Thoughts on Shlomo (archives)
An Abrahamic Soul (2001)
This past Friday, the 16th of Heshvan, marked seven years since the death of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, ztz”l. As the years pass, I find myself reflecting over and over again about this charismatic and paradoxical figure, who deeply touched so many lives and at the same time embodied so many of the contradictions and dilemmas of our era in Jewish life.
In writing about any person who has left this world, I am reminded of the words of Rav Soloveitchik, ztz”l, perhaps the master eulogist of our generation, in which he takes the verse in Jeremiah 31:2, “from afar the Lord appeared to me,” as emblematic of our relation to the deceased. I take this to mean that during his lifetime, we more often than not fail to truly see the person. The hustle and bustle of everyday life, the routine, utilitarian or pragmatic nature of most of our human encounters, tends to obscure our perception of the other person’s Divine soul, the reflection of God within his soul (helek eloha mima’al), the unique letter in the Torah to which he is a counterpart. Suddenly, after he dies, we begin to understand how much more there was to that person, and howl little we truly understood of his essence.
Since Reb Shlomo’s death, there has been a great resurgence of interest in his figure. “Shlomo minyanim,” which use his melodies and try to emulate his informal, emotive style of prayer, have spring up all over the Jewish world. But for many of his posthumous admirers, he is perhaps little more than a latter-age Jewish minstrel, a composer of catchy but soulful tunes. (And serious music critics might add that these were not even particularly sophisticated compositionally or harmonically. Indeed, Shlomo was an auto-didact in the field of music, so much so that it’s not clear whether he even knew how to read sheet music! His tremendous creativity seemed to enter him from someplace else—as if the Shekhina were singing from his throat!)
At the risk of indulging in the mysticism of dates, I find it significant that Shlomo died during the week between Lekh Lekha and Vayera, as he himself was what might be called an “Abrahamic personality.” I would like to begin by discussing a relevant Talmudic passage about Abraham:
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “And I shall make of you a great nation” [Gen 12:2]. This [alludes to] our saying “God of Abraham.” “And I shall bless you” [ibid.]: this alludes to “God of Isaac.” “And I shall make your name great” [ibid.]: that alludes to “God of Jacob.” Should we perhaps conclude [the blessing] with all of them? The Torah says, “And you shall be a blessing”—we close with you and we do not close with all of them. (Pesahim 117b, quoted by Rashi on Gen 12:2)
The Talmud sees the various components of this verse as alluding to the structure of the first blessing of the Amidah, recited by every observant Jew several times daily. The Amidah begins with an evocation of “God and God of our fathers,” immediately goes on to specify that God is ”God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,” but concludes by calling God “the Shield of Abraham.”
What was so central about Abraham, as opposed to the other two patriarchs? If one must choose only one of the three patriarchs, should one not choose Jacob, who was renamed Israel, and was thus by his very name the father of the nation? Again, in Kabbalistic thought Jacob is Tiferet, the center of the sefirotic tree, the central role that harmonizes the tensions and antinomies of the others. I would suggest two answers.
First, Jewish faith originated with Abraham. Isaac inherited Abraham’s faith, and was loyal to it, deepening it in a very personal way; Jacob developed it, brought it out into the world further, expanded it by raising his family of twelve children—but Abraham was the one who first discovered God. He was “Abraham, who loved me.” Without him, Isaac and Jacob would not have been what they were.
Second, Abraham is identified with the divine attribute of Hesed: of kindness, of generosity, of expansiveness, of giving to others without limit and without bound. Of course, unlimited Hesed, like any other unlimited quality, can be exaggerated, harmful, requiring the checks and balances of Yitshak’s Gevurah, his rigor and judgment, setting limits and pulling back inward. But the core impulse of the religious life, as of the ethical life, must be Hesed: generosity, selflessness, the movement from the self to others. Without the initial Hesed impulse, the sternness and discipline of Isaac is cold, dead, and life-destroying. Even the harmony of Jacob only makes sense within the context of the thesis-antithesis in which Abraham’s Hesed is the starting point met by Isaac’s Gevurah.
