Monday, June 07, 2010

The Carlebach Controversy

OK… so it’s a slow news day in the Jewish world. I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about an icon of Jewish music -Shlomo Carlebach (pictured with daughter Neshama).

First the good news. I absolutely love his music. He was in fact an incomparable genius at composing Jewish music (...if one concedes that there is such a thing). He is to Jewish music what Albert Einstein is to science; what the Vilna Gaon is to Torah; what Bill Gates is to computers; what Beethoven is to classical music; and what the Beatles are to pop music.

I feel pretty safe in saying that the depth and breadth of his influence is greater than that of all modern era Jewish composers combined. This includes - not only all of Orthodoxy but all of Jewry. He has even had influence in the general culture - It would therefore be impossible to exaggerate Shlomo Carelbach's contribution and influence in Jewish music.

I am convinced that his music is so prolific and so vast very few people know all of his compositions. Many sing his songs and don’t even know it. There are people opposed to Shlomo Carlebach that unwittingly use his melodies for Davening.

Why are some people opposed to him?

The fact is that he led his life in a very unorthodox fashion. Not that he violated Halacha. To the best of my knowledge he didn’t. But his activities seemed to sometimes border on it. He veered widely off the traditional paths of his Charedi background. He would often hug his fans. Some of them were women. When he was asked about it he responded that he wasn’t hugging women. He was hugging souls. At one time there were even some very serious accusations made against him. Although he is not identified by name - it is widely believed that Shlomo Carlebach was the subject of a Shaila asked of Rav Moshe Feinstein (published in the Igros Moshe).

Rav Moshe was asked whether it was even permissible to use his music in the liturgy or otherwise generally listen to his music. If I remember correctly Rav Moshe reluctantly permitted it. It was not inherently anti Torah. I would argue that it was actually very pro Torah. Which is why his music is so widely used in even the most right wing of circles.

Although I am not much of fan of prolonging the Davening by singing lots of songs – I do appreciate an occasional melody of his being used in one or two segments of the Davening. But there is something I do not appreciate at all. Making an ‘Avodah Zara’ out of him. This seems to be what has happned in recent years in some cases.

Carlebach Minyanim have sprouted up all over the world. A Carlebach Minyan is a Minyan dedicated solely to his music. I can understand why that might be appealing to some. In theory I suppose it is a harmless exercise and might even be a positive inspiritational one. The problem is the focus is only on him. And it attracts those who consider him an icon – a rabbinic leader on par with the greatest rabbinic leaders in Jewish history.

These types of Minyanim perpetuate this mistaken notion! His questionable behavior is lost on these people. But even if one discounts it all as false and that he was as pure as the driven snow this enterprise is wrong and amounts to a new kind of Rebbe worship. The same kind that has gotten Lubavitch into trouble. True -the reasons of that worship are very different but the results are very much the same. The only difference is who they consider the icon.

There is another problem with these Minyanim. Even though there is an undeniable Ruach generated - Davening there is becoming more Carlebach centered rather than God centered. That undermines the purpose of the Davening. People get carried away with the music at the expense of the words.

I am therefore opposed to Carlebach Minyanim. Not to Carleabach’s music. Just to these Minyanim that have sprouted up.

Bottom line is one can be a fan of Shlomo Carlebach’s music the way I am. As I said when I started this post – I love his music. One can incprporate it into Davening it is indeed very appropriate and inspiring. I judge his music and not him. But to make an ‘Avodah Zara’ out of him is a big mistake.