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Carlebach’s Broken Mirror

Shlomo Carlebach, who died 18 years ago this week, was a reflection of the pain of post-Holocaust Jewry

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“Jerry Garcia never existed,” an academic colleague and fellow Deadhead once told me. “He was merely the figment of Robert Hunter’s imagination.” Robert Hunter, of course, was the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and many of the words and the persona that we associate with Garcia—the bearded “rebbe” of the counter-culture, in his simple black T-shirt and Cheshire grin—were Hunter’s inventions. When we remember Jerry Garcia, we remember the myth that Robert Hunter made, and that Garcia enacted.

This dynamic comes to mind when I think about Shlomo Carlebach, especially this week, as we commemorate his 18th yahrzeit. There are some individuals, such as the Baal Shem Tov, who become myths after they are gone, and others whose lives and the myth surrounding them overlap such that the person loses historical relevance. If this sounds flaky, or fantastical, it is because it is. But that is the way myths are; they become ciphers, mirrors, for all whom they touch.

Shlomo Carlebach was a man, a husband, father, friend, itinerant preacher. But that is not the Carlebach that most of his admirers remember. Most remember him as a mirror: They saw in him what they wanted him to be, or what they imagined themselves to be. There is a teaching from Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, on the biblical verse, Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand … and gaze after Moses until he went to the Tent. (Exodus 33.8). “Everyone sees himself in the righteous one (zaddik),” Dov Baer wrote. “Therefore, they suspected Moses was guilty of adultery (since he had separated from his wife). But in fact it was they who were guilty [of adultery] with the mixed multitude. [When they gazed at Moses] they saw themselves in the zaddik and thus suspected him.” Rabbi Dov Baer suggests this is the core, and tragedy, of a leader: His (or her) selfhood is lost in the aspirations, expectations, and limitations of those “who gaze upon him.”

Who, then, was Shlomo Carlebach? He was a broken man who embodied a broken people. He was a hopeful man who served as a mirror for members of the post-Holocaust generation that desperately needed to believe in the future. He was the rebbe of brokenness and hope.

***

Carlebach’s doubleness is embodied in the two central figures who influenced his thinking: Nahman of Bratslav, the genius of brokenness; and Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Ishbitz, the teacher of hope. Nahman stood like few others on the “narrow bridge” between “fire and ice.” For him it was only faith, in all is absurdity, that saved us from the abyss. And it was Mordecai Joseph Leiner who questioned divine will in light of human desire. In Leiner’s radical teaching, Shlomo found a crevasse where the human can protest against the norms of reality; where we can act for the sake of heaven against the raging machine of our fated existence. In Nahman, Shlomo found the paradox of faith in a broken world. In Mordechai Joseph, he found holy sanction for protest.

Shlomo was talking to two very different communities and, in doing so, brought them together in fascinating ways. The first was the generation of Holocaust survivors, people who survived the darkness of evil only to have to live out their lives in the darkness of despair. To them he gave Nahman and affirmed that the world gives little reason to live except for the narrow bridge on which we all stand. To the next generation, the generation of what he called “holy hippies” he gave Mordecai Joseph’s sanction to protest (“God wants your heart”) and then listen to it, even if it may sometimes bring you to fight truth to power, political or religious. These are two communities that in principle stand in opposition to one another: the survivors who ask for continuity, and the hippies who protest for change. For both of them, Shlomo was their narrow bridge; he showed each how they needed the another. The generation of survivors needed to see that while the Holocaust broke the spirit of the Jewish people, the spiritual vocation of the next generation was not survival but renewal.

In doing this double work, Carlebach’s own personhood was erased in the shadows of hagiography. But this was mostly his own doing. He was one of those charismatics who could only really be intimate in large crowds. Everyone felt they knew him because in some sense they “gazed at him”—and saw themselves. His tragedy, like the tragedy of Moses, is that no one knew him because he sacrificed his own opportunity to know himself in order to be a mirror for others. Or, perhaps, he absorbed so much hurt that he needed others to see themselves through him to ease his own pain.