In both these senses, Shlomo was a quintessential Abrahamic personality. First, he was a living embodiment of the quality of Hesed: in his generosity, in the simple sense of giving both of his material resources and of his heart. His caring and his reaching out in a personal way to the tens of thousands of people he met on life’s path was quintessentially Abrahamic—even if, viewed from the perspective of “sensible” and “prudent” bourgeois values, they were utterly exaggerated, leaving nothing for himself or his family.
Second, he was a latter day Abraham in his efforts to spread the light of Torah to as many people as possible, in this age of Jewish ignorance, estrangement and massive assimilation. He saw his life’s mission as specifically reaching out to those who were distant from the tradition, who were not reached by the Jewish, and certainly not by the Orthodox, establishment: to the hippies in the communes and crash-pads and Eastern ashrams of San Francisco; to the ignorant Jews behind the Iron Curtain, long before concern for Soviet Jewry became de rigueur; to alienated Jewish college students in far-flung campuses, way back in the early ‘50s when no one else was engaged in such outreach—to all, observant or not, young or old, learned or ignorant.
Two Basic Choices
I see Shlomo’s life and career as having been shaped by two basic decisions. One was the choice to reach out to the entire Jewish world, in the utterly unorthodox, individualistic path he created for himself. Concomitant with this, he needed to turn his back on the “straight” Orthodox world from which he had come, and in which he remained spiritually rooted to his dying day—and which in turn rejected him. This seems to me one of the things that most deeply pained him, and one of the sources of the underlying sadness and even tragic aspect to his demeanor. Despite everything, he saw in men like Rav Aaron Kutler, the Bobover Rebbe, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe the source, the fountain head, of unreconstructed, authentic Jewish holiness.
The model for this mission may be found in such Hasidic concepts as the “lifting up of sparks”; of the “soul connection” of the Tzaddik or Rebbe to his disciples, in which he takes upon himself the correction of the souls of those connected to him, or even of an entire generation; the notion of yeridat hatzaddik, of “descent” into the word of “impurity” in order to lift up from there the souls that were lost. This was manifested in his life in the most practical, concrete sense: by going to San Francisco, and living among the hippies who, in innocence and naivete, certainly without any malice or bad intention, lived in a way that violated many Torah principles. There he founded the House of Love and Prayer: part commune–crash pad, part shul—Beit Midrash, which was run with a very loose, free atmosphere, but offered Yiddishkeit for those who wanted it. Nor was he afraid to go to totally alien places to share his message. In 1971 I participated in a visit by Shlomo to the Integral Yoga Ashram in San Francisco: Shlomo and half a dozen of the “hevra” entered a room filled with young men and women dressed in white robes and seated in the lotus posture on the floor. He sang a few songs on his guitar, he told a few Hasidic stories, he talked a bit about Shabbat, and was received warmly and attentively. His visit surely left an impression—if only to get across the idea that there is another, “different” Judaism than what these people, many of whom were Jewish by birth, had learned in Hebrew School or in their suburban communities.
The second key decision in his life was the choice of the heart over the head, of emotion over reason, of the teaching of the heart over erudition and book learning. Legend has it that Shlomo was considered an extraordinary intellect in the yeshiva milieu, and was a favorite student of Rav Aharon Kutler at Lakewood. How true this was, and whether his analytic powers were superior to his fellow “Yeshivah bakhurim,” I cannot judge. What I can personally testify is that he was blessed with a remarkably retentive memory, and an encyclopedic knowledge of everything related to Judaism, and especially to Hasidism. In any event, he seems to have made a clear, conscious choice away from all that. His teaching, with rare exceptions, was geared to the heart. In a certain sense, it seemed that there was almost a suppression of the intellect, at least in the sense of the critical, analytic functions. There was an artlessness, a conscious simplicity to his teaching; an intuitive ability to translate the complexities of Hasidic texts into simply expressed but profound concepts that could be comprehended even by those untutored in traditional Judaism.
