Thursday, December 19, 2013

When the Eyes Are Off the Prize

Father and daughter: R' Shlomo and Neshama Carlebach
Neshama Carlebach  just declared herself a Reform Jew. The daughter of famed composer of Jewish music, Shlomo Carelbach explains why in an article published by JTA. My first reaction was that her father is probably turning over in his grave. But at the same time I’m not so sure he would have been surprised had he lived to see this. At least he shouldn’t have been. Shlomo Carlebach embraced a form of Judaism which I believe has today morphed into a new-age post denominational movement called Jewish Renewal.

In theory I would love it if we could all be post-denominational in the literal sense. Let us do away with labels and become a people defined by our faith in God and His Torah. And not our level of observance or our personal understandings. This is what most of the Sephardi world does and we should take a lesson from them.

But this is not what Shlomo Carlebach embraced. He focused on Kabalah, Chasidism, music and meditation like practices – and not on Mitzvah observance. One can say that Shlomo Carlebach’s attitude and behavior epitomized this kind of thinking as he evolved into the charismatic personality he eventually became. Despite his problematic personal behavior that was strongly criticized by religious leaders of his time - he turned a lot of people on to Yiddishkeit.

Ms. Carlebach actually makes reference to the fact that her father actually danced with these movements:
My late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, raised us in an observant Orthodox household. Our lives were filled with beautiful ritual and we celebrated the wonder of a familial spiritual connection. That said, we also danced along the fine line of progressive Judaism. 
I think even the casual observer saw that. I can understand how someone like Shlomo Carlebach could evolve into this kind person. His emphasis was on the spiritual. Although he never abandoned Halacha, he sought ways to infuse lives with a spirituality that goes beyond the performance of Mitzvos which he maintained was more often than not performed in a rote manner. I think he was right about that.

His music and story telling was his way of achieving that spirituality for the people who followed him. But when the focus on Mitzvah observance is secondary to some sort of amorphous spirituality, it can easily take on a life of its own and even supplant Mitzvah observance in some cases.

This is in fact what the theology of the Reform movement was. They initially believed that Mitzvah observance in the form of ritual was designed to produce ethical behavior. Since we all know what that is in our more enlightened era, we no longer need the ritual to teach or reinforce it.

In the early days of Reform Judaism ritual was completely rejected as a requirement of Judaism. I remember one Reform rabbi in Toledo back in the fifties requiring anyone who entered his Temple to remove their Kipa. He surely saw ritualistic Mitzvah observance as outmoded - even primitive. 

That has changed. While there still exists die hard liberals who resist any change from the original doctrines of the movement… the tide is certainly turning the other way. They now embrace Mitzvah observance and encourage it as much as possible – albeit on a voluntary basis. There is ample evidence of that.  They have even revised their Siddur to include more Hebrew and have restored traditional prayers that were deleted in the past.

So if you combine these facts with Ms. Carlebach’s Orthodox upbringing… and the rejection her father got from Orthodoxy - it is not too difficult to understand what has happened here. She described that rejection as intolerance, cruelty, and ostracism. She suffered along with him. As she still does in her current role as a female singer – of which Orthodoxy does not approve.

But that is not how Reform Judaism treated her. She was invited to perform at Reform Judaism’s biennial convention. Here is her description of her experience:
I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was. The tikkun olam mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.
Now I’m relatively sure that she will not abandon Mitzvah observance in the new Reform climate of encouraging it. But that does not make what she did, OK.

I can only blame her father for this ‘transformation’. This is how he raised her.  She feels at home in a Reform movement that endorses the kind of pluralism her father preached and lived. They warmly embrace her without reservation. What she apparently does not realize is that her Reform Judaism is not post denominational. Reform Judaism is a denomination with its own principles and values. By so strongly and publicly rejecting her Orthodox identity she is in effect rejecting the Torah itself. Even if every Reform Jew would start practicing all the Mitzvos of the Torah, it would still be a denomination that rejects the Torah.

Voluntary Mitzvah observance goes against the very essence of the Torah. As a pundit once put it in the context of ten of those Mitzvos, ‘It’s called the Ten Commandments - not the Ten Suggestions. I would substitute the number 613 in place of ten. The Torah commands. It does not suggest.

It is one thing to embrace the culture of Tikun Olam which is the hallmark of the Reform Movement. One can justifiably say that Reform Judaism has taught us about the importance of this Mitzvah and that we Orthodox do not do enough along these lines. Her father did that. But in my view he overdid it to the point of minimizing Mitzvah observance. In the eyes of his fans and followers, ‘Reb Shlomo’ (as he is loving called by them) was all about Kabalah, Chasidism, music and meditation. The price of that is unfolding before our eyes in the person of his own daughter. Shlomo Calrelbach would have never done what she did.

I feel bad for Neshama Carlebach. But her father’s well intended love affair with progressive Judaism has ultimately led her astray.