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Practical Wisdom from Shlomo Carlebach

Tikkun Magazine, Fall 5758

(Tikkun editor’s note: Until his death in 1994, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Rabbi of Kehilat Jacob in Manhattan, was America’s most popular Chasidic songwriter This interview was conducted a year before his death and is being printed now for the first time to remind our community of the voices of tolerance in the Orthodox world.)

TIKKUN: You are one of America’s most famous and most loved Orthodox rabbis. Your music has become so widely accepted in all branches of Judaism that many people believe it to be the eternal melodies used by our ancestors, unaware Of You and your creativity. Could you tell us something about your family background?

SHLOMO CARLEBACH: Carlebach is an old rabbinic dynasty. In 1840, my great grandfather left the city of Ishbeter in Poland and became a rabbi in Germany, and my grandfather became a rabbi in Rybeck, near Williamburg, He had eight sons and four daughters (five sons became rabbis, and three of the four daughters married rabbis). My father went to Berlin and later to America, and he was always pumping into me and my brother that “you have to be good rabbis.” To give an example of how important it was in our family: my father used to tell me that I had to keep my yarmulke on my head, otherwise I couldn’t become a rabbi. One day I threw off the yarmulke and my brother starred to cry and kept crying for hours, and he was crying because “my brother will never be a rabbi.” My dream was to be the greatest Talmud scholar in the world, So I was learning day and night. I was learning 48 hours a day. I didn’t want to be disturbed by what was going on in the world. I spent a few years at the yeshiva (an academy of advanced Jewish studies) in Lakewood, NJ., and I didn’t even look at the headlines of the newspapers. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the world,

While we were in Vienna, when I was a kid, the old Lubavitcher rabbi came to our house and he took me and my brother aside and said, I bless you that you will some day be Chassidishe Yidden (hassidic Jews), and don’t be German little boys. This was around 1931, and I was about six.

TIKKUN: So your father wasn’t a Chassid?

REB SHLOMO: My father was a real Orthodox rabbi. He loved every Jew. And he had his heart open for the whole world. He was very good friends with the Cardinal of Vienna (Ritzinger). In my father’s house, I met the absolutely greatest rabbis of the world. My father was also a man of the world.

Since I was five years old I always had private teachers, a young man living in our house so that we could learn day and night. When I was six, seven, eight we also had secular teachers who came to teach secular knowledge – all private teachers; we didn’t go to school. According to good German education, children at a certain time must go to bed so that they can be alert the next day. But I had a deal with my teacher, who was a young man living on the third floor, that after I was supposed to be asleep I would sneak out of my room and study with him, studying day and night. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t playing football like crazy or that I didn’t have a bike. I even thought if 1 didn’t become a rabbi I’d become a bicycle racer (there were races in our city, and I entered and always won).

Then we faced the rise of fascism, and all of a sudden all those kids who we thought were our best friends turned on us and started to hate us. Unbelievable. So we came to America and eventually I went to Lakewood Yeshiva.

I was very much into learning, but eventually I went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and he told me that the world needed more rabbis who could talk to people. I told him that I loved learning, but he told me that I should stop thinking just about what I personally loved to do, and focus more on what the world needed. So I started doing that: talking to people about Judaism.

From 1951 to 1955 I was, mamash [really], the Rebbe’s right-hand man, Today, Lubavitcher sends out messengers all over the world, but then it wasn’t yet organized and I was one of the first, actually Zalman (Schachter-Shalomi) and I were the first messengers of the Lubovitcher Rebbe. Zalman and I were his representatives, reaching his message to the world.

So I did outreach. But I had some problems and I told the Rebbe about it. “Last night,” I told the Rebbe one day, “I had one hundred people come to learn and sing with me.” But in those days the Rebbe had the position that women cou ldn’t sing with men [kol isha, women’s voices would sexually arouse men according to some Orthodox traditions]. So I told the Rebbe, “When I told them that we had to sit separately men from women, I lost 90 people, and when I told them that women couldn’t sing, I lost nine more, and the one person who remained was the biggest idiot. So instead of spending two hours with people who wanted to know something about Yiddishkeit, I wasted my time on one idiot. Let’s assume that it’s very important that men and women shouldn’t sit together. Still, this is like a manicure for Judaism, making, it super-beautiful, but if the person is having a heart attack you don’t give him a manicure. So I can’ t do outreach this way.