The choice of heart over mind lay at the root of Shlomo’s intellectual predilections as well. Future researchers will surely ask the question: what were the literary roots of his Torah? He loved teaching Hasidic texts; his suitcase was always bulging with at least half a dozen Hasidic books, wherever he went. But those on which he most focused, and which he most frequently utilized in his own teaching were, on the one hand, the works of R. Nahman of Bratslav, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and a towering figure of early Hasidism (and, like Shlomo, well known for dressing his teaching in the form of stories rather than in more abstract elucidation of Torah verses and Rabbinic dicta); and, on the other, a small group of late 19th century Polish Hasidic thinkers: R. Mordecai of Izhbitz (Mei Shiloah); his son R. Yaakov (Beit Yaakov); and, to a slightly lesser extant, R. Tzaddok Hakohen of Lublin (author of Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, of the five-volumes of Peri Tzaddik, and many other works); and R. Alter Meir of Ger (Sefat Emet). The common denominator of all these is that they emphasized the simple truths of the heart: of faith, of avodah shebelav (prayer as “service of the heart”), of returning to the “central point” within the heart, of reliance upon God and surrender to God’s will. (In the case of the Mei Shiloah, in a manner that at times transcends halakha and even teeters at the edge of antinomianism.)
In terms of the theocentric-anthropocentric axis upon which we have dwelt in recent weeks, Shlomo came down squarely on the side of a human-centered Torah. Whatever the original intention of his sources, in Bratslav and Izhbitz and so on, for him they became a teaching of how man is to behave with man—and with woman. (Some of his deepest Torahs were those spoken at weddings and Sheva Berakhot—or those relating to the disturbing and all-too-frequent marital breaks-ups of this generation.) Ultimately, his was a very simple, at times almost naive, teaching—about how to fill the world with more love, with more understanding, with more compassion. At times, I would go home from a marathon session with Shlomo with the sense that it was almost a dream. In a strange, paradoxical way, he forged a kind of synthesis of age-old Jewish teaching with the depth yearnings expressed in the ethos of the ‘60’s, “Flower Child” generation. So much so, that it often seemed to me that the his circle was the closest living replica to the milieu of the Baal Shem—an unsophisticated, warm, joyous piety, exuberant, even extravagant in its display of emotion.
By contrast, he only rarely taught Tanya or other Habad texts, notwithstanding the fact that his formative years as a hasid were spent in a Habad environment. This was doubtless due to the excessively intellectual, abstract, not to say abstruse nature of Habad teaching. Indeed, Habad Hasidim themselves draw a distinction between Habad—the teaching based upon the spheres of the Divine intellect known as Hokhmah, Binah and Da’at—and Gaha”t—the Polish Hasidism of the heart, rooted in the more emotional spheres of Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet.
Shlomo, Elvis and Jesus (1999)
This heading will no doubt sound at once blasphemous and frivolous. So let me explain.
This past week marked five years since the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, known in his lifetime as the controversial singing, hippie rabbi. During the years since his death he has become something of a cult figure, even for those far removed from the milieu in which he flourished. Why?
When I was younger, and perhaps more of a yeshiva bachur and would-be “halakhic man,” I was torn between loving Shlomo’s word—whenever he came to Boston I would go to hear him teach, accompanying him till the wee hours of the morning—and, in a more sober mood, after the euphoria wore off, feeling that he there was something superficial in his teaching, excessively light and easy in his attitude to halakhah. Clearly, Shlomo did not project the seriousness and solemnity of the great established Torah leaders of the day, whether rashei yeshiva and rebbes (Lithuanian yeshiva deans or Hasidic rebbes)— figures like Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Yitzhak Hunter, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Shlomo’s own mentor Rav Aharon Kutler, or the Lubavitcher or Bobover or Vishnitzer Rebbes. Shlomo did not seem to carry the tradition of generations of Jews on his shoulders in the same grave, weighty way as did these talmidei hakhamim. Alongside his learning and brilliance and aura of piety, there were certain obvious, glaring failings and shortcomings, his fondness for the fair sex being perhaps the most evident one.
