Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Featured Post

A Flawed Religious Genius: Coming to Terms with Shlomo Carlebach

In 'God's-eye view,' Carlebach's sexual wrongs won't negate his great spiritual capacity and majestic vision of Judaism
Shlomo Carlebach performs in Jerusalem on March 8, 1994. (Youtube Screenshot)
Shlomo Carlebach performs in Jerusalem on March 8, 1994. (Youtube Screenshot)

The ongoing discussion about the person and legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Shlomo – as we referred to him in his lifetime, has found an important new articulation in the recent Times of Israel essay, describing the extension of the #metoo dynamics to the #himtoo retrospective. I knew and loved Shlomo for decades. I was also aware of some of his problematic sexual behavior. Yet, I always upheld him and valued him, always ready to receive his inspiration. I have also followed with interest his shifting image in what is nearly a generation after his death. I hope the following thoughts, that have developed over decades and that have been helpful to me throughout, will be helpful to others seeking to come to terms with the person and his legacy.

Appreciating Shlomo

Let me begin by stating that Shlomo’s music was not what drew me to him, though I love, sing and have performed many of his songs. Music was, for me, the least of Shlomo’s draws. I begin by making this point because so much of present-day discussion, also as it was expressed in the recent TOI piece, and most of what constitutes Shlomo’s memory, relates to his music, especially in its synagogal application. It is, to me, a sad fact that Shlomo is mainly known for his music. His music has eclipsed the person, perhaps for good, inasmuch as it has shifted attention away from weaknesses of his personality, but really for the worse, as it has reduced a great soul to a great singer.

Shlomo was a great soul. This is perhaps something that can only be appreciated in a person’s lifetime through direct contact with him or her. A great soul communicates a presence, a vision, a way of being, that is transformative. Shlomo’s great love came from a great soul. One cannot understand how Shlomo touched the hundreds of thousands he touched and whose lives he transformed simply by categories such as a great musician, or even a great teacher. There are many great musicians and there are many excellent teachers. Shlomo brought something beyond that to his encounters, and it was that additional dimension that allowed him to develop a new form of Judaism, creating a new kind of Jewish culture, a new way of being Jewish. The grasp of being in the presence of a great soul is immediate, intuitive and lies at the root of how such individuals are experienced by others.

I suspect that the divide between Shlomo’s followers who are horrified at negative reports of his behavior and those who focus on problematic aspects of his behavior in relation to his music is precisely that the former camp was exposed to the greatness of a soul, even if they are unable to articulate the experience in precisely those terms.

Moving from the immediate and intuitive contact with the greatness of a soul, an experience that is probably known and recognized in a Jewish context only in the Hassidic milieu from which he drew his inspiration, Shlomo was a phenomenal teacher. In some ways he was the most creative Hassidic teacher of the past generation (excepting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who in some ways represents the counterpoint to the present essay, who sent Shlomo on his mission, and who might possibly have provided protection for Shlomo, had he remained under his guidance and guidelines.)

Listening to Shlomo teaching was transformative because it transformed one’s awareness, allowing the listener to enter the spiritual space he was describing. Shlomo, at his best, had the capacity to communicate and to facilitate the entry of others into a higher spiritual state, that he could envision, enter and share. There is probably no living teacher in Judaism today who has that capacity. It is this spiritual capacity that has disappeared from his legacy. Various attempts to capture his teaching leave me frustrated. The words published in his name may be correct, but broken down into small fragmented units, they fail to convey the grandeur of the majestic vision of love that informed Shlomo’s reading of Judaism. It was the magic of a dreamer, who was able to take others into his dream world. But this dream world was not just words. It was another state of being, another state of consciousness, tapping into the divine presence, and making it accessible through teaching-performances that somehow provided a bridge between heaven and earth.

Remembering Shlomo

To me, the greatest tragedy is that Shlomo is no longer appreciated in the fullness of who he was and what he brought into the world. He is appreciated as a singer, for sure. His music is the lingua franca of contemporary Jewish liturgy, cutting across the diversity of all denominations. He is appreciated as a figurehead of a more easy-going, open, engaged, heartful Judaism. He is an icon of the teshuva movement. But the taste that Shlomo brought with him, the reality he allowed one to touch, the expansiveness of vision – these have all but disappeared. If some spiritual masters retain these aspects as their remembered persona advances in time beyond the historical person, this does not seem to be the case with Shlomo.

