transmission, in which Melchizedek conferred upon Abraham God’s blessings as His ambassador on earth.”

[22] A student of Pir Vilayat (I believe it was Daena Ross) told me: “Pir Vilayat used to talk about him [Melchizedek] as the father of all priests. […] He also talked about him as never really passing, that he was a real being on Earth, and you know, just like the tales of the Green Man, and Elijah.”

[23] In the rabbinic tradition of Judaism, it is understood that Melchizedek bestows the priesthood on Abraham at this moment, who then becomes a “priest forever” (b. Ned. 32b; Lev. Rab. 25.6), an eternal or universal priest.

[24] At the end of the last talk he gave to the Boulder-Denver Inayati Sufi community, Reb Zalman gave the priestly blessing with the priestly gesture.

[25] Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.” “The one [Cosmic Mass] that he did at St. John the Divine, he looked like a kohein gadol.” Pir Vilayat led the Cosmic Mass at St. John the Divine in New York City on October 22nd and 24th, described in a Time Magazine article, “Mish-Mass” (Monday, November 3, 1975), and perhaps again a year later. Thanks to Nancy Lakshmi Barta-Norton of the Inayati Order Archives for helping me to identify the dates.

[26] Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.” In Reb Zalman’s recorded words:

At one point he had asked me to initiate him into the order of Melchizedek. So I had brought him a tallis, and I did a thing in which I had written, kodesh l’Yah, you know, so just like the high priest had, and we did that initiation after he did a seminar in New York.

Then we had the initiation, and I know what he wanted. He wanted a connection with Malkhitzedek, on that level. So I asked him this question—“Vilayat son of Inayat Khan”—you know, like to do that—“do you know that this is an initiation that you don’t need from the outside, that you have it already from the inside?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Then in that case I might do the rest.”

And Elana had baked a hallah, three hallahs, that looked like a heart, and two hallahs that looked like wings. And I’d gotten some special old wine that flowed like blood from Lipshitz’ winery in Philadelphia. [. . .] So he had one cask of old Tokay, and it poured like, you know, it was dark like blood. And I figured that if he’s gonna’ be doing the initiation according to the wine and bread. So after I’d brought him that, I said, “Now that you’re”—after the initiation, yivarekha and some other things were over—I asked him to consecrate the bread and the wine, and to share it with us. And it was wonderful.”

[27] “Letter from Vilayat Inayat Khan to Greg Burton and Rochelle N. Grossman.” August 9, 1988. The Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan Collection. The Inayati Order Archives–North America. Richmond, Virginia. Letter written endorsing Schachter-Shalomi’s Wisdom School.

[28] “Letter from Vilayat Inayat Khan to Dana Lobell.” June 4, 2002. The Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan Collection. The Inayati Order Archives–North America. Richmond, Virginia. Letter written recommending Schachter-Shalomi for the Templeton Prize.

[29] Here is also a suggestion of Reb Zalman in the archetype of Abraham and Pir Vilayat in archetype of Melchizedek. Pir Vilayat likewise connects two waza’if (names of divine qualities) to Abraham and Melchizedek. Ya Qahr, the sovereign, he connects with Abraham. Ya Quddus, holiness, he connects to Melchizedek. Vilayat Inayat Khan. Awakening: A Sufi Experience. Ed. Pythia Peay. Jeremy P. Tarcher: New York, 1999: 80-83.

[30] See Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.”

[31] This information was given me on July 22, 2017 by Richard Nur Gale, a student of Pir Vilayat who helped to organize the session set up by Joe Firmage, who financed it. Deepak Chopa and various scientists also participated.

[32] See Schachter-Shalomi. “Deep Encounter, Part 5 of 12. Islam.