At 99, a reassessment for Rabbi Herman Schaalman

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Rabbi Herman Schaalman, of Edgewater, turned 99 last week. | Lou Foglia/For Sun-Times Media

Something unsettling is going on inside Rabbi Herman Schaalman’s head.

The celebrated Edgewater leader — who turned 99 years old last week — doesn’t want to offend anyone, but he’s having a rethink about, well, everything.

“God is simply an idea that humans have created because they are overwhelmed by something for which there is no answer,” said Schaalman, during a recent chat in his lakefront condominium. Looking elegant in a navy pinstriped suit, he had just returned from a trip downtown to pay his final respects to a friend, Cardinal Francis George.

On the possibility of life after death: “I think death is the end.”

To be fair, Schaalman’s views represent an evolution informed by his extensive readings of the Torah, scientific literature and his understanding of life and the Holocaust.

“I said to myself, there must have been billions of prayers said every day by millions of people who were in these [Nazi] camps,” Schaalman said. “Nothing happened. Not a single answer. Not a single rescue. No response from whatever we thought God to be.”

Schaalman, who fled Nazi Germany in 1935, was the rabbi at Emanuel Congregation in Edgewater for 32 years, from 1956 to 1988. He remains Emanuel’s rabbi emeritus.

He said he has found his retirement intellectually freeing.

“I have only been thinking this way in the last four or five years,” he said. “I have had a total revolution in my own theology, my whole religious life. . . . This has come from the fact, in part, because I don’t have the immediate, continuous responsibility for a group of people.”

Schaalman had a similar intellectual awakening when he turned 95. At the time, he said he felt closer to God than at any time in his life.

So what should people make of these late-life epiphanies?

Schaalman scoffed at the suggestion that perhaps his mind isn’t as clear as it once was.

“To me, it’s clearer that it ever was,” he said.

Schaalman is still revered at Emanuel, where they are planning a birthday “gala” for the retired rabbi and his wife, Lotte, who recently turned 100.

Schaalman, said Emanuel Senior Rabbi Michael Zedek, is a “remarkable guy” who defies the stereotype that old people tend to live in the past.

“He’s not a creature of nostalgia,” Zedek said. “I’ve never seen that in him — ever. He is always looking ahead.”

As for his evolving views on mankind and God?

“He’s not selling peace of mind,” Zedek said.

Until earlier this year, Schaalman had been an adjunct professor of Judaism at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, a position he had held since 1957.

“I was not terribly reluctant to give it up,” Schaalman said. “It’s always a big effort for me, not only to get there, but to teach for two hours.”

But as Schaalman realizes his physical limits, his mind is on a journey across a vast, bumpy terrain.

He recently finished a book about quantum theory and he retains a childlike amazement about all that surrounds him, from the purple-and-gold tulips in a vase on his dinner table to Lake Michigan glittering beyond his balcony’s glass doors.

“There is so much mystery,” he said. “Why am I alive? What makes my body? . . . How come there is a sun, a moon, an Earth and billions of galaxies?”

Even though he doesn’t see eternity in his own future, he remains hopeful.


“Yes, because I’m a Jew,” he said. “A Jew cannot give up. A Jew who despairs is no longer a Jew. We have gone through hell for so many thousands of years now.”

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