Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s Gift to Our Generation

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An Essay by R’ Yaakov Klein

I am not sure which creative medium should be used in attempt to reflect on one’s relationship with the universe of spirit embodied by Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l, but the glaring inadequacy of words to succeed in this difficult task is very clear. It seems that perhaps, in their wordless beauty, only his own niggunim can possibly portray the confounding complexity of a man whose musical, spiritual, and educational legacy, in a brushstroke of divine irony, lies in its utter simplicity.

Nevertheless, the rarity of the soul which can perceive the messages concealed in melody, coupled with an intense craving to express the feelings coursing through my heart on Reb Shlomo’s twenty-fifth yahrtzeit require that I put down the guitar and pick up a pen in the hope of  capturing a glimmer of what this man means to me in a generation that is in a many ways so different, and yet in many others so similar to the one in which he lived, sang, spoke, danced, loved, inspired, transformed, created, struggled, and persevered.

Although he left this world almost exactly one month before I entered it, Reb Shlomo Carlebach completely altered the course of my life. I was first introduced to his music, and then to his teachings by a rebbe in yeshiva (to whom I am eternally grateful) who would often say, “People say Reb Shlomo was a great composer. Little do they know that music was his smallest talent.”  And how right he was. The genius of Reb Shlomo’s phenomenal communication abilities lay both in his simplicity and sincerity. Never in my life had I heard anyone speak about Hashem with so much conviction. Never in my life had I heard anyone speak about the tzaddikim with such love and awe. Later, when I began to read and watch as much as I possibly could about Reb Shlomo in order to contextualize the living voice, decades dead and gone, coming through my headphones, it became clear to me that I had never heard of a person whose actions so precisely reflected what he preached.

While the range of opinion regarding the degree to which the actions of Reb Shlomo Carlebach were incongruent with those of a normative rabbi spans almost as enormous a spectrum as the conflicting worlds in which he operated, all agree that this man was unlike any other rabbi of his time. Indeed, the message he carried was unlike that of any rabbi of his time. To say the least, he didn’t preach standard pulpit fare, and mystery inevitably hovers over the loose ends he chose not to, didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t tie.

But those lessons he did preach, those themes that together form the theological basis for decades worth of his recorded teachings and storytelling all around the globe, were lessons with which his soul was one. The depth of his connection to Yiddishkeit – through good times and difficult phases, both the ups and downs of a human experience intensified a thousandfold by the singular circumstances of a life unparalleled in its remarkability – is simply unfathomable. With every song, story, and teaching I heard, it became clearer and clearer to me that this was a man to whom Yiddishkeit – not in its commercialized, idealized form, but in its most honest, raw, and relevant iteration– was the most important thing in the entire world. It was this sincerity that opened my heart to the treasures of our deep and beautiful tradition in a way that nothing before ever did, and nothing since ever could.

Aside from the general folly involved in attempting to evaluate and define Reb Shlomo’s inner world from any perspective because of the ambiguity of the age and the dearth of factual information, doing so from a perspective that isn’t deeply rooted in the ideological universe of the Baal Shem Tov is like trying to weigh a suitcase with a ruler, or, to use the Ba’al HaTanya’s parable, attempting to grasp a thought with one’s hand. It was in the Baal Shem Tov’s world where yearning, brokenness, joy, humility, kindness, simplicity, faith, love of Jews, prayer, and desire were granted utmost import in any assessment of closeness with Hashem that Reb Shlomo was so firmly rooted. With every breath, he breathed the air of 16th century Medzibozh, the radical truths of a pre-institutionalized Chassidic spirit that so greatly kindled the flames of a spiritually parched generation.

