Evaluating Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's place in Jewish history.

Author:Ophir, Natan 'Offenbacher'

Who was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach? (1) According to the publicity blurb of the Broadway musical "Soul Doctor," Reb Shlomo was "a modernday troubadour" who "ignited the spirit of millions around the world with his soul-stirring melodies, transformative storytelling, and boundless love." Indeed, in the annals of American Jewish history, Carlebach is often identified with superlatives that portray his life as folk singer/guitarist and spiritual outreach worker. In the Jewish American Chronology, he is recognized as "the twentieth century's most prolific and influential composer of Jewish music and a key ambassador of spirituality." (2) The American Jewish Year Book labels him "the foremost composer of contemporary Jewish songs." (3) In the New Age Encyclopedia he is a "New Age Neo-Hassidic rabbi and singer." (4) These descriptions are based upon the most well-known parts of Carlebach's career but they do not reckon with much of his scholarly teachings. The Shlomo Carlebach Foundation launched an ambitious project of transcribing thousands of these teachings, (5) and the first volumes were published recently. (6) Once these have been published and analyzed, it will become easier to assess the depth and innovation of Reb Shlomo's thinking.

Academic analysis of Carlebach's ideas began only in the past few years--a doctoral thesis on his musical tradition, (7) two bachelor's theses at Yale and Princeton Universities, (8) a master's thesis at the Jewish Theological Seminary, (9) and a doctoral thesis underway at Haifa University. (10) Several scholars published articles in which Carlebach is discussed in a specific context. For example--Yaakov Ariel about the neo-Hasidic revival," Shaul Magid about Jewish Renewal," and M. Herbert Danzger in the context of the religious return to tradition." American Jewish historians such as Jonathan Sarna have highlighted Carlebach's significance in the "renewal of Jewish spirituality."'4 Dana Evan Kaplan has stressed Carlebach's role in the "popularization of Jewish mystical outreach." (15) But besides this, not very much has been written about Carlebach from an academic perspective.

A few years ago, when I was asked to prepare an academic biography of Reb Shlomo, I found that besides brief historical synopses, the main material available was hagiographic. Three books published in English in 1997, three years after Shlomo's death--by Meshulam H. Brandwein, (16) Zivi Ritchie, (17) and Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum (18)--offered inspiring stories, teachings, and anecdotes. Thus for example, Mandelbaum depicted "wondrous deeds" and secret acts of kindness that portrayed a "Latter Day Saint," a "Hidden Righteous Man." (19) These three books formed the basis for the reconstruction of Shlomo's biography even for the critical and academic writings. More biographical information became available as recollections were published by disciples such as Aryae Coopersmith (20) and David Zeller. (21) But here also the materials were typically anecdotal. The result was that it was not easy to critically or objectively assess Reb Shlomo's life and career.

My first task was to create a timeline by locating dates and places for Reb Shlomo's performances, events, teachings, and personal consultations. To do so, I...

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