Lekh Lekha (Supplement) - On Shlomo Carlebach
Rebbe and Minstrel
A posthumous Mazal Tov to Shlomo, and—sheyibadlu lehayyim arukim— to Neilah, to Neshama and to her husband, on the birth of their first grandchild and child, respectively: Rafael Lev Shlomo, born Erev Shabbat Noah. May he be a worthy heir to his illustrious name.
For some years, I have been fascinated by the life of Shlomo Carlebach. Though there have been quite a few books about his life, these are mostly hagiographical collections of anecdotes (Although some basic information may be gleaned from Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum’s biographical introduction to her book, Holy Brother! [Jason Aronson, 1997], xxiii-xxxv). There is need for a serious, full-length biography, but that is a dream for the future. On this present occasion of his twelfth Yahrzeit, I have chosen to present a brief discussion of what I see as central themes in his life, suggesting a certain interpretation based upon what I know, as well as posing certain unresolved questions that a full-length biography ought to include. Let he who may take up that gauntlet.
In reconstructing the life story of a great man—or of any person, for that matter—we must begin by asking two central questions: what was his unique life-work? And, how did he become who he became? What was the process he underwent in discovering whatever he discovered, and what were the crucial life decisions or turning points that shaped who he became? It is only after answering these questions that one turns to the other aspect: the detailed recounting of a life-story, with dates, names and places, ideas, writings, institutions, and events.
Why are so many people fascinated with Shlomo? What was it about this man that was so powerful, and that in certain ways moved people more after his death than during his lifetime? To begin at the conclusion: were I to be asked to define the central contribution of Shlomo Carlebach to Jewish life today, I would say that it was in his restoring the centrality of neshama, of “soul,” of emotion—religious and human—to Judaism (significantly, he chose the name “Neshama” for his oldest child, who has just herself become a parent). He spearheaded a certain reawakening of the emotional, inner element in Judaism, of the centrality of love, and of its translation into a language easily understood by people living today, with minimal or no Jewish background. Correspondingly, I see the central process he underwent in his own life, the decisive choices or turning-points, as relating to the choice of the emotion over the intellect, of the heart or the soul over the mind.
Everyone talks about “spirituality” today, but forty or fifty years ago, when Shlomo started on his unique path, it was barely talked about in the Jewish world. True, there was the old spirituality—of the Musar yeshivot, or of the old-time Polish and Galacian Hasidim, who were slowly regrouping and rebuilding themselves after the horrors of the Shoah, and had created modest enclaves in US and in Israel—but these were small and isolated groups. The mainstream within Orthodoxy placed the stress upon observance, on Torah learning, or presented various kinds of intellectual apologia for Judaism. The non-Orthodox in turn talked about ethical monotheism, about peoplehood, about sancta or folkways or historical memory, about survival and the dangers of intermarriage and assimilation, or about the nascent State of Israel and Holocaust; a few perhaps talked about philosophy or theology, but in a very abstract, intellectual way. No one, it seems, talked about the simple, most basic things: about God, about the yearnings of the soul for God, about the holiness of Shabbat (with the exception, perhaps, of Heschel, but he, again, spoke on a far more intellectual plane).
Shlomo had a genius for reducing things to their essence, for speaking with a simplicity that could speak to and kindle the excitement of a young person starting with no Jewish knowledge. It often seemed to me that he recreated the original mood of Hasidism; that he and his followers somehow created a milieu that was the closest thing to the feel of the original circle of the Baal Shem Tov, translated into contemporary idiom. (Some years ago, Jackie Levi wrote a series of vignettes of various Jerusalem synagogues for a local newspaper, Kol ha-Ir. In one column, he described Kabbalat Shabbat at Beit Simhah, Shlomo’s follower’s Beit Midrash in the Nahalaot neighborhood. He described how Hasidic youngsters, with their long coats and pancake hats and payot, stood outside with their noses pressed up against the windows of the shul, entranced by the uninhibited display of religious ecstasy by these strange-looking, colorfully-dressed, long-haired Americans, as if something they had only heard of in had suddenly come alive before their eyes—Hasidic prayer as it must have been then, rather than the routine thing it has become.)