It is worth stating this much because we ought to address his weaknesses from within the fuller appreciation of who he was. It may be that his career as a singer simply colored his public perception. One might argue further that his spiritual faults made him, ultimately, less potent spiritually, and consequently he was remembered for less than he was. In fact, if we acknowledge the weaknesses under discussion we may ponder the question of who Shlomo would have been and what he could have accomplished had he not manifested these particular weaknesses. If so, there is no need for anyone to punish, ban or otherwise expunge his memory. The process has already taken place by the spiritual and historical processes of selection, in light of which he has been remembered.

What we are witnessing now is the tension between those who idealize Shlomo, casting his posthumous image as a saintly teacher and those who, horrified at tales of impropriety, would expunge his memory, ignore his legacy or otherwise profile these issues at the expense of a fuller embrace of the person.

I have sought a third way, which I would like to share with others.

Shlomo as a Flawed “Religious Genius”

Already in his lifetime, a spiritual teacher to whom I was close, spoke of Shlomo as a “meant” person. By this was intended reference to a person who comes to this world with a special mission, someone of special quality, one might say as I have stated above – a great soul. We ought to recognize in him someone with a mission, a calling, a divine purpose that was quite particular, as indeed he was.

If someone of such description falls or fails, we do not drop all appreciation for him. We uphold the person, even while recognizing his or her shortcomings. It requires a mature spiritual view to uphold someone, and even receive from him, without painting that person as an icon of perfection. I am willing to give Shlomo the credit that a soul-view, or a God’s eye-view, would provide. The inherent greatness that precedes various deeds and actions cannot be effaced or ignored. (Perhaps it could in cases of such extreme violations that would make the person unmentionable; this is certainly not the case for Shlomo.)

Such a soul-view, or God’s-eye view, would allow us to recognize the greatness, but also to recognize the human shortcomings. It frees us from the psychological need to paint individuals as perfect, as a condition for learning from them and it allows what to me is a much more realistic appreciation of the person. I realize that I am laying myself bare to the criticism of where I take such a perspective from and why Shlomo and not any other blemished teacher. The answer exceeds the framework of the present post. At a minimum, one can point to the enormity of his spiritual accomplishment as one indicator. First person appreciation is even more significant. The rest will await another framework.

This “great soul” perspective can be complemented by a further perspective, that I developed in recent years. As part of my work on the notion of “Religious Genius”, I also wrote an essay exploring the status of Carlebach as “Religious Genius”, with specific reference to his sexual shortcomings. We might refer to Shlomo as a religious genius. By that I mean someone who was transformative in religion and helped shaped it anew, based on his close relationship with God, his intense spiritual life and a host of characteristics by means of which the category has been developed. As I, and a team of two dozen scholars, developed the category of “Religious Genius”, we struggled with the problem of how to integrate “Religious Genius” and imperfection. We have just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the reformation. Martin Luther might be considered a flawed religious genius. More recently, we are led to thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. How many of the individuals who cast aspersions at Carlebach would be willing to do the same to MLK? He was, after all, a great womanizer, who was far from perfect in the very domain that is generating a #himtoo response. Will we extend a #himtoo response to Martin Luther King? If not, what are the criteria by which we decide whose memory to honor and whom to criticize? Certainly, the need of a community to heal and to come to grips with complexity is a factor and may set the agenda for a time. But in the longer run, tainted greatness is still greatness. History is full of the memory of great, but tainted, individuals. Many of our religious heroes have suffered in one way or another from tainted greatness, and many of the people we look to in the religious realm may be flawed religious geniuses. Those who are not are few and far between.

We must, then, learn to live with complexities and to recognize that while making room for the shadows, we must not lose sight of the light of great ones; while recognizing the weaknesses of a life lived in the body, the power of soul ultimately leaves a fuller and longer lasting impression.

I have often thought that Shlomo’s posthumous success is indeed a function of his soul’s work. Shlomo the person, with his imperfections, was no longer there to interfere with the work that he grounded. Hassidic teaching, to which he as well as many of his present critics subscribe, teaches us that zaddikim are greater in their death than in their lifetime. As souls, they come to do a piece of work, and once grounded, they help advance it after their passing away. In this view, call it a Hassidic soul-view, the work does not cease with death. Perhaps Shlomo is more powerful now than he was in his lifetime. This is one possible element in his rising popularity. Perhaps this also holds the key to the problem of the partial recollection of who he was. Perhaps we need to have this public conversation about Shlomo’s weaknesses so that we, and he, can accept it, come to terms with it, and allow a higher aspect of Shlomo to come through. Perhaps, just perhaps, we have not reached the end of the impression, influence and impact of this great soul.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.