It is not despite his struggles or even failings (the degree of which, again, is a matter of near-irresolvable contention) that Reb Shlomo Carlebach had and continues to have such a colossal impact on our generation, but because of them. The question of whether or not Reb Shlomo Carlebach was a tzaddik aside, he certainly never claimed such a title. He was quite open about the complexity of his approach, and the nature of his experience on the narrow bridge a Jew must walk in this world. However, the afflictions of his post-Holocaust trauma, isolation, wandering, social persecution and their myriad effects on every aspect of his expansive personality were his greatest blessing, because it was those elements which imbued his teachings about hope, prayer, love, and joy amidst suffering with a genuine and authentic quality. His singing wasn’t a performance just as his teachings weren’t lectures. His love wasn’t a charade, just as his hope wasn’t without challenges to be overcome. It is clear to all those with a heart of flesh that Reb Shlomo Carlebach succeeded in planting a wondrous garden of optimism, sacrifice, love, connection, holy desire, striving, joy, and refusal to despair – in the dark and fearful Vacant Space that occupied the center of his enormous heart.

Perhaps it is this stark sincerity that enabled Reb Shlomo to experience such popularity in his generation, and, to an even larger extent (a truly remarkable feat) in ours, twenty-five years after he left thousands of heavenly melodies, an entire body of Torah thought, and many unanswered questions behind in the olam hafuch we inhabit. Much like the counterculture youth of his era, (although in a far more healthy, contained, and subtle way), today’s generation is seeking something very honest, open, and relevant. Strugglers, failures, sometimes even sinners ourselves, we are willing to dig deep beneath the surface and embrace the paradoxes we find – eschewing the binary thinking of simpler minds in the knowledge that, were that same thinking to be applied in our own circumstances, all hope would be lost.

I shudder to imagine where I would be without Reb Shlomo Carlebach and his teachings. His ahavas Yisrael, joy, compassion, niggunim, and Torah have immeasurably enriched every aspect of my life and avodas Hashem; bein adam l’atzmo, bein adam l’chaveiro, and bein adam l’Makom. His commitment to Hashem and infatuation with the spirit of Yiddishkeit represent one of the mighty foundations upon which my own strivings are built. His exuberant message has taught me how to begin planting a garden in the Vacant Space I call my own.

With no precedent in Jewish history to rely on and the necessary ambiguity of conflicting impressions that will never disappear, I may not always know what title to put before or after Reb Shlomo’s name. But this itself (aside from its essential insignificance) is reflective of his spiritual message; a messagethat is humble and honest enough to address struggle and failure,and to chart a course for utilizing these very obstacles as stepping-stones to greater yearning, authenticity, and devotion to the Master of the world.

{Matzav.com}

33 COMMENTS

  1. No need to open a can of worms, but Shlomo Carlebach is not a considered a gadol in the main stream Torah world.
    Enough said.

    • First of all why do you need to say your opinion and call it main stream Torah world?
      Also you have to be more specific when you write your opinion. “t Shlomo Carlebach is not a considered a gadol…”
      A gadol in Mussar?
      A Gadol in Halacha?
      A Gadol in Chinuch?
      A Gadol in kiruv?
      A Gadol in Chizzuk?
      A Gadol in reaching lost neshomos?
      A Gadol in psychology?
      A Gadol in story telling?
      A Gadol in Machshava?
      A Gadol in Chessed?
      A Gadol in ‘Hartz’?
      A Gadol in Hergesh?
      A Gadol in music?
      A Gadol in song?

      In my ‘main stream Torah world’ he was, and still is, a godol in some of those!

    • In the world of neo-Chasidus, from which Yaakov Klein comes, they have their own ideas.

      But Yaakov shouldn’t be so sure that he grasps Shlomo entirely, since (by his own admission) he was not even born when Shlomo walked the earth, and never met him.

      • For some reason it seems like those “own ideas” are spreading like wildfire and helping alot of neshomes. what does being on the earth when shloime was alive have to do? He says he changed his life, obviously he experienced him deeply. so nobody can write a biography about someone from a different century?