What is the significance of such an innovation, and why did it emerge at this particular juncture in history? To explain, I must digress a bit. Bahya ibn Paquda, in the introduction to his Hovot ha-Levavot, speaks of the inner obligations of Jewish religiosity, the “duties of the heart,” which he sees as conceptually and even halakhically prior to the practical mitzvot, which he calls “the duties of the limbs.” He describes two ways by which one may attain knowledge of God: through tradition, and through reason. The former is received from one’s parents and family, from one’s teachers or even, in olden days, from one’s community and one’s environment. The latter refers to philosophical knowledge, to demonstration of the existence of God and the nature of His unity, and involves a long and arduous process of study and thinking.
It seems to me that both of these paths have become problematic in our day. The roots of a certain rejection of the intellect lie in the horrors of the Second World War, of the Holocaust and of Hiroshima, and in the truths about the Soviet Union that began to emerge in mid-century—the gulags and purges and the drab society created by “scientific socialism.” All these began to bring the long romance of Western culture with rationalism to an end. Mankind began to mistrust the mind. Reason was no longer king. And, in the religious arena, mediaeval proofs of God had long since been refuted; thus, in an age of atheism, the only path to religious belief seemed an existential “leap of faith.”
Moreover, for many if not most Jews tradition no longer seemed self-evident. The majority of American Jews grew up in homes without a living tradition, without a sense of belonging to shalshelet ha-mesorah, to a chain of tradition in which one was trained from earliest childhood to continue the same religious practice as one’s parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.
Thus, one needed to turn to a third source of knowledge or religious experience: emotion. “From my flesh I see God.” Obviously, I am not suggesting that those who went to a Shlomo concert or teach-in had a mystical experience, but that in some sense he succeeded in touching people’s emotions in a way that had at least the potential to awaken their religious sensibility, what Habad calls the Divine portion that resides within the soul of every person, of at least opening them to Shabbat, to prayer, to mitzvot.
Part of Shlomo’s choice of the heart over the mind is expressed in the surprising fact that he never wrote anything of note. Thinkers, intellectuals, religious leaders, those engaged in one way or another in the life of the mind, at some point or another record their thoughts, their ideas, their philosophy of life, in a book. Yet everything that we have in written form of Shlomo’s teaching (and there is quite a bit, and the library of his writings is constantly growing) is based on his disciple’s reconstructions of his oral teachings, whether recorded from memory or from tapes. Some were made in his lifetime (such as the Holy Beggar’s Gazette, published at the House of Love and Prayer during the mid to late 1970s) and others, in more polished, permanent form, mostly after his death. The conclusion I reach is that he was not really interested in what is generally called “the life of the mind,” but in the life of the heart and the life of the soul. In this, he joins a venerable tradition in Judaism of charismatic teachers, such as the Baal Shem Tov and the Ari Ha-Kadosh, whose teachings are known almost exclusively from words recorded by their disciples (not to mention examples in other religions, such as Jesus, the Buddha, etc.).
Of course, the emphasis today on the spirit, on religious life rooted in the emotions, is far wider than Shlomo or Shlomo’s hasidim. Examples indicative of this trend include: the popular revival of Bratslav Hasidism, with its dancing and intense personal prayer; the emergence of a certain style of intense, at times even overheated, prayer in some hesder yeshivot or West Bank settlements; the great popularity of “spiritual teachers” who teach Hasidism and Kabbalah; the emergence of classes focused upon personal and psychological issues drawing upon insights of traditional Jewish teaching—a type of shiur that simply did not exist forty or even twenty years ago.
But Shlomo Carlebach seems to have intuitively understood this need, this thirst of Jews for a type of teaching that speaks directly to the individual soul, forty or even fifty years ago. This is one of the typical signs of greatness: that, in retrospect, what a great person did seems obvious. Greatness lies in a person being ahead of their time: once a pioneer shows the way, it is relatively easy for others to follow in his footsteps. It is precisely the element of vision, of prescience, of seeing certain possibilities, certain potentials, that no one else sees, that is part of the measure of greatness. For example: after Shlomo Carlebach did so, it became obvious that one can sit down with a guitar in front of a group of estranged, ignorant Jews, sing some songs, tell some Hasidic stories, and to feel that it is not utterly bizarre, that there is at least a chance that one may touch someone in the audience. But until Shlomo did it, no one thought of it.