He told fantastical stories about a prewar Jewish world that never existed. He knew that. We knew that. But it didn’t matter. His friend and colleague Zalman Schachter-Shalomi called Shlomo “The Master of Virtuous Reality.” The colorful and fantastical characters in his stories became interchangeable with the teller of those stories. “Black Wolf,” “Yossele the Holy Miser,” “Moshele the Ganev”—they were all refracted images of Shlomo. That’s why they were so convincing. That is why they were so real. Through his imagination he represented a postwar remnant of a lost world of oral culture, of bygone days when inspirational teachers traveled the dirt roads between towns and villages taking small sums of money to preach in synagogues across Eastern Europe. While he took jumbo jets (he often recounted proudly flying on the Concorde), he largely lived and died the life of those lost itinerants, again and again. Night after night.

But Shlomo was more than simply a weaver of “virtuous reality.” He changed the way many Jews related to their tradition and their world, arguably something that only an itinerant—whose fleeting influence carries its own power—can accomplish. He seemed unable, or unwilling, to remain in one place; he was lost as easily as discovered, he passionately advocated a strong commitment to tradition just as easily as he advocated a passionate call for change. This fleeting quality also marked the inconsistency of his thought. He was a defender of tradition who was also iconoclast, someone who took two seemingly disparate worlds (Eastern European Hasidism and the American counter-culture) and made them one, so much so that today we unconsciously view one through the lens of the other.

Shlomo created for his listeners a vision of old-world Hasidism that was unapologetic yet inoffensive, a Hasidism that was as ahistorical as he was, a fantastical world he constructed in his fertile imagination. Shlomo brought many souls back to “traditional” Judaism by making Judaism untraditional. Hasidism was arguably for a short period of time a rebellious and nonconformist protest movement against rabbinic Judaism in Eastern Europe, but it had long ago conformed to the dictates of rabbinic authority and by the 20th century, it was quiet, conservative, even reactionary. But Shlomo, himself a product not of Eastern Europe but of German Orthodoxy, embraced what he believed was Hasidism’s rebellious inner voice. He let the American counter-culture serve as the frame and his idiosyncratic vision of Hasidism as the substance of his new American Jewish piety. In short, he turned Judaism inside out.

In the early years of the House of Love and Prayer that he founded in the late 1960s in San Francisco, there was heated discussion about whether the prayer space should have a mehitzah, a barrier separating men and women required in Orthodox Judaism. Aryae Coopersmith, co-founder of the House, recounts the following in Holy Beggars: “I don’t know if I told you this. … When I called Shlomo to tell him that I rented a house for the House of Love and Prayer, I asked him if he wanted a mehitzah in the prayer room. He laughed and said, ‘There are enough walls in this world between people. What we’re here to do is tear them down.’ ” Carlebach looked at the landscape of American Judaism in the 1960s and saw a world scattered with walls: between Jew and non-Jew, between one Jewish denomination and another, between European Holocaust survivors and their children who could never understand their experiences, between the rabbis intent on reproducing a Judaism of the past and a generation just as intent on subverting it, between an older generation of Jews not quite comfortable in America and a younger generation that was fully American. He embodied the hopelessness of the survivors (of which he was one) and the audacity of the hippies.

A classic example of Shlomo’s post-Holocaust humanism is the story he often told about the 20th-century Hasidic master R. Hayyim Shapira of Munkatch (d. 1936), who (as the story goes) gave his disciple a blank piece of paper soaked in his tears to serve as his “passport” to travel from Poland to Germany just before World War II. When the Munkatcher disciple handed a Nazi border guard this blank piece of paper, the guard saluted him and sent for a car to escort him to his destination in Germany. Fantasy? Insanity? Certainly. But what would it take to do such a thing? To stare hatred in the face with the belief that hatred can (always) be erased, even the hatred of a Nazi border guard. Shlomo believed naively that hatred between people was the result of a wall constructed out of fear. If we could tear down “the walls” or make believe they do not exist, people’s humanity would shine through.

