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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

Shaul Magid
November 01, 2012
(Carlebach Shul/Flickr)
(Carlebach Shul/Flickr)

“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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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible The Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

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