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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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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

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?

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

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?

Beautifu. Thank you.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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