So the Rebbe said to me, “I cannot tell you to do it your way. But I can’t tell you not to do it your way. So if you want to do it on your own, G-d be with you.” So I split. If I had stayed, and the Rebbe had gone with what I was saying, he could have been Rebbe of the world, not just Rebbe of the Chassidim.

Take Woodstock. Why should Swami Satchananda go there – why not the Lubavitcher Rebbe? It would have been a gevalt — it would have changed a whole generation. But the Rebbe chose to be the Rebbe of the Chassidim. You know, a few years after the Rebbe became chosen to be the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he wrote a letter to his Chassidim and said, “I have so many unbelievable dreams, but I can’t do them because your heads are so small.”

So then, let’s assume I was a little bit homeless. I was not with Lubavitch, I was not in Lakewood, and for two or three years I managed. Then I saw someone playing guitar, and I started learning. I got a teacher, and one day while she was on the phone I started making up a melody and she heard it, said it sounded beautiful, and she wrote it down. Then she said, “Whenever you have a new song, call me and I’ll write it down.” So a few days later I had a new melody, for the wedding song “Od Yeeshamah,”and l called her up and she wrote it down. And that’s how my career began.

And so I began to sing my songs, and in between one song and another I realized I could talk to people about Judaism, because when they sing their hearts are open. I made a living singing. In fact, the first time I did a concert at a shul, I arrived late.

TIKKUN: How completely out of character for you … (laughter becauve Shlomo became famous for always coming late).

REB SHLOMO: So the president of the synagogue gets up when I arrive and he says, “We will not be paying, Rabbi Carlebach for this concert because he is late.” And so I said, “Dear friend, you think you are paying for my singing? I sing for free.” And so I did the concert anyway.

In 1959 1 came out with my first record, and with the money I made from that I bought myself a ticket and went to Israel. I started singing there. I didn’t think anyone would pay attention to me, so I was just sitting on street corners singing and slowly, slowly… And my first concert in Jerusalem that summer, thousands of people attended, it was gevalt. And then I managed to spend half of each year in Israel and half in America.

Then, in 1966, the greatest thing happened to me. I was invited to the Berkeley Folk Festival. There I saw all these thousands of young people who the world condemned as being dope addicts and I realized that they were yearning for something holy, and their souls were so pure, awesome! The festival began on Thursday morning. On Friday morning I announced that tonight I’m going to the synagogue and any one who might want should join me. I thought maybe ten or fifteen people would show up, but over two thousand came to the small synagogue.

I thought that the people at the synagogue would be so happy that they came, but the president called me up and said, “It was the most disgusting thing that ever happened.” We had people staying and celebrating Shabbat till four in the morning, studying and singing, and then the way that the synagogue responded was a shame. So I realized I had to have my own place. So we created in San Francisco the House of Love and Prayer and until 1974 they were there and then many of the best people there went to the moshav in Modi’in in Israel.

TIKKUN: What was it about the Jewish world that turned off these young people from Judaism, people whom you saw as “pure souls”?

REB SHLOMO: Let me quote Rav Kook, one of our greatest prophets. He says the world always thinks that religious people are the ones who are close to religion, and non-religious ones don’t care about religion. But it is often the case that the non religious people are yearning for something so deep and they look at the religious people and they don’t find that there. People who are announcing themselves as messengers of God are often very mediocre people and they don’t even sense the yearning of those unbelieving people. I see it all the time in Israel – All those secular soldiers in the Israeli army want something deeper than what they see among the religious. I once went to visit our Israeli troops in Lebanon during the Lebanese War, and I met the IDF chaplain and asked him, “How is everything?” And he responded, “Fine. The meat is kosher.” So I said, “If I want good salami, I wouldn’t come to Lebanon for it. How are the soldiers doing? Are you talking to them?” He said, “Oh, they aren’t religious, they aren’t interested.” So I said to him, “I’ll bet you ten dollars that if you offer to teach these soldiers something deep, like Rav Kook, that they’ll respond.” So I went out to the unit, and walked up to the most coarse-looking soldier, and you could see on his face that he ate on Yom Kippur not three times but five times just to show you, and I walked up to him and I said, “Would you like to study Rav Kook, something for your soul?” His eyes lit up. He didn’t even know that Jewish people talk about the soul. He thought all we talk about is kosher meat and a yarmulke and other religious rituals. Unbelievable.