How did he become whom he became? I would identify two crucial turning points in his life, both of which expressed this fundamental tendency of his soul. The first was what I’d call his conversion to Hasidism; the second, his break with institutionalized Orthodoxy generally, specifically with Lubavitch, where he had found a spiritual home for well over a decade. First, his conversion to Hasidism, for which we shall need some background: Shlomo grew up in a traditional “Yekkish” (German Jewish) Rabbinic family. His father, Rabbi Naphtali Hartwig Carlebach, was the youngest of the twelve children of the Lübecker Rav, Rabbi Salomon Carlebach (for whom Shlomo was named): an outstanding exemplar of the classic tradition of the Orthodox synagogue in Western Europe. This tradition drew a sharp line between the maintenance of strict halakhic norms in communal religious life—in the synagogue, schools, kashrut, eruv, mikveh, circumcision, marriage and divorce, burial and the like—and a worldly tolerance regarding the private life of individuals, to which the rabbi might judiciously turn a blind eye, accepting people as they were, without prejudicing their role as members in good standing of the Jewish community. This approach was diametrically opposed to the separatist, elitist, austritzgemeinde approach of Samson Raphael Hirsch and his ”Neo-Orthodoxy,” in which the selective embrace of certain aspects of Western culture—literature, philosophy, music, theater—was combined with a clear separation between the “Torah true” Orthodox and those more lukewarm in their observance. This latter seems to have become the dominant model for most of Orthodoxy today, both Haredi and Centrist-modernist, in both Israel and in the major Diasporas. I believe that the former—that of his grandfather—served Shlomo as a kind of model.
Alongside the formality and strictness, some might even say coldness, of the German Jewish culture, the Carlebach home was one that stressed hesed and generosity, the door being open to all. Shlomo was born in 1925 in Vienna, which at that time was a kind of crossroads for Jews of many different kinds and from many different places, including many Jews from Eastern Europe, from Poland, Galicia, Hungary, who had migrated to the West in hope of parnasah. In Vienna, and in the home of his father, Shlomo must have met many Hasidic Jews, and visited Hasidic synagogues and courts. Already at that time Shlomo’s outstanding mind had attracted the attention of his parents and other adults; he had already studied the entire Talmud by a young age, and generally considered an illui, a prodigy in learning. Following his bar mitzvah, he went to the Lithuanian town of Telz, where he studied for one year at the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva.
In 1939 the family moved to America, where his father became the rabbi of a large synagogue on the West Side of Manhattan. Shlomo studied at Yeshivat Torah ve-Daat under the tutelage of Rav Shlomo Heiman and, at age 17, was invited to study at the prestigious great yeshiva in Lakewood New Jersey, the outstanding Lithuanian style yeshivot in the US. The late Prof. Zev Lev stated that there were only two students in Lakewood at the time who understood Rav Aharon Kutler’s shiur kelalli—himself and Shlomo. But Lakewood was at that time (and probably even more so in our time) strongly marked by the puritanical, ascetic strain within Lithuanian Torah culture. There was a very strict approach to halakhah, and to life generally, Torah learning being considered the only worthwhile endeavor in life: there was a “world-rejecting” dichotomy between the world of Torah and everything else (an idea that has become a dominant theme in Haredi ideology today—but that’s another story). This, in contrast with the traditional Lithuanian ethos of love of learning, deriving great intellectual pleasure from the constant challenge of Torah study, engaging in constant creativity and new insight, while accepting the outside world, and seeing the task of the Rav as one of teaching the Torah in a humane, moderate, tolerant way.
In any event, there was something, both in the “Yekkishe” world of his parents and in the ascetic, intense world of Lakewood, that failed to satisfy Shlomo’s soul. He and his twin brother, Elya Hayyim, set out in a search of other teachers, teachers of holiness, of the joyous love of God, that could feed their souls. They began to visit the various Hasidic courts that existed in the US at the time. Elya Hayyim found his spiritual home in Bobov, eventually becoming one of the closest associates of the Bobover Rebbe and editor of the Encyclopedia of Hasidism published under his aegis, while Shlomo spent many years connected with Lubavitch.
Around 1950, Shlomo began going to campuses together with Zalman Schachter, at that time a young student at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva. The two of them were the first shelihim (emissaries) of the rebbe, who engaged in outreach to the broader, non-observant Jewish world. Interestingly, the two of them could be seen as leaders of the two wings of what might be called the Jewish “counter-culture” or non-establishment movement for religious renewal: Shlomo as the central figure in the Orthodox or quasi-Orthodox wing, while Zalman, who eventually founded the Jewish Renewal movement, as the leading figure in the more free-floating, syncretistic spiritual movement (more on him another time). This juncture in history is deserving of further examination: to what extent was the campus outreach initiated at the behest of either the late Rebbe or of his predecessor, R. Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, and to what extent was it that of Shlomo and/or Zalman—and how did things develop over the course of time? In general, what role was played in the beginnings of the ba’al teshuvah movement by each of these figures?
