Talking to G-d about Rav Shlomo: Response to readers

The challenge of presenting Rav Shlomo’s Torah heritage and dealing with the shadow cast by the contradictions in his life.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

I am not embarrassed to say that reading the reader’s comments on my previous article on the life of Rav Shlomo has caused me to rethink the contents of my article. Their comments brought me to consult with our Yesha community's rabbi (a true Torah scholar and wise man) and two other rabbis and a group of people who were very close to Rav Shlomo. 

It is now fairly clear to me that Rav Shlomo’s life contains some serous contradictions, contradictions that confront us with profound dilemmas.

Simply, Rav Shlomo helped and spiritually enriched thousands of people in his lifetime. However, these accomplishments are paled by a shadow. The shadow is cast by the increasingly apparent fact that he also hurt an unclear number of people when he violated Jewish religious laws of modesty, and religious laws prohibiting causing physical and emotional abuse to others.

My rabbi’s guidance

All the rabbis whom I consulted said that according to Jewish law we are allowed to continue learn, teach and sing the Torah of Rav Shlomo (because there is no connection between the content of his Torah, and certain failings in his life).

My very wise rabbi added that now that Rav Shlomo is not with us in this world, our main task is an educational task. How do we educationally compose an educational format that enables us to continue teaching our community and children about the self sacrifice and Torah gifts of Rav Shlomo, yet is a realistic educational format because it  tries to cope with understanding the contradictions inherent in his  moral failings?

I find myself incapable of meeting the Torah educational challenge posed by my rabbi.    

Right now, the only way I can really cope with the painful contradictions of Rav Shlomo’s life is to intensify my dialogue with G-d. Rav Soloveitchik teaches us that true prayer with G-d is born out of confusion and distress. I certainly feel now that I need G-d’s help to understand Rav Shlomo’s life in a truthful, but still positive, way.

Five years ago I would not, and probably should not, have written this article

This difficult article is a product of the changes caused by the internet and social media.                          

Many intelligent people have   challenged me saying, “Why are you trying to defend Rav Shlomo’s reputation and Torah in the public media. You may have good intentions, but you will end up doing more harm than good?” Five years ago, I believe that they were definitely correct. 

But we are all the victims of technological change. Rabbis and educators in our relatively open national religious community know that they now have no alternative but to work with students to address a range of topics that in the past a thoughtful public avoidance might have been a constructive strategy.

And out pain and love for Rav Shlomo, I think we have to address certain issues in his life that five years ago it would have been smarter to avoid discussing publicly in the media. Today, ‘thanks’ to Google, we have been stripped naked of our privacy. There are no secrets. Our lives are public knowledge. Just ask anyone who goes for a job interview in a very competitive market.  

This is to say, that if I do not begin to address, in the public media,  out of love, the issues of the contradictions in Rav Shlomo’s life, the only ones showing up on Google to discuss these contradictions will be those who do not love Rav Shlomo. And I do not believe this is a wise option. 

What are the ‘facts’?

Religious belief that is not based on a realistic truth is a religious belief that cannot provide long term spiritual sustenance.
My personal religious life has taught me the realization that the only real emunah (religious belief) is religious faith that is (‘also’) true in this real, eveyday world. Religious belief that is not based on a realistic truth is a religious belief that cannot provide long term spiritual sustenance.

So it seems that were two contradictory realities to Rav Shlomo’s life. We will never the exact scope of these realties, but I think we have reached the point that we have to admit the existence of two realities. 

One reality is the Rav Shlomo that I described in my first article: that he was a prophetic, innovative teacher of G-d’s Torah who almost single handedly tried to bring Torah, through music, stories, and hasidic wisdom to assimilated Jews in all parts of the world, particularly in the period of the 1960’s,70’s and 80’. He was on the road, for forty five years, 200 days a year separated from community and family, teaching Torah with little financial compensation. He died, he sacrificed his life to this task, due to a heart attack caused by the poor diet, loneliness and  the stress of living such an itinerant life.

And he not only ‘performed concerts’. He also helped thousands of individuals in need of Torah guidance and support. This is the Rav Shlomo that we love, and to whom we are in spiritual debt. This was the major, overriding reality of his life.

But, it now seems undeniable, that there is another reality in Rav Shlomo’s life. Many times he seemingly violated basic Jewish religious laws of modesty, and laws forbidding the emotional and physical abuse of the other, primarily women. How often, we do not have accurate information.  How much abuse, we do not have accurate information.  I truly believe that for every person that he hurt, there were hundreds that he helped. But again my hunch cannot be statistically proven. 

