Torah Sociology: Religious Zionists and Rabbi Carlebach

Why has Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's music had a renaissance among religious Zionists?

Tags: Carlebach
Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

We recently commemorated the twentieth year of Rav Shlomo Carlebach's death. During his lifetime the religious Zionist community, particularly the younger members, enjoyed and were inspired by his music. But the community as a whole felt quite uncomfortable with his non-conventional lifestyle and followers, and did not accept his hassidic stories and teachings as part of its religious world view.

Twenty years later, the religious Zionist's bonding with R. Shlomo's songs and teachings has become much more positive and accepting. What does this say about the meaning of his legacy? What does this say about changes in the religious Zionist community?

My family held an oneg shabat in our house to commemorate R. Shlomo's twentieth yartzheit. A good friend, a very learned member of the religious Zionist 'aristocracy' explicitly remarked' "Thirty years ago we danced to his music. But we saw him as a strange bird, moving on the fringes of religious society. However, now his songs and teachings are a very important part of my spiritual life."

Coming from a different direction, I experienced similar feelings. I grew up in a much assimilated, American Jewish home. I was the audience that R.Shlomo was so earnestly trying to bring close to Torah. I slowly did become Orthodox, but stayed away from R. Shlomo's hippie followers, because I wanted to lead an orthodox, but also conventional, middle class life style.

However today, R. Shlomo' music and teachings are an integral part of my family's Shabbat and holiday celebrations. As Bob Dylan ironically wrote, "But I was so much older then, I'm younger then that now".

Why?  To understand the ongoing impact of R. Shlomo's legacy, we first have to define and articulate the content of that legacy. Almost all commentators who wrote about R. Shlomo's legacy in the last month defined his legacy as his tunes, his hassidic stories and thought, and his non judgmental accepting of, and reaching out to, all types of Jews, no matter how distant their life style was from the Torah.

I want to emphatically argue that this definition of his legacy is incomplete. His tunes, stories and outreach work are the concrete expressions of a much more basic, spiritual-existential truth. R. Shlomo saw and experienced reality with a different set of glasses than we do. He lived life according to a populist, hassidic-kabalistic based universalism. He possessed a gifted ability to encounter and experience G-d in all corners of society and creation, even when these experiences had little in common with   conventional Torah life. He learned how to see the 'software' programming of the kabala in all parts of the 'hardware' of G-d's creation.

He detected the 'G-d element', the D.N.A. of G-d's handiwork, in every Jew, in every Jewish historical happening,( and even in non Jews), no matter how different that Jew was from what we conventionally define as 'being Jewish'.  R. Shlomo's universalistic-kabalistic glasses gave him the ability to see unity where we see disparity, to experience inclusiveness where we experience dissonance, and to define as a 'divine conventionality' what we call the unconventional.

And most significant, R. Shlomo sincerely lived his life according to this popular, universalistic-kabalistic understanding of existence. He not only believed, but put into practice what he believed. For close to forty years his 'home' was the road, the airport and the hotel room. His beit midrash was concert halls, the living salon of friends, Reform synagogues, hippie retreats, and Eastern mystic temples. R. Shlomo was attested by all to be a true talmid chacham (scholar).  And he was the only Orthodox Jewish scholar and teacher of his time who would spend over half his life teaching Torah to 'far away, off the path, Jews' (and non Jews).

When teaching, he not only respected, accepted and honored far away Jews (which is what many other Torah- sensitive religious teachers did) but also lived with them as 'buddies', felt that he was constantly learning from them, and experienced them as his peers in spiritual wisdom. This G-d given sixth sense of spiritual universalism of R. Shlomo enabled his audiences  to 'taste Shabbos' when he sang and taught about our holy day, even though almost all of them had never lit or seen a Shabbat candle in their life.

For example, in one month he could experience and teach Torah in diametrically opposed social environments.   One week his Jewish being was totally nationalistic. He completely identified with the intrinsic holiness of the IDF soldier, and the settlements of Judea and Samaria. For example he gave the last concert, and conducted the last wedding in Yamit, sang at Sabastia, and gave a concert in a Beit El kindergarten a month before he died. And yet on another week, his Jewish being was totally universalistic, and he would spend a week long spiritual retreat with Muslim Sufi priests and Buddhist monks. And he truly counted black, West Side NYC homeless (near his shul) as his friends.

In brief, where we inwardly feel the social discomfort of being 'different' (because Orthodox Judaism is an extremely, behaviorally particular way of life) R. Shlomo was able to experience the spiritual high of togetherness. Where we feel overwhelmed by the pain and tragedy of the Shoah, R. Shlomo was able to experience the first steps of that 'Great Shabbos, our coming Redemption'. R. Shlomo's songs are so spiritually powerful, and so spiritually eternal, because they were born from a soul that not only saw and understood the universalistic-kabalistic nature of G-d's creation, but also insisted on fully living this understanding   every day of his unconventional, but G-d inspired, life.

Twenty years after his death, the religious Zionist community is discovering increasing spiritual meaning in his songs, stories, and teachings. R. Shlomo is no longer just an entertainer for us, but has become accepted as one of our teachers. Why? After the initial stage of building our community's basic educational and community infrastructure (1948-1978), we have entered a second stage of ufaratzta,(a bursting forth)  a going beyond the previous cultural boundaries of our community life. Inspired by the kabalistic based horizons of Rav Kook,we are now creatively trying to bring  the teachings of the Torah into all areas of societal and human endeavor (the army, agriculture, the arts, mental health and social policy). We are successfully building an innovative, Torah based social culture.

And when we bring the Torah into 'non conventional' areas (those not specifically addressed in the shulchan aruch) there we meet R. Carlebach, who 'has been waiting for us ' these past twenty years. Looking down from heaven on our current efforts to make the Torah relevant to all areas of human endeavor, Rav Kook and Rav Carlebach are kabalisticaly hugging each other every day, and getting a lot of nachas from their kinderlach. Because we are now, as religious Zionists, much more operating on the frontiers of religious spirituality, we feel a much greater need to recharge our spiritual batteries with R. Carlebach's songs and teaching than we did thirty years ago. And Rav Carlebach is only too willing to help us.