And yet, there was something in his figure that was tremendously attractive to our generation. Shlomo did not marry until his mid-40’s; for years, he lived out of a suitcase, travelling throughout the States, to Israel, to Europe, to Russia, to wherever there were Jews —staying every night in a different hotel room; sometimes calling girls he had met at his concerts, in whatever part of the world they were. On occasion, he would describe himself as “the loneliest person the world.”
We live in an age plagued with problems of relationships between men and women. In some way, I submit, Shlomo symbolized the troubles of an entire generation, writ large. Shlomo was blessed with charisma, with the power to uplift and inspire people: through his music, through his stories, through his teaching -- which were themselves extraordinary exercises in finding contemporary, immediate meaning in sometimes difficult, dense (and often theologically radical) Hasidic books like Mei Shilaoh and Beit Yaakov and Sefat Emet. At the same time, at least for those who came to know Shlomo at all closely, his failings and humanity and underlying personal unhappiness were painfully apparent. He would be known, on occasion, to describe himself as “the loneliest person the world.” And precisely that, in my view, was the source of his power. He was a teacher with whom people could identify, in his suffering, as well as in his Torah greatness. And it is this quality, which made him so different from all the other rabbis, that made him so appealing.
Where do Elvis and Jesus enter into this schema? During the years since Elvis Presley’s death, a quasi-religious cult has sprung up around his memory. There are mass pilgrimages to his home, Graceland, and to his grave, especially on the occasion of his ”yahrzeit”; there are even holy relics. About a year ago, at a three-day academic conference held about the meaning of Elvis as a cultural symbol, one of the conclusions was that there was a profound identification with Elvis as an examplar in his suffering: the ”Passion of Elvis,” if you will. The handsome, sexy star, who had mobs of teen-age girls literally swooning at his feet, in a way hitherto unparalleled in American popular music (at least among white people), married and divorced several times, who died tragically young, addicted to alcohol and to pills, bloated from overeating. His figure somehow held a tremendous power for many ordinary Americans—and others. Instinctively, they felt that his suffering was somehow their own suffering. The similarity to Shlomo—without , of course, the dimension of transcendence and genuine piety and holiness expressed in the word Torah, and with the element of suffering and tragedy rather more obvious—is striking.
Finally, at the risk of offending just about everyone: what is the relation of both to Jesus? Jesus was of course the great-great-grand-daddy, the very archetype of this type of figure. The psychological power of Christianity, its appeal to masses of human beings, lies in the myth and mystery of an incarnate, suffering, human god. God as we believe He is—God the Creator, the Lawgiver, who rules over the entire universe, extending over millions of stellar systems and galaxies—is far too overwhelming and distant and incomprehensible for ordinary human being to relate. A human being needs someone, something, to whom he can relate on an intimate, personal level. (Such, truth be told, is also the appeal of the Hasidic Rebbe.) The legend of the Incarnation—of a god who walks among people, radiating love and compassion, and who himself knows and experiences suffering and pain—is infinitely appealing. Such, Christians claim, was Jesus. And such were, in their very different paths, Elvis and Shlomo.
Who Was Reb Shlomo? (1998; originally published in the Jerusalem Post)
November 5 (Marheshvan 16) marked four years since the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the singing rabbi. Interestingly, during the years since his death, his influence and following seem to have grown, his name becoming a symbol for a new, different and refreshing approach to Jewish religious life. Prayer groups modeled upon his teachings and rooted in his music have sprung up in many different places. In Jerusalem alone, half a dozen Shlomo minyans meet every Shabbat, attracting those seeking a more vibrant, emotional, intense type of worship.
