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Shlomo Carlebach

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As we approach Pesach I know I am going to sing tunes I learnt from Shlomo Carlebach, the “singing rabbi”, the Jewish version of Bob Dylan, the Jewish voice of the hippy, love generation. He had an amazing talent for the simple, catchy tune and he has had a bigger influence on Jewish liturgical music, across the denominations, than anyone else I can think of. In life he was reviled as much as he was adored. In death he has become something of a holy man, and there’s even an off-Broadway musical about his life. I have heard him referred to as “the Saintly One”.

Most people are flawed, and the Talmud says, “The bigger the man, the greater the temptation.” So the question that intrigues me is why, in this age of increasing strictness and religious hagiography in very Orthodox circles, has Carlebach overcome the negatives and become such an icon? Why, when the ultra-Orthodox rabbis of this generation are so against concerts of neo-Hasidic music, religious pop, men and women being in the same hall together, let alone singing together, is Shlomo, who transgressed and indeed initiated a lot of this, experiencing, admittedly after he died, such sanctification?

He was born into well-known German rabbinic dynasty. The family fled the Nazis and he ended up in New York at just about the time when the Lubavitcher Rebbe made Orthodox outreach fashionable. Although not a Hasid, Shlomo came under the influence of the Rebbe. He started as an Orthodox singing evangelist, fusing Hasidic music with American pop. His musical talent was recognized. During the fifties, his records could be found in most Orthodox homes and his tunes were universal.

I first met him in England in the early sixties. Despite being known in Jewish circles, he was a journeyman, a wandering minstrel traveling the Jewish circuits, campuses and synagogues, a lone figure with his guitar, bravely trying to warm up and enthuse reserved audiences. Jewry was still suffering from a post-Holocaust depression. Just as the Beatles symbolized the end of post-War British society, so Shlomo signaled a sea change in Jewish life. I remember him bravely trying to get uptight English public school boys at Carmel College to join in his guitar strumming and to respond to his simplistic Hasidic stories. He tried the same with Cambridge University students. It was still a struggle. It wasn’t until the Woodstock era that Shlomo came into his own. He broke with many traditional constraints and moved to California. His outreach went further than most Orthodox rabbis would countenance; in particular, the way he was mobbed by his female admirers raised more than a few eyebrows.

Although his music became more sophisticated, the backing more professional, his infectious simplicity still charmed thousands. He founded his own commune in Israel and in fact there are thousands of Jews around the world who owe their continued presence amongst the ranks of the committed to Shlomo. Even more significant was the way his lively prayer songs have become almost the norm in most Orthodox communities. There is hardly a community that does not have its alternative Carlebach services, hardly an occasion when Jews sing without Shlomo’s tunes being used. So, again, the question is how a man who was the object of much controversy, claims of sexual molestation and worse, managed to overcome the negatives which would have, and indeed have, destroyed the reputations of several other charismatic Orthodox rabbis?

One explanation is that, in general, authoritarian religions tend to discount female claims of assault. It is sadly often only secular courts that enforce what ought to be enforced and too often pressure is brought to bear, particularly on women, not to make a fuss. Secondly, we live in an age of hagiography where religious leaders tend to be sanitized, whitewashed, and sanctified. Thirdly, and this is the version I’d prefer to believe, where a person is perceived to be overwhelmingly good and spiritual, people tend to forgive a lot.

On the other hand, where a rabbi sets himself up as an authority figure, as a strong and righteous man of God, his feet of clay often extend to his heart. Others may be great scholars, powerful leaders with thousands of followers. But they draw on loyalty rather than love. Shlomo was a genuinely warm, spiritual man, committed to a religious Jewish way of life. So as with Lubavitch, itself–even if some of the views of some of its followers are heterodox and some others do things that are not always correct, it is easy to forgive when overwhelmingly they do good and remain totally committed to Torah.

Where a man is recognized as a special spirit, and in particular can express it though music, which is the most powerful expression of soul, we humans tend to overlook things. This is unfair to victims, and I do not condone it, but it happens a lot. Perfection does not exist. I wonder if it is the degree of imperfection that influences our verdict. Perhaps because song is so important in Hasidism, whose great leaders initially were men of inspiration, we think differently of singers than we do of ideological rebels. A thought is more dangerous than a tune.

Shlomo was a Yekke, who never got rid of his thick German accent, but he did manage to change enough to embody the spirit of the Hasidic revival. Despite the current mode for turning our rabbis into saints, the ideal is a man of simple inspiration, a song, a story and a soul. Shlomo was no ideal, so we should not pretend he was. That does not mean we cannot sing his melodies.

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