Yoseph Needelman-Ruiz
Maggid of Cannabis Chassidis, PopCartoonKabala

What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Shlomo Carlebach

In light of the assorted power dynamics being engaged this week, beloved leaders of concience like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks leaving this world, and presidencies in question with charismatic aggressiveness efforted in the hopes of silencing questions, I was struck by an annual heart struggle I deal with every year around the yartzeit of the rebbe I most identify with being in the tradition of: Shlomo Carlebach.¬† Also having just watched the recent Seduced Inside the NXVM Cult documentary, now long enough after Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, about the Rajneesh/Osho community in Oregon, I was reminded of the deeply unresolved problem of negotiating ecstatic life, a very traditional hassidic/mystical priority with boundaries, and safety.

It’s hard to talk honestly, openly, clearly and authentically about Shlomo Carlebach without falling into personal/confessional adoration or alienated concern/hostility. He died in 1994, by which point, he had become the most influential and inspiring figure across a range of Jewish denominations, in the world. Arguably much more panoramically than either the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Ovadiah Yosef or any other overtly religious figure, identified generally only with particular pieties and particular communities. Not so with Shlomo Carlebach, whose name became a code word for talking about the nature of unsupervised ecstatic Jewish spirituality; concerns and romances, very much in active neutralization of the other.

Also, he was posthumously accused of dry humping underage girls whose parents or summer camps hosted him for Shabbat — leading to tremendous tension between those who would acknowledge, accept, and even embrace the accusations, and those actively denying them, identifying the accusers as something between liars and exaggerators. Long before these particular accusations became well-known or established, he had already been cut out of a range of formal Jewish community jobs and frameworks, his casual public physical affection being identified as the problem, rather than the stronger, criminal accusations which didn’t emerge until years after his death.

“Shlomo” has emerged as a context and framework, as well as entire sub-denomination, panoramically in the range of Judaisms, but especially and more markedly in contexts that thirsted for expressions of feeling and human warmth, especially in the name of pious (or anti-pious) holiness. This is the fundamental innovation/tradition of Shlomo that all the songs sung in all the song circles and prayer spaces must be identified with, which his Torah is fundamentally about: a way that inures Jewish conceptual alienation, the main curse of scholarships, and modernity, while offering to incorporate all its benefits and freedoms as messianic responsibilities. Despite the chaotic cargo of his decentralized, unaccountable, charismatic model, Shlomo’s approach was almost universally embraced, until accusations weighed against him became more popularly widespread. Enlightenment is that disruptive to religion, the principled cognitive dissonances popular in modern orthodoxies of all varieties demand frustration and sublimation — and the only natural justification for any degree of religion beyond need and dependence is reliable and accessible ecstasy — the sort of life-justifying joy that founded the basis of the blues, Rock & Roll, and eventually all their pop, dancehall and club incarnations.

“Conceptual alienation”, thinking and assuming, make it hard to hear and listen. This is so natural in traditional, pseudo-Platonic “safe” orthodoxy, the normativity in which stability is maintained, through conceit and conventional reward. We all appreciate stability, traditionally identified, by hassidim, with the bow of the Tzaddik on the level of Yesod, which represents integrity and stabilizing presence; coherence and piety in the name of good. This integrity is deeply compromised when, we at our best cannot be right with other people and sensitive to their actual best needs and feelings. This is something we — as adults — all need to know and notice and learn. This is why emerging (sexual) consent language is such a breakthrough in expressing boundaries, however they can be conveyed or heard. The struggle often is in facilitating clarity around the boundaries of welcoming affection and physical intimacy and effectively establishing the range of difference between the two. Religious Judaisms do not necessarily have a tradition of how to do this, but living culture can, and this is the hassidism that we need.

I love and appreciate “Shlomo” so much, and so does Jerusalem-in-general. Almost all the most radically inclusive, egalitarian, anti-racist communities doing anything Jewish that I know there sing his songs, almost to the exclusion of anything else non-native-ethnic happening, even amidst the serious problems and tendencies associated with his practice — hugging and touching everyone hello and goodbye as much as possible — a radical departure from Orthodox Jewish practice, and suddenly one of the main privileges, luxuries and consolations of otherwise dry modernity. Leaning into religious literalism for gravitas and depth, speaking in the name of G-d amidst relatively liberated frameworks, thirsty for imperative clarity, and relieved by the hope of a genuinely humane and humanistic divine priority– this is also “contact”, with different triggers and different unelaborated responsibilities.

The first among these responsibilities must be to notice the impact of the Torah that’s being spread, and so much of the impact is wonderful, often triggering realizations, empathies, and even tears — these are hard not to appreciate — until the moment we feel abused and misled. This is where distinctions yearn to be made between the glory we appreciate from whatever our cult is, and the honesty and clarified boundaries that let us build more reliably around our discovered and shared priorities.