But in this story, Shlomo was not the Munkatcher rebbe—or his Hasid. Shlomo was the passport, the blank piece of paper. The story of the Munkatcher passport is about traversing borders and erasing them, about how we create boundaries, between peoples, between communities, inside families—and in doing so foment hatred and alienation. Shlomo taught that national hatred is an extension of the hatred of the ones closest to you. Human history is refracted through the sibling and family hatred that stands at the center of the Hebrew Bible: from Cain and Abel, to Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Korah. And in some way, this hatred, different in degree but not in kind, is the hatred that surfaced in the Holocaust and also in the hatred and fear that Jews could have of the world because of the Holocaust. For Shlomo, to perpetuate this fear would accomplish nothing. Yet he also spoke of the militant rabbi Meir Kahane and the radical settlers as Jewish heroes. He was a mirror, a blank piece of paper, a broken vessel. He was torn inside.

As a result each of his followers heard what he or she wanted and constructed him in their image. The Orthodox offer one reading, the neo-Hasidim another, Diaspora Jews another, Israeli Jews another; leftists read him one way, Jewish militants another. The point is none of them really know, for the simple reason that Shlomo himself did not know. Perhaps he sacrificed knowing himself in order to survive. Perhaps lived in the lonely space from meeting to meeting. All he knew was the pain of each life he encountered and the dark cloud that hovered above his own soul. And joining others to his own pain, he understood that to really know another person one must know oneself. And knowing oneself was simply impossible. As a result, everything is possible.

No sketch of Shlomo’s impact on contemporary Judaism can avoid the fact that he led a checkered and, in many ways, problematic life, much of it on the road. Allegations and refutations about Shlomo’s personal life—of which there are many—are also part of a complex fabric of who he was: inspiring, charismatic, broken, and lonely, just like the people who were influenced by him.

In the final years before his untimely death at age 69, Shlomo used to come every few months to Waban, a suburb of Boston, to teach and sing to a small group of us at the home of a gracious host. A good friend and I used to tape all these sessions. In the autumn of 1994, just a few weeks before his death, Shlomo was strapping on his guitar and taking his seat, while I was kneeling next to him, taping our microphone to the microphone that was being used for amplification. As he was sitting down, characteristically tired yet uncharacteristically weak, he said to no one in particular, “OK, hevre, let’s pretend we’re happy.” I may have been the only one who heard it. It struck me as the quintessence of his life, the narrows between utter brokenness and the unwillingness to give in to despair. Nahman in one pocket, Mordecai Joseph Leiner in the other.

My sense is that while Shlomo lived a life more or less in accordance with Orthodox halakha, he did not believe that Jewish law was ultimately the glue to heal a broken people or a broken world. After all, for him it was not only the Jews who were broken after the Holocaust; humanity itself was broken. His emotive reaction seems to reflect Hannah Arendt when she argued in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Holocaust was not a “crime against the Jewish people” but a crime against humanity “on the body of the Jewish people.” While Shlomo may not have openly agreed with this locution, he did believe that the world, and not only the Jews, was shattered by this event. Law may keep a people together but it will not heal them, and it will certainly not heal the world. What mattered to him was the human relation, the ability of one human being to see the other, the recognition of the other’s humanity.

For Plato, evil was largely a product of ignorance. For Shlomo, hatred was largely a consequence of certainty. The more we think we know (about ourselves, about others) the more solid the borders between us become. Law is intended in the rabbinic tradition to create boundaries; as the sages teach in “Ethics of the Fathers,” “make a fence around the Torah.” As I understand Shlomo, after the Holocaust, fences would just not do. He bequeathed a “Judaism of uncertainty” (“what do we know?” was his catchphrase) so that everything could be reviewed and revised, in the spirit of love and not separation, on compassion and not exclusion. It is for this reason I view him as the itinerant preacher for a post-Judaism age. The Judaism of the old world—the Judaism that cared only about its own people, its survival, its exceptionalist relation to God—is not the Judaism I believe Shlomo ultimately preached.

But he was a mirror for me as well. Others will certainly disagree. Admittedly he was torn, conflicted; he led a public and private life full of contradictions. But in the end he dreamed of a “Judaism without walls.” That was his messianic fantasy. Carlebach the man left this world in 1994. He is mourned by his loved ones, his family, and the few with whom he was close. “Shlomo” the myth, the mirror, the blank piece of paper, never left, because he never existed. He continues to affirm despair and preach the absurdity of faith, to sanction protest as the only true expression of hope.