    • The author of this article (who was quite objective) articulated quite magnificently that the matter of his tzidkus was not his defining quality but rather his sincerity was. Most of the people who are invlolved in kiruv or harbatzas torah are (probably) not gedolim. I am not a tsaddik by any means and I have been successful in bringing people closer to yidishkeit on my own small level. In fact, I recently discussed opening a Moysad in Eretz Yisrael with a Gadol and he agreed to give me a written Haskamah. He knows that I am not a tsaddik or a gadol. In fact, I am probably quite average in my hasmadah and personal yiras shamayim. Despite his knowledge of my “madreiga”, he empowered me to be influential upon klal yisrael.
      You don’t have to be a gadol batorah in order to impact klal yisrael, you have to be a genuine ben torah and ben Aliyah (and you will have success despite your personal struggles). You have to be a REAL yid. Your continued growth will obviously improve your ability to impact those around you, but not being a gadol batorah does not mean you are not special as a Jew.
      The yeshiva world unfortunately focuses a bit too much on his ( either rumored or verified) personal shortcomings. Enough with the lashon Harah. Ein mesaprim achar hames. Appreciate his positive qualities that you can learn from and ignore the noise. He was a special yid. Period.

  2. Shlomo did not experience much popularity in his lifetime. Definitely not from the yeshivishe or chassidishe community. Many people who enjoy his music today would not have followed him in his lifetime. You might have been one of them.

  3. Thank you, Mr SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT. I was planning on saying Tehillim at Reb Shlomo’s gravesite, but your succinct words of wisdom has shown me the error of my ways. What in the world would we do without people like you who cannot keep their mouth shut, when they have nothing good to say.

  4. Actually he was a huge Ben Torah and he was a masmid. But his gift to Klal Yisroel was his heart which he delivered thru his niggunim. He was huge in Kiruv Rechokim and quite successful at that. We may not all agree on his methods, but he was successful and well meaning.
    The fact remains that there is no Simcha or kumzitz that doesn’t end up singing his niggunim. That is the best proof of his acceptance by Klal Yisroel (whether Chassidim, Misnagdim, Sephardim, etc)
    Yehi Zichro Boruch.

  5. “With every breath, he breathed the air of 16th century Medzibozh”

    16th century?? I don’t know if there were any Jews even there then.

  6. IF YOU TRY TO VISUALIZE HOW A MOTZEI SHABBOS SLICHOS LOOKED LIKE (WHEN I WAS A CHILD) ONLY FORTY YEARS AGO, & WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE TODAY (& YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN AS SEEN ON MATZAV), THEN YOU COULD TELL ME WHAT SHLOMO ACCOMPLISHED. “”VHAMAVEN YOUVEN””

    SIGNED BY

    A NORMAL CHASIDISHA YID FROM BORO PARK

  7. As is known, Yaakov Klein is a writer from the Neo-Chasidus movement led by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger of YU and Woodmere.

    He has written books with Berditchever and Breslover teachings.

    Now he is putting Shlomo Carlebach on a pedestal as he puts Rebbe Nachman, Lubavitch, etc.

    It is not really a great surprise, however, as Neo-Chasidus is strongly connected to the movement in Eretz Yisroel which promotes Chabakuk – חב”ד, ברסלב, (רב) קוק, (שלמה) קרליבך.

  8. For your info,
    Dave,
    Most biographies are written full of praise about leaders, simpletons, rebbes, etc. by authors who were born after them & never met them.
    Anonymous,
    As one who lived, followed & attended many concerts of Reb Shlomo, be aware that half the participants were bnei & Bnos Torah of the 60, 70s & 80s. Some who are in leadership roles today.
    Always best to allow the final judgement to be made by the Kings of Kings, in the heavenly court.
    Well-written & an introspective article!

  9. Growing up I went to main stream yeshivos. Yet, In many ways I consider Reb Shlomo one of my greatest Rabeim.
    Why?
    Because Reb Shlomo’s messages, Torah, stories, Nusach, Negunim, Ahava, personal suffering, openness with challenges, shaped my mindset In the most significant of ways. He gave me tools to be truthful with myself, see the truth in others, honest about our feelings, Connecting to the joys of Yiddishkiet, Understanding how to be a yid, simply how to breath life into our lives and how much we need to know that A loving approach always wins.
    It’s not just about what we do but how we do it.
    When we look at someone, what do we see? Do we see a beautiful Tzelem Elokim or do we see a flawed individual.
    Whether or not someone met him in person makes absolutely no difference. His Teaching will live on and continue to inspire, even those who publicly fight against it.
    It’s not our place to give him a title or judge him, But we can have Hakoras Hatov for the Benefits and gifts he gave to our world.
    The style may not be to one’s liking, and that’s totally fine. That doesn’t mean that for someone else there was not great benefit.
    May hashem continue to open or hearts to the Shefa Elyon.