Who was Reb Shlomo? What was the secret of his appeal? Where did he stand on the big issues of Jewish life today? Was he a Hassid? A modern Orthodox Jew? A proponent of halakhic reform within Orthodoxy? A religious Zionist? A supporter of the Whole Land of Israel, seeing the Messiah as coming as just around the corner? Where did he stand on the role of women, and the issues raised by feminism?
To pose the questions is to already suggest the answer. Clearly, he defies categorization in terms of nearly all those issues with which we ordinarily understand the Jewish world, and certainly the Orthodox one .
Shlomo was regarded as something of a black sheep in much of the conventional, straight Orthodox world. He was ostracized by the yeshiva world in which he grew up for his lifestyle as a sort of itinerant Hassidic minstrel; for his involvement with the hippies of the 1960s; and for what was perceived as a generally free and loose approach toward halakhah in an age of increasing strictness.
A few basic facts. Shlomo Carlebach was born in Vienna in 1926 and came to the United States with his parents in his early childhood. His father, Rabbi Naphtali Hartwig Carlebach, was rabbi of one of the major congregations on Manhattans West Side. During his youth, he was known as one of the most promising and beloved students of Rabbi Aharon Kutler, founder of the Bet Midrash Gavoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, one of the earliest and most prestigious Lithuanian yeshivot in America. Some say that he was an iluy, a Talmudic prodigy.
During their early 20s, he and his twin brother, Eliah Hayyim, sought a more intense and emotional spiritual life in Hassidism, frequenting Lubavitch and Bobov, the two major Hassidic courts in the US in those days. While still in yeshiva, Shlomo began playing the guitar and composing his own songs the simple, soulful melodies, which became his hallmark and which were to awaken the Jewish spark among so many. He barnstormed college campuses with Zalman Schachter another young follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who was later to strike out in dramatically different ways and began performing to synagogue and student groups. In 19591963 he launched his career as an entertainer with an evening at the Village Gate in New York’s Greenwich Village, a performance which became the basis for his first recording.
But Shlomo was always far more than a mere entertainer. His concerts and kumsitzes and teaching sessions were always marked by a deeper purpose to reach out to lost Jews, wherever they were, and to reignite the spark of yiddishkeit that lay dormant within them.
During the 1960s, with the emergence of the hippie movement and the widespread disaffection of middle-class youth with the establishment, he made it his mission to reach out to these youth, and began spending time in San Francisco where, together with his first hippie/baalei-tshuva, he set up the House of Love and Prayer. Part commune, part synagogue, part would-be yeshiva, its doors were open to all and every comer, Jew and non-Jew alike.
He traveled all over the world, singing his songs, telling hassidic stories and homilies, and talking about Shobbes to people in far-flung corners of the world. As such, he was among the first Jewish teachers to go behind the Iron Curtain to reach out Jewishly to the captive Jews of the Soviet Union.
As his hippie Hassidim matured and began to seek a long-term path, some left him to study at straight yeshivot; while others, who had meanwhile married and began raising families, shared in his dream of setting up a community in Israel that would live his unique path. After an abortive attempt to set up a community in the village of Migdal near Lake Kinneret a Shlomo moshav was created at Meor Modiim, which is today the center of Shlomo people.
Who, then, was Reb Shlomo? At times it seemed as though the atmosphere pervading the circle around Shlomo was a contemporary recreation of the original Hassidism of the circle of the Baal Shem Tov a simple, straightforward Torah of the heart, without the pomp and circumstance of the cult of Zaddikim (charismatic holy men) that developed from the time of R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk and on.
Like the Besht, he reached out to the more marginal elements of society in his case, the drop-outs of the 60s and 70s, whom he was fond of calling his holy beggars. His seeming simplicity and even naivete seemed to have been born of a deliberate strategy of cutting through the complexities in order to reach out to alienated Jews . Shlomo touched people very deeply on an emotional level, whether through music, story, homily, or more formal teaching. He knew how to spoke the language of the heart, naturally, without cynicism or manipulation . There was a deep, genuine love for others, that at times bordered on the extreme. Perhaps we moderns are too cynical to fully appreciate the simplicity and, in a certain sense, even holiness and purity, of such a person.