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disqus_8IBCJX4eqk says:

A checkered life? That is stating it rather mildly. For some of the serious claims of sexual abuse by this charismatic teacher, see http://www.lilith.org/landmark_articles/carlebach_lilithsp98.pdf

    gwhepner says:

    The world is broken. Can’t we emphasize the positive and set aside the negative, and not try to come between a great man and his enormous achievements? How ill the broken world be repaired in any way if we always dwell on the negative?

      How will the broken world be repaired if we don’t talk about what needs to be fixed?

        gwhepner says:

        Talking about negatives won’t help them be fixed unless you appreciate the positive. Shlomo was a religion genius, as Alon Goshen-Gottstein has pointed out, and needs to be seen in this perspective, and not evaluated like a character in the tabloid press.

    Because I know about his sexual abuse of young women, which utterly disgusts me, I simply cannot accept the trend in New Age and Renewal congregations who have adopted his nugunim as part of their service celebrations. I find this repugnant. I cannot sing the tunes of a sexual harasser and abuser of women.

    Shaul Magid says:

    Just for the record, when this came out in Lilith yars ago and there was a firestorm of protest against the women who accused Shlomo of sexual impropriety, I published a letter in Lilith defending those woman against their critics and argued we have to be honest about Shlomo’s behavior in these matters.

      Lilith is a magazine of women who refuse to heal and elevate their suffering to a religion. To wait after Shlomo took off to bring this out is a travesty and betrays their integrity. I don’t doubt that their were serious issues, but no one, never, has had the courage to address the issue beyond their enduring rage. For them everything is black and white. See the comments above.

Dear Rabbi,

I only have a post graduate degree, so do you think you can write this in something that i can understand? What ever happened to writing so us regular folk can understand and appreciate your thoughts?

    Sometimes you have to work harder to understand and not be so American to have everything reduced to simplicity and spook fed as a sound bite. Red it over three times and if you don’t understand it still then you understand that you have to work to do go up rather than bring it down. This is the definition of Jewish learning.

gwhepner says:

WHAT DO WE KNOW?

“What do we know?” must be the only

question that a man of faith can ask.

Since it’s his answer, he is lonely,

asking and not answering his task.

Inthe process he’ll be breaking walls

that fear creates in many others,

deaf, because of walls, of all the calls

that cry out: “All men must be brothers.”

Every answer that is offered is a token

of ignorance. We need to know

this question-answer, since the world is broken,

and the cracks will always show.

The Munkatcher’s response, his tears,

showed with our lives it’s hard to cope.

Shlomo’s was not being in arrears

withsong and laughter and a grain of hope.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

Beautifu. Thank you.

evanstonjew says:

This wonderful article has taught me much about Shaul Magid, an author who I never fully appreciated until now. Looking forward to the forthcoming book.

An inspiring and charismatic figure, which only further re-enforces my suspicion of charisma. When I interviewed for admission to rabbinical seminary, an amazing, glowing, brilliant, beautiful rabbi sat on the panel. Everything about him moved me. I was awed. No, I was devastated; is this what it takes to be a rabbi? I could never be that! That person haunted me. Six months later in yeshiva the lashon hara reached us, “Did you hear about Rabbi __________ – sleeping with multiple congregants, teenage girls!…” A humiliation, a betrayal, and a tragedy for the people affected, a huge relief to me. Charisma is a curse and a plague in a religious community. Hevra, if you meet the messiah on the road, don’t kill him, but always, always, keep your guard up and never turn your back to him.

Tech Enthusiast says:

No, do not set aside the negative. Mention it along with the positive. This article hides the negative which is a disservice.

    Agree! In 2012, following documentation in the Lilith magazine article (linked to earlier by disqus_8IBCJX4eqk), testimony of women, and vast material available publicly, I think the author did a disservice to readers and to Shlomo, too, by merely hinting at universal human contradictions and failings.

    Written by a true ‘tech enthusiast’, not a spirit soul. Look into your own morror.