TIKKUN: What could be done in the organized Jewish world so that the people whci present Judaism could have this kind of approach?

REB SHLOMO: Listen Michael (Rabbi Michael Lerner conducted the interview], if everyone would have your vision, the messiah would be here already. The sad truth is that the people who teach Judaism think that when someone approaches them to learn about Judaism, the teachers think that they must teach them what to do and especially what not to do. I once met a homeopath and he told me the difference between conventional medicine and homeopathy is that medicine works from outside to inside, homeopathy works from inside to outside. That’s the whole thing religion has to work from inside to outside.

TIKKUN: In the past thirty years there is a movement called the ba’al teshuvah (master of repentance) movement, but it turns out that overall many more people are leaving Judaism than have come back. Do you have a strategy to create more people who can speak on the level of going from the inside to the outside, who will speak to the heart?

REB SHLOMO: I started the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, and every Friday night hundreds of people would come. There was an opening so that we might have a whole generation. We could have taken over …. There were thousands of kids who were interested. I hate the name ba’al teshuvah, because it implies that these young people were doing wrong and now they are repenting. I said to the Jewish establishment, “We have to do teshuvah, We must have done so much wrong that these kids left us,” They are the real Tzadikkiin [righteous ones]. They came back to Orthodox Judaism, and the first time they were told that up until now you were a sinner. No. Every religion is a flash light. We in Judaism have a psychedelic light, but there is no need to knock any other religion, I love a girl and want to marry her, I don’t have to say that every other girl is ugly.

At the beginning of the House of Love and Prayer, there was a man who came to services on Friday night and at the end of the service he pulled out an instrument and started to play Of course, that is not what we do in an Orthodox shul on a Shabbat, but I said nothing, because he was coming on Shabbat and I was glad he was there. He did it again the next week, and the week after that, and then he come to me and said, “Thank you for not saving anything to me. I was testing your patience, and I now see that you really would accept me here.” Now, he is a doctor and president of the PTA of an Orthodox yeshiva. I never, never tell people what to do.

G-d taught us one time on Mount Sinai. Imagine if G-d would be sending thunder and lightning every Friday and saying, “You Jews, you’d better keep Shabbos, otherwise I’ll tear you out.” But G-d doesn’t do that. The holy Sanzer Rebbe called in his children after they were bar mitzvahed and said to them, “From now on, I just want to be your best friend.” That trust gave those children self-confidence.

But we’ve pushed away 90 percent of the kids who wanted to come back. When they came to the Orthodox circles, they didn’t find the real fire souls. We have a few million Jews, but we only have a few thousand ba’al teshuvahs. It’s a joke.

TIKKUN: So do you have a strategy for how to change this? Your own shul attracts a few hundred wonderful people, but that isn’t really doing the outreach on the level that you are talking. The only group that seems to have a strategy is the Lubavitch movement, and they seem to repeat the very errors you are talking about.

REB SHLOMO: The most we can do is keep our hearts open, and when people come and want to learn, we can tell them where to learn, I have to tell people to go to yeshiva to learn, and unfortunately after a few weeks either they leave the yeshiva or you don’t recognize them anymore because the spark is gone from their eyes and they don’t care for the world anymore.

TIKKUN: You’ve said in the past that we don’t have the right yeshiva. So what is the right yeshiva?

REB SHLOMO: The right yeshiva is a place where there is so much love that it’s awesome. G-d gave us Torah with so much love, so if I want to give over the Torah to my children it has to be done in that same way. Rabbi Nachman says that each time vou learn you are bringing the Torah down from heaven. If you teach the Torah with anger, and tell them: “You have to, you have to, you have to” – No. It has to be so deep that they want to. The spiritual depths of the Torah have to be presented.