  10. I’m shocked by some of the comments, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise me because from my understanding people always had visceral and passionate responses to Reb Shlomo and this legacy continues. I just wanted to say what an incredibly beautiful, articulate, poetic and heartfelt article. I’m blessed to be a member of the Happy Minyan in Los Angeles. Every shabbat I am joyously ensconced in a magical place that celebrates the music and Torahs of Reb Shlomo and the Torahs of all the great Tzaddikim. What I have learned most is to find the BEAUTY IN EVERY JEW AND EVERY PERSON. aAyin Tov, so see the world through mashiach eyes, or as Reb Shomo said, through the eyes of “shabbos”. Any Rebbe who prefaced his Torahs with “open up your hearts” is my kind of Rebbe. I personally never met Reb Shlomo but I resonate with his dedication to bring Jews back to their source with love and acceptance. May Hashem bless everyone who took the time to write and denigrate the name of Reb Shlomo be blessed with the newfound ability to see the GOOD in themselves and all others. Reb Shlomo often quoted one of my favorite masters, Reb Levi of Berditchev, who always, always, always looked for the good in his fellow Jew. May we all be blessed to do the same. Amen! Thanks you again Yakov for your huge talent. Regardless of how people felt about the article, you are such a TALENTED writer and it’s been a pleasure to be introduced to your work. Blessings that you continue to inspire others to connect to Hashem in authentic, loving and empowering ways! Amen!

  11. I love the music, find it inspiring, and is always able to lift me up emotionally and spiritually. However, to look at it as any more than that is ridiculous.

  12. Very well written. There is not one individual Jew today who is not in someway or another impacted positively by this great man and trailblazer. He left us with about 600 masterful niggunim, whose popularity are the result of the hartz that implanted in them. The maxim “devarim hayotzimmin halev nichnasim el halev” applies to music as well. His music is eternal and will never die. People, even youngsters, are slowly realizing that today’s Jewsh music just doesn’t do anything for them, and they are turning to his wonderful creations, which are an amazing blend of Chassidic, Litvish, and even Teimani music (take becha batchu and esa einai for an example) filtered through his heart that was overflowing with love. The void he filled — both with his compelling music and his kiruv rechokim — is enormous. I knew him. There will never be any like him. Yehi zichro baruch!

  13. As the Navi tells us when Shmuel Hanavi admonishes Shaul Hamelech, G-d does not want your animal sacrifices, but rather to heed the word of Hashem.
    Some things make us feel good in our yiddishkeit, but a good jew is defined as one who strictly follows halacha, not “Feel Good” Judaism.

  14. Very well written. There is not one individual Jew today who is not in someway or another impacted positively by this great man and trailblazer. He left us with about 600 masterful niggunim, whose popularity are the result of the hartz that implanted in them. The maxim “devarim hayotzimmin halev nichnasim el halev” applies to music as well. His music is eternal and will never die. People, even youngsters, are slowly realizing that today’s Jewsh musicjust doesn’t do anything for them, and they are turning to his wonderful creations, which are an amazing blend of Chassidic, Litvish, and even Teimani music (take becha batchu and esa einai for an example) filtered through his heart that was overflowing with love. The void he filled — both with his compelling music and his kiruv rechokim — is enormous. I knew him. There will never be anyone like him. Yehi zichro baruch!

  15. that his schizophrenically paradoxical lifestyle is somewhat representative of many Millennials and Generation Z may explain the subconscious Source of his becoming a hero to so many presently

  16. At his Shul today in Manhattan they struggle to get a minyan on Shabbos (see report in 5TJT, issue of this past Sept. 27, In the Bagel Store, starting on p. 4, archived online at their site). His moshav was in very bad shape very recently, although now, after the spring fire, it has gotten new support.

    He was a very talented and complicated man, but the portrait painted by Yaakov Klein here is overdrawn.

    I saw Shlomo, I didn’t just dream up a fantasy figure like Yaakov did.

    כל המוסיף גורע

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