      Tech Enthusiast says:

      Moshe Peach Geller, perhaps G-d’s finger caused your typo to ask me to look into my own Moror – because your comments all over this discussion are filled with the bitterness that mirrors the bitter herb we eat at pesach – which you have taken for your middle name. You are bitter because your hero is not only human, but has done some horrible things and you are unwilling to face that – so you strike out at others to say, you are imperfect too. But if you are asking me to look in the mirror, I do see an imperfect human – but I do not see a sexual predator.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was a very great man.

Some may see a paradox between how much he accomplished and his imperfections.

I was taught that the greater the person the stronger his evil inclination.

I know he flirted with my mother once, I think she understood it as a proposition.

He probably did not always follow Judaism’s prohibitions.

But in the ocean of suffering that the Holocaust created there were very few if any that could heal the pain like he could.

In the Torah we often have stories of our greatest heroes with flaws.

The Torah is especially great because it teaches from a human rather than a magical point of view.

Mensch, Mensch, Mensch, always fallible no matter what, charisma’s other side indeed.

Baruch says:

I think missing from article is enough emphasis of Shlomo’s essence embodied in his deep musical creations that are to this day transformative. Where as Rav Avi Weiss said at his funeral, Shlomo’s music approached the sound of the Leviim singing in the Holy Temple with the shechinah present. Yes, he was a flawed tzaddik of our generation, like so many tzaddikim, not perfect but loved his fellow man, and uplifted so many to feel better about themselves, and caused many to return to their Jewish identities.

His music and story telling transports our souls , allows us to experience the essence of Jewish spirituality. His niggunim more popular today , like the great artists who are appreciated more after death. His love was for traditional Judaism, Hasidism, halachah and not deconstructionist & renewal though all Jews no matter their background or predilications were welcome in his presence. Though he was totally innovative in his approach to orthodox observance. He was a holy beggar like his followers a holy hippelah, til the end, whose purpose in life was “nachamu ami ” a comforter to his people, who at once was deepest of the deep, sad inside , bore the pain of personal failures , the holocaust, terror attacks, Israel’s wars and yet brought joy and hope, Thus his music embodies the Jewish world experience, its painful history and presence of hope for the future..

Baruch shmuel friedman

He took my Mother out on a date. She was dirt poor living in France he was on a tour and they went out.

It was a nice meeting he gave her an envelope from her parents living in Brooklyn. She opened it after the date , it was like $300 which she desperately needed .

In those days you didnt just pick up a phone so she wrote a letter to her parents thanking them for sending the money. They wrote her back back , “what money?” ..SHlomo knew she was struggling and wanted to help…

No one knows this story because my mother just mentioned it to me as an aside.

You cant get more of a random sampling than that..that to me illustrates who the man really is.

barry wicksman says:

HE WAS A GREAT ENTERTAINER AND INSPIRATIONAL STORY TELLER.
HOWEVER ,I WAS SHOCKED WHEN I READ THAT HE MOLESTED YOUNG WOMEN. WHY DIDN’T HIS TORAH STUDY PREVENT HIM FROM BEING THIS WAY. HE WAS A RABBI. OY VEY.

its crazy that anyone listens to his music when connecting to the almighty – i am sorry but its unacceptable and truly shows how much of a fog the jewish people are realluy in. the man molested little girls :( – what is wrong with everyone – when do you put your foot down and say – that’s enough! i am sorry – but his children wear his sins and what needs to happen is a public apology and sincere teshuvah for his sins – this man need not be glorified! we need to say he was a sexual predator and murdered souls :( – i am sorry and feel awful for his family but i fell more awful for a confused generation of Jews who have no leader and have to be exposed to something so tainted – its bizarre – this hiding and pretending that he was so great!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Stop it and stop playing his music – whether you like it or not – listening to his music is like exposing the soul to treif (do not want even say what i really mean) lets say this is a problem and lets address it and then lets move on. this needs to be put to rest but first we need to speak the truth and no he was no a great leader – he used his charisma to abuse women and he DID IT IN THE NAME OF TORAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SHAME ON HIM AND SHAME ON EVERYONE WHO ALLOWS THIS TZADDIK FALSEHOOD TO BE PERPETUATED.

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Carlebach’s Broken Mirror

Shlomo Carlebach, who died 18 years ago this week, was a reflection of the pain of post-Holocaust Jewry