TIKKUN: It would be wonderful if our TIKKUN constituency could really learn from you. But I see two barriers. One is the issue of the relationship to women, the way that the tradition does not give enough space to women.

REB SHLOMO: I know its a bad scene on that question.

TIKKUN: The second issue is our relationship to “the other” in general, and to Palestinians in particular. The Jews jumped from the burning buildings of Europe and we landed on the backs of Palestinians. We were jumping for our lives, and it wasn’t our fault that we’ve hurt others in the process. But we have to be sensitive that we did hurt others. … I remember this past Pesach when I saw you bringing your own daughter up to the bimah and her head was resting on your shoulders as you davened the Kedusha, so I know that you are struggling with this as best you can within the context of Orthodoxy, but the context of Halakha places real limits.

REB SHLOMO: With Halakha I could have managed. It’s not Halakha, but the smallness of the heads of most peple. In the House of Love and Prayer I didn’t have mechitza [separation between women and men]. After the Six Days War, I was one of the first people to walk into the Old City and I walked up to every Arab and kissed them, our cousins. I went to the top people in Israel, and I said, “If we want to live in peace with the Arabs, as much as we need an army to make war, we need an army to make peace. The army to make peace — give me five thousand free tickets to bring holy hippies from Los Angeles and San Francisco, to bring them here, and we will go to every Arab house in the country and bring them flowers and tell them that we want to be brothers with them. We will bring musicians and we will play at every Arab wedding and we want them to bring their bands to play at our weddings. We have to live together. So everyone was crying the suggestions, but in the end they said, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

TIKKUN: We’ve managed to turn a population into our enemies. The Palestinians, remember, did not fight in 1967. The Jordanians fought, but the Palestinians did not fight.

REB SHLOMO: The heartbreaking thing is that until a few years ago we might have reversed things.

TIKKUN: To switch to another topic, what is your advice to people who find themselves in synagogues on the High Holy Days where there is very little happening spiritually? How do they change the situation?

REB SHLOMO: They need to get themselves a better rabbi and a better cantor. Let me tell you a story.

Once I was invited to lead a Shabbat service for the Young Leadership of the UJA. So, people came and then the director of this particular group comes to me and says, “Rabbi, would you please do the davening in a hurry so that we can get people to eat in a short while.” So, I said, “No, get yourself another rabbi if you want someone who is hurrying.” I davened, and we went through the prayers with full intensity, and many of these people who thought that their entire relationship with Judaism was to sign a check had a very different kind of experience.

The next day these people held a session about the future of Judaism and some of the people were saying that their children were asking, “Why should we be Jewish?” And they didn’t know what to say. They asked me, and I told them, “If they are asking why, it’s because they didn’t experience anything that adequately turned them on, and that is our fault not theirs.” And I told them, if you want to save Judaism, you have to shut all the synagogues and all the Hebrew Schools for one day, and then we have to reopen them with different rabbis and different cantors and different teachers. Because we are standing by while the current leadership is ruining a whole generation, and we don’t say a word! We need new synagogues all over the United States. So they told me, “This is not reality”

TIKKUN: You seem to be having the same experience with the Jewish establishment that we at TIKKUN have had.

REB SHLOMO: The establishment is bankrupt in the worst way

TIKKUN: Perhaps vou could help our readers learn something about the way that Judaism suggests to develop a personal spiritual practice. I know that it’s often not easy to find in existing synagogues. I think of my experience saying Kaddish for my mother when I davened each morning at Oheb Zedek [the Orthodox synagogue in New York]. It is a no-nonsense davening, everybody getting through the prayers as quickly as possible so that they could get down to Wall Street in the morning to be there for the opening bell. But not much seemed to be happening spiritually.

REB SHLOMO: There was no time to get into saying “Good morning, G-d.” Well, even if it may be hard for some people to find a synagogue in which to find genuine spiritual encounters, there are still many books to read that give people a way in. There is Buber, Heschel, Aryeh Kaplan. There are millions of things that are available if you are open to developing your spiritual life as a Jew and really open to seriously pursuing it.