It also seems that these wrongdoings were not simply acts of mistaken judgment, but the result of weaknesses in an unconventional, creative personality. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances.   But the numbers and the circumstances, in the end, do not really matter. 

Wrong is wrong. And even one person abused is one person  too much. And if he would have done these wrongdoings today as a teacher in a school, he would not be allowed to teach again. 

Based on the human weakness of my own understanding, failings in these matters of modesty and abuse seem to be the second, more minor but still real, reality of Rav Shlomo’s life. 

How can I cope with the real spiritual question raised by these contradictions in Rav Shlomo’s life?

You can say that I am in a type of mourning for a lost ‘innocence ‘, in Rav Shlomo’s life. I am almost crying, while I am writing these lines. We expect such failings in the lives of politician and artists. But when they appear in the life of a Torah teacher they are extremely painful and unsettling. 

As a professional who worked a whole life in the fields of psychology and sociology, I know all-all- the psychological, sociological and historical circumstances that may have brought Rav Shlomo to fall as he did.  But, in the end, the deed is the deed, and G-d, (with understanding) definitely holds us morally responsible for our deeds.

The need to pray

And as we all know, rational explanations are a very ineffective, or even an inappropriate, response to painful loss. In order to emotionally cope, we have to go through a mourning stage, and that means actively conversing with G-d. That means asking G-d many questions, some of them unanswerable. That means sharing all your confused, painful feelings with G-d. That means hoping that G-d will extend unto us an uplifting hand. 

There are no strictly rational ways to understand how G-d guided, and did not guide, Rav Shlomo on the dangerous mission to which he sent Rav Shlomo-to bring Torah to the farthest ends of the assimilated Jewish world.

The only true way that I can respond to the contradictions of Rav Shlomo’s life is to place them at the feet of G-d, and ask G-d to help me somewhat accept and live with them.

Rav Slovietchik teaches that true faith is born out of paradox and contradiction

At this point, it may be helpful to recall that Rav Soloveitchik teaches  that the real part of our relationship with G-d begins where rationality ends. The truest faith is born out of crisis’s of paradox and contradiction. He writes, “In the realm of religious faith, coping with inconsistency enriches existence, dealing with contradiction renews Creation, understanding negation builds worlds, and the handling of denial deepens and expands consciousness.”

These teachings of Rav Soloveitchik should give us spiritual strength so that we can better cope with the contradictions of Rav Shlomo’s life.

I will keep on singing

I will continue to sing Rav Shlomo’s songs, tell his stories, and learn his hasidic wisdom. I will do so because I need this spiritual sustenance. I will continue to feel a spiritual debt to all that he gave the Jewish world. But I will probably do so with twenty per cent less inspiration, and with a few question marks floating above my head.

Despite all the sadness that I have put down on these page, I feel I owe it to Rav Shlomo’s memory to conclude with three examples from my family life which I know are undisputable ‘facts’. I am sure there are thousands of other families who can relate similar ‘facts’. 

One, we have in our family album a picture of myself, my wife,  son and three month old baby together with Rav Shlomo and his guitar, in 1977, standing  in front of the United Nations demanding the freedom of the USSR’s three million Jews. Rav Shlomo was there for Soviet Jewry ,as he was for countless other Jewish causes. 

Two, because of the individual, personal help and teachings of Rav Shlomo my oldest son remained religious, and went on to become a very dedicated, creative Chabad hasid. The songs and stories of Rav Shlomo sustained the morale of my son, every night before he went to sleep, when he was serving with Givati in Lebanon in the early 1990’s

Three, in September the the height of the Oslo treaty terror in Judea and Sumaria, Rav Shlomo came to Beit El to sing with a group of not more than thirty to forty people in order to raise the  morale of Rav Shlomo’s ‘holy’ Jewish 'settlers.' You can see me and my youngest son dancing with Rav Shlomo on You Tube. At the end of the ‘concert’ I approached Rav Shlomo and told him to take care of his health because he looked very run down. Rav Shlomo died two and a half months later, while sitting on a plane, while traveling to another concert, to another needy Jewish community, in another far off part of the Jewish world. 

Nobody, but nobody, other than  G-d can fully explain the paradoxes and contradictions  of Rav Shlomo’s life. I hope G-d will share with me some of His enlightenment when I am talking to him in my prayers.