The second, more decisive turning point, was Shlomo’s break with the Rebbe and with Lubavitch, and his turning towards his own independent path, outside of mainstream Orthodoxy. I do not know many specific details, but during the course of the 1950’s we begin to find Shlomo playing the guitar, composing sings, and singing publicly—first at weddings within the “yeshivish” crowd, then at public concerts held in synagogues, Jewish community centers, as well as in halls and nightclubs. An important breakthrough in his public career was a concert at the Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, NYC, about 1959. His talent and spirit, the soulful depth of his songs, began to attract attention.
But they also led to criticism within the strictly Orthodox milieu, in which he had his roots. Young men and women mingled freely at his concerts. He was also known for greeting all comers to his concerts, both male and female, with a warm hug—a clear violation of the halakhah against touching girls and women, and fact that gained him notoriety and eventually made him persona non gratis in the yeshiva and Hasidic worlds. In 1959, a rabbi even sent Rav Moshe Feinstein a halakhic query, wondering whether one oughtn’t to forbid the singing of Shlomo’s songs at frum weddings—a suggestion soundly rejected by Rav Moshe (see Iggerot Moshe, Even ha-Ezer, I. §96), who noted that Shlomo was far from being a pagan, but someone who believed in God and Torah but was “a sinner regarding one specific matter, out of impulse.”
According to one account, about this time the Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to task for all this, insisting on separation of the sexes as a cardinal principle of Hasidic outreach. Shlomo replied that, were he to be insistent on this point, he would lose 90% of the potential to reach people. The Rebbe allegedly expressed a certain understanding of his argument, but added “that is not my way,” gave him a certain blessing, and they parted their ways. (Albeit, Shlomo remained deeply attached to the Rebbe and pained by the break; once, around 1967, I attended a 19th Kislev Farbregen at 770 Eastern Parkway and noticed Shlomo, late at night, slipping into the vast hall and staying way at the back. Interestingly, the two of them died within a few months of one another.)
His break with the Orthodox world, in which he had grown up and in which he had innumerable friends, could not have been easy for him. I always felt that it left a deep rent in his soul; at times, there seemed to be a profound loneliness deep in his core. He spoke about that world with a strange combination of bitterness and yearning: bitterness at the manner in which they had misunderstood him and so completely rejected him and his way; and yet yearning, nevertheless, for the sense of holiness he had known there, and for the teachers and rebbes he had so loved. One small example: I once took him, before a Shabbat at Brandeis, to the mikveh at the Bostoner Rebbe’s home. Afterwards I suggested that we go up and say hello to the rebbe, whom he probably had not seen for many years. His answer was something like, “The Rebbe’s a very sweet man, but we don’t have time.” It seemed to me that the thought of confronting one of his acquaintances from those days and that world was uncomfortable to him.
From this point on, we find Shlomo engaging in what might be described as his life work, a story that has been told many times: a one-man program to reach as many Jews throughout the world as possible, using songs, stories, as well as more text-oriented forms of teaching; traveling throughout the United States and the world, to Israel, Europe, Latin America and even to the Soviet Union. During this period, though he certainly continued to grow and create, his basic persona and way of being in the world was essentially that known to many people throughout the next thirty-five years.
Having discussed what appear to be the central turning points in his life, we now turn to what might be called auxiliary questions and subjects, whose history also needs to be written.
First of all, the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. This was a unique institution, a strange, improbable hybrid of hippie commune and Beit midrash/synagogue, which welcomed all, Jew and non-Jew, to participate in their communal life, whose high point was the weekly ecstatic Shabbatot. Over time, a core group of people emerged who had made a certain commitment to a kind of Jewish life: when Shlomo was there, he learned with them, plus with whomever else was ready to listen. The atmosphere was generally rather chaotic, if not anarchic, but filled with love and tolerance, as was de rigeur at that time and place. He developed, for example, a unique style of conducting Shabbat services in a way that could touch the hearts of all those present without any prior knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew, yet satisfied the minimum Halakhic requirements: basically, lots of singing, Hasidic stories, talking, and fast but intense davening and reading of the Torah. How did the House of Love and Prayer start? How did he first reach people within the hippie world? And, the question that probably can never be answered: what was it within him that enabled him to see that these alienated kids would be open to the message of Torah and of Judaism?