After his death, Shlomo’s community had to reckon with the limits of what his Torah could help us be right with. R’ Sholom Brodt z”l was one of the first I’d heard of who tried to solve this problem, through a mix of engaging active wrongdoing by leaders within the community, and the alter shtiller –the traditional silence of “giving the benefit of the doubt” to dead leaders. The perfectness and righteousness of the Tzaddik and his Torah could not be too much in question, just how much the Tzaddik and his Torah could touch or change us. Focusing on the present and trying to resolve all extant and active threats within a vicinity, the main villain in R’ Sholom’s stories were the cult leaders, Rajneesh/Osho, primarily, who would lead people to serve him, and this was conspicuously not the aesthetic or the priority in Shlomo: there, rebbes would serve each other, and you.
We can do better.We can find language for letting each other know what too much is. Or was. We should and can and have to. Because the abuse cycles will endure for as long as they are not acknowledged and built around.
I don’t think Shlomo wanted to hurt anyone, or even noticed the degree of horror of the girls who became women who the Lilith magazine article introduced to the discourse and history of Shlomo’s impact, alongside anyone and everyone for whom anything had been too much, or not enough, when it came to successfully setting boundaries within the community, because there was so much faith in the good that people become when infinitely loved and forgiven. I don’t know how well that lesson can age, but I hope the good in it survives the failures of safety in the presence of.

But now we have an opportunity to be righter with contact than ever before. “Shomer Negiah”, being sensitive and responsible with touch, with contact has never been a more relevant sensitivity, except for the distance between us all. When that distance is relieved, the onrush of self-justification and the urgency of appreciation can often give way to imposition. So much of the future of agency and honest love is only through making actual preference and invitation understood, and a language to be clearer about this is the best thing a pietist as well as a libertine can appreciate, knowing and noticing, checking in for impact and reception, and justifying only that which genuinely seems deeply appreciated by all, the very definition of good itself. This is the sexuality that our path is made to lionize, the play that is both safe and warm and genuinely and lovingly accountable and willing to acknowledge limitations and injuries enough to make space for subtler rules and clearer standards and languages.

Comfort with and faith in imposing degrees of discomfort, including full on abuse, remains one of the main problems emerging within a range Jewish nationalisms, a strong side effect of fundamentalist ecstasy in post Birthright, post-1967 Israel context. Nationalism is about feeling comfortable doing what you do and enjoying what you enjoy because of who you are, and this is so much of the shift in Jewish identity towards both aggressive militarism as well as sexuality. The impact of having a viable nationalism, if not the most viable and inspiring version of an ethnic/religious nationalism that the last hundred years has offered, is so implicated in the sort of sexual abuse associated with Shlomo personally, as well as some of the most beloved of his hassidim, and maybe even Israel in general. Not institutional and not secreted but wild, human with the silencing mechanism entirely unimposed, but quietly assumed and tacitly insisted on a person-to-person level, in light of the hope of integrating the ancient discretion tradition with the modern universal contempt for informers and party-ruiners. The active repression of religious institutions in protecting their predatory ministry and educators was the rule in orthodoxy as well as Catholicism and Hollywood, it turns out, Shlomo and community were very much locked out of that protection mechanism, but the rule itself endured into folk communities: forgive everything, report nothing, try not to talk about it.

The best of the next generation after Shlomo, tried to at least deal with the tendency to feel so justified “loving”¬† in ways fundamentally self-indulgent, either tempered by sensitivity to the usually female other by listening to women, the Torah of Notice how People feel and believe their experiences already such a big part of Shlomo’s Torah, or else a harsher decent into charedi pious normativity, Zionist, hassidic or otherwise, rejecting the innovation of holy physical affection with friends and strangers as self-indulgent trickery and another of modernity’s dissolute delusions. The most responsible and concerned of the community, already formed out of and built around ecstatic idealism in sacred context, made honesty the rule as early as I was in Jerusalem. Alas, most in the community didn’t trust honesty, and so many people did experience, in many ways, silencing around “negativity” or concern, because the fear was, whatever we have in this community, in this tradition, is so precious and so vulnerable and will dissolve in the face of radical honesty. This is one of the inherent challenges in all modern spirituality.

We need to talk about what happened and didn’t happen with Shlomo so that whatever is a problem, a wound, an abusive tendency, or blind spot doesn’t endure and damage others and ourselves, and our children. To cultivate sensitivity to the impact of our most precious connections and common denominators, to keep our involvement in them, and with each other, holy, sustainable, and forever appreciated. In the name of all the good from all the rebbes, we have to do better with the each-others we’ve most preferred to ignore and dismiss. It’s all Shlomo was trying to teach us, and digest himself, and woe for every thing we can’t fix in our own selves and our own lifetimes, and yay for as much as we can just live righter with each other, in authentic care, presence, communication and trust. Amen.

About the Author
Yoseph Needelman-Ruiz a.k.a. Yoseph Leib Ibn Mardachya is the author of "Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs" (Autonomedia press, 2012) an epic devotional study of Cannabis and other ethneogens in Judaism and its heresies throughout history, into super-modernity, in the hopes of passing on a useful counsel with regards to their use beyond "do" or "don't." He is currently working on a book about Pop Cartoon Kabbalah, and alternates between leading services and sermons in Williamsburg Brooklyn at Cong. Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, and living in Israel's Elah Valley.