Speaking in mythical, Kabbalistic terms, Shlomo’s behavior might be described in terms of yeridat hazaddik: the conscious descent of the righteous man into the world of impurity, in which he knew he would have to compromise his standards; a descent motivated, at least on the conscious level, by the desire to redeem the souls of the assimilated Jewish souls whom he could only reach by going to the place where they were.
The texts Shlomo most loved teaching: the writings of R. Nahman of Breslav; the Sefat Emet by R. Alter Judah of Gur; the numerous books by R. Zakkok of Lublin; the Mei Shiloah by R. Mordechai of Izhbitz all strongly emphasize the core faith experience, with relatively little Kabbalistic or halakhic super-structure. Rather, the emphasis is on the basic awareness of the presence of God, of the reality of the potential for holiness within the world, especially of the Shabbat as the time in which man can tangibly feel and taste the Divine presence. All these texts emphasize the immanence of the Divine; all is holy: it is not good to dwell too strongly on feelings of guilt or sinfulness or the donts. In short, a message uniquely suited to the youth culture of the 60s and 70s, to the creation of a new type of Hasidism, adapted to late 20th century, assimilated American-Jewish (and worldwide) youth.
On another level, insight may be gained by examining the historical and family context from which he emerged. Shlomo was the grandson and namesake of the Luebecker Rav, R. Salomon Carlebach of Luebeck (1845-1919), a central figure in German Orthodox Jewry, whose sons and sons-in-laws in turn fille d many major pulpits in preWorld War I and interWar Germany.
The Luebecker Rav represented a significant approach during this period, which was marked by the emergence of a self-conscious, ideological Orthodoxy. He came to maturity during the first generation after Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy. This movement advocated Torah im derekh eretz (“Torah and worldliness”) a strict, uncompromising Orthodoxy combined with involvement in Western culture together with a strategy of setting up separatist Orthodox communities.
Seeing those truly committed to Jewish halakhic observance as a beleaguered minority not only vis a vis the Reformers (who introduced an organ into the Hamburg Temple in the 1810s), but also in relation to the nonobservant householders who continued to attend a nominally Orthodox Synagogue, where the old rites were performed as they had been Hirsch, as rabbi in Frankfort am Main in the 1840s and 50s, set up the first austritzgemeinde, a community organization that required as a condition of membership unqualified personal commitment to halakhic observance, with its own separate synagogues, schools, kashrut supervision, and even cemeteries.
By contrast, the Luebecker Rav and his son represented the old-fashioned gemeinde, pan-communal approach, which opposed Hirsch’s separatist, Orthodox-elitist approach. Their approach was inclusive of all Jews, while uncompromising in halakhah and not trying to create any synthesis. The Orthodox synagogue was simply the center of the Jewish community as a whole, whatever may have been the level of its individuals spiritually or halakhically. The rabbi saw his task as being the leader of all; embodying, exemplifying the halakhah, but having the discretion and wisdom not to examine too closely those things in his flock which did not bear scrutiny. This conflict may be seen as foreshadowing a pattern which repeated itself, in various guises, within Orthodox Jewry throughout the twentieth century: between the Torah va-Avodah(“Torah and Labor”) philosophy of pioneering Religious Zionism and the anti-Zionist Agudath Israel; between the Torah u-Mada (“Torah and Science”) approach of Yeshiva University and American modern Orthodoxy and the black hat yeshiva world; etc.; but the principle remained the same.
May it be that the Lubecker Rav’s grandson, in the vastly different milieu of late 20th century America, translated this philosophy of Jewish unity and wide-ranging acceptance of every Jew into his own unique approach, transmitting a simple, heart-to-heart Jewish message through the medium of song, story and homily? Perhaps his own motto may be seen in the words of one of his earliest and still best-loved songs: Am Yisrael Hay! The People of Israel lives! Wherever Jewish souls are to be found, there is also Jewish hope.