At one point, Shlomo had a dream of setting up a yeshiva of a new type, training his hevra to become leaders—rabbis, intensely committed to a traditional Jewish religious life, but with openness and tolerance and without focusing on those extraneous issues on which Orthodox leadership typically gets stuck and drives a wedge between people. Quite a number of his disciples have in fact became rabbi-teachers, and each in their own way has learned to reach out in Shlomo style (I refrain from listing names, to avoid offending by inadvertent omission).
At a later stage, his dream of community shifted to the Land of Israel. There was a brief attempt in the late ‘60s to establish a community in the town of Migdal on the shores of the Kinneret; later (ca. 1975?), a group of his followers, were offered the opportunity to settle at a Poalei Agudah moshav in the central lowlands which had been abandoned by its original settlers. Thus was born Meor Modi’in, which is today home to some fifty families, and perhaps the closest thing to a center of Shlomo’s hevra in Israel, where he himself made his home when in Israel.
Another subject of central importance is Shlomo’s music. Indeed, many people see Shlomo’s legacy primarily as a composer and singer although, as I stated earlier, and as is implicit in everything I’ve written about him both here and elsewhere: it is clear to me that Shlomo saw himself first and foremost as a teacher of Torah, and music as an instrument, a means of touching the heart, rather then as an end in itself. In any event, his was an inborn, intuitive musical genius. With little, if any, formal musical training, without even knowing how to read musical notation properly, he was an inexhaustible wellspring of tunes and songs—melodies that were easily learned by others, but that had real emotional and spiritual depth. What he created may best be described as authentic Hasidic niggunim for the late 20th century.
How is one to describe his music, and where does it fit in terms of the history of Jewish music? This is really a question for a musicologist to define, but it seems to me that he somehow created a new, unique genre. What were the musical models or styles that existed before him? There was traditional hazanut, there were Hasidic niggunim (of which he had a vast knowledge), and there was the new style of music created in Israel, including both folk music and a the new style of synagogue music created on the religious kibbutzim and in the religious Zionist world, which was somehow more joyous, less minor-keyed, than the often lugubrious music created in Eastern Europe. And, of course, there was the whole world of American popular and folk music, which doubtless influenced him. His genius lay in his ability to create a type of music that at once belonged to this new, more optimistic and joyful world, yet at the same time had a deep, soulful, “Hasidic” tone.
His manner of performance was interesting. His concerts were not stiff, formal occasions with distance between the performer and the audience; when he entered he always stopped to greet people and give them a hug before going on stage. Often, a song would begin slow and soulfully, and then he would gradually speed up the pace, start jumping up and down in place, encouraging people to get up and dance with him, on the stage or in the aisles, until the whole place was quite literally jumping.
Shlomo’s voice had unique qualities. It was not a “great voice” in the operatic sense, but there was something in it that conveyed deep emotion, “soul,” and that was somehow uniquely suited to conveying his religious message. There was a sense of a certain melancholy, even tragic undertone, in even the most joyful and rhythmic songs.
Then there is the area of his personal life. Shlomo remained a bachelor for many years, and only married in December 1972, when he was nearly 48. With his wife Neilah he had two daughters, Neshama and Nedara. After a number of years they divorced, but to all accounts this was due more to his life style—Shlomo’s constant traveling, always coming and going, placed great strains on ordinary family life—rather than on any emotional break. They reportedly continued to love one another (He once quipped, “What’s a get between two people who love each other?”), and towards the end thee was talk of them getting together again. Certainly, at this point Neilah, who sees herself more as widow than divorcée, speaks of him in glowing terms, and is busy writing a memoir about him.
Finally, there is the phenomenon that might be called his “life after death.” Since Shlomo’s death in October 1994, there has been a striking surge of interest in his music, in his teaching, and in his path. Numerous “Shlomo minyanim,” synagogues which use his melodies for Kabbalat Shabbat and the other prayers, and something of his informal, open style, have sprung up all over the Jewish world. Numerous books have been published of his teaching; there is a plethora of new CDs of his songs, including both remakes of old recordings in his voice, and of others singing his songs; every year there is a memorial concert of his songs, which fills to capacity the largest hall in Jerusalem; a TV film and Broadway musical based upon his life are currently in the works; etc. Some of it is kitsch, but much of it bears the hallmark of authenticity. People who never met him somehow see him as their teacher; for example, the other night at the memorial at Yakar perhaps a third of those present were young people who only knew him by hearsay. All of these ultimately reflect the power of his message—a message, at once utterly simple yet profoundly deep, of how to serve God, in this “post-modern” age, through love and joy.