Rab­bi Shlo­mo Car­lebach: Life, Mis­sion, and Legacy

Natan Ophir (Offen­bach­er)
  • Review
By – June 6, 2014

Rab­bi Shlo­mo Car­lebach (19251994) was a Jew­ish cult fig­ure, a glob­al rebbe to many oth­er­wise dis­en­fran­chised, dis­in­ter­est­ed young peo­ple, whose music is now sung in every Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the world. He was called the singing rab­bi, the hip­pie rab­bi, the danc­ing rab­bi, and a heal­er. He was a most unortho­dox Ortho­dox rab­bi, a musi­cal genius who com­posed close to 7,000 tunes, and a reli­gious exegete who defied categorization.

Car­lebach start­ed out as a bril­liant yeshi­va stu­dent and became one of the first Chabad emis­saries to col­lege cam­pus­es. Eventu­ally he used the gui­tar to con­nect to young peo­ple with music and sto­ries, and a career was launched. He trav­eled through­out North Amer­i­ca and the world giv­ing con­certs and bring­ing a taste of authen­tic Judaism to those on the fringes or to those who had been turned off by the religion.

It is dif­fi­cult for an admir­er to write a crit­i­cal biog­ra­phy with­out turn­ing it into a hagiog­ra­phy, and Rab­bi Dr. Natan Ophir is clear­ly a Car­lebach fan. For this biog­ra­phy he has dili­gent­ly col­lect­ed thou­sands of sto­ries, scores of arti­cles, and scoured the Inter­net for all avail­able source mate­r­i­al about Rab­bi Shlo­mo Car­lebach. The book is most­ly a col­lec­tion of hun­dreds of first per­son inter­views with fol­low­ers, acolytes, admir­ers, and Car­lebach hasidim. There is very lit­tle here about his per­son­al life oth­er than that he was mar­ried, divorced, and had two daugh­ters. He was char­i­ta­ble to his own detri­ment and per­formed many anony­mous acts of lov­ingkind­ness to the poor in his Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood. As a biog­ra­phy, this book falls short; how­ev­er, it is a thor­ough depic­tion of the Car­lebach phe­nom­e­na. Lives were changed by Car­lebach. His mes­sage res­onat­ed far beyond his con­certs, record­ings, and inter-per­son­al rela­tion­ships. The author shows how Car­lebach changed the face of con­tem­po­rary Judaism and Jew­ish music.

He was not a sys­tem­at­ic the­olo­gian. He preached a neo-Hasidic egal­i­tar­i­an Judaism, which was about inclu­sive diver­si­ty, uni­ty not uni­for­mi­ty. He pro­vid­ed an expe­ri­en­tial alter­na­tive for spir­i­tu­al seek­ers. His style of singing, whistling, gui­tar play­ing, and story­telling, his ethical/​theological exhor­ta­tions, per­son­al anec­dotes, and non-judg­men­tal way of appre­ci­at­ing oth­ers endeared him to his many fol­low­ers. He spoke the hippie/​New Age lan­guage, and he gained their trust and love. Through his hyp­not­ic, mes­mer­iz­ing chants, the sim­plic­i­ty of his melody line, the inten­si­ty of his per­for­mance, and the charis­ma of his per­son­al­i­ty, he turned on an entire gen­er­a­tion and many of their par­ents as well. He was Dylan, Elvis, Arlo and Seeger all rolled into one, with a touch of Sholem Ale­ichem and Mark Twain,” Ophir writes. He touched the lives of many hun­dreds if not thou­sands who went on to study, go to Israel, and/​or live com­mit­ted Jew­ish lives.

How­ev­er, all of this came at a great cost to him per­son­al­ly. Because he sang to mixed audi­ences, because he sang with and hugged women, and because he was non-judg­men­tal­­ly egal­i­tar­i­an, he lost the sup­port of the hare­di and yeshi­va world which had first nur­tured him. Because he was so lov­ing, effu­sive, and cre­at­ed strong emo­tion­al attach­ments, there were post-mortem accu­sa­tions made against him of impro­pri­eties with women. The author’s unwill­ing­ness to deal with this is a dis­ap­point­ment. I decid­ed to leave room for oth­er writ­ers to under­take the chal­leng­ing tasks of judge or jury.”

Despite the book’s sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, it is an excel­lent begin­ning. Carlebach’s many teach­ings, hom­i­lies, sto­ries, etc. will be ana­lyzed in the author’s promised com­pan­ion vol­ume. Then we may learn more about Carlebach’s method­ol­o­gy and phi­los­o­phy. It remains to be seen if this unsys­tem­at­ic lega­cy can be sys­tematized. In the mean­time this is a good read about a major cul­tur­al icon, but not yet the defin­i­tive biog­ra­phy. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, discog­ra­phy, timeline.

Relat­ed Content:

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions