and Writings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
Wisdom from Shlomo Carlebach
Magazine, Fall 5758
editor's note: Until his death in 1994, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,
Rabbi of Kehilat Jacob in Manhattan, was America's most popular
Chasidic songwriter This interview was conducted a year before
his death and is being printed now for the first time to remind
our community of the voices of tolerance in the Orthodox world.)
You are one of America's most famous and most loved Orthodox
rabbis. Your music has become so widely accepted in all branches
of Judaism that many people believe it to be the eternal melodies
used by our ancestors, unaware Of You and your creativity.
Could you tell us something about your family background?
CARLEBACH: Carlebach is an old rabbinic dynasty. In 1840,
my great grandfather left the city of Ishbeter in Poland and
became a rabbi in Germany, and my grandfather became a rabbi
in Rybeck, near Williamburg, He had eight sons and four daughters
(five sons became rabbis, and three of the four daughters
married rabbis). My father went to Berlin and later to America,
and he was always pumping into me and my brother that "you
have to be good rabbis." To give an example of how important
it was in our family: my father used to tell me that I had
to keep my yarmulke on my head, otherwise I couldn't become
a rabbi. One day I threw off the yarmulke and my brother starred
to cry and kept crying for hours, and he was crying because
"my brother will never be a rabbi." My dream was
to be the greatest Talmud scholar in the world, So I was learning
day and night. I was learning 48 hours a day. I didn't want
to be disturbed by what was going on in the world. I spent
a few years at the yeshiva (an academy of advanced Jewish
studies) in Lakewood, NJ., and I didn't even look at the headlines
of the newspapers. I didn't want to have anything to do with
we were in Vienna, when I was a kid, the old Lubavitcher rabbi
came to our house and he took me and my brother aside and
said, I bless you that you will some day be Chassidishe Yidden
(hassidic Jews), and don't be German little boys. This was
around 1931, and I was about six.
So your father wasn't a Chassid?
SHLOMO: My father was a real Orthodox rabbi. He loved
every Jew. And he had his heart open for the whole world.
He was very good friends with the Cardinal of Vienna (Ritzinger).
In my father's house, I met the absolutely greatest rabbis
of the world. My father was also a man of the world.
I was five years old I always had private teachers, a young
man living in our house so that we could learn day and night.
When I was six, seven, eight we also had secular teachers
who came to teach secular knowledge - all private teachers;
we didn't go to school. According to good German education,
children at a certain time must go to bed so that they can
be alert the next day. But I had a deal with my teacher, who
was a young man living on the third floor, that after I was
supposed to be asleep I would sneak out of my room and study
with him, studying day and night. It doesn't mean I wasn't
playing football like crazy or that I didn't have a bike.
I even thought if 1 didn't become a rabbi I'd become a bicycle
racer (there were races in our city, and I entered and always
we faced the rise of fascism, and all of a sudden all those
kids who we thought were our best friends turned on us and
started to hate us. Unbelievable. So we came to America and
eventually I went to Lakewood Yeshiva.
was very much into learning, but eventually I went to the
Lubavitcher Rebbe and he told me that the world needed more
rabbis who could talk to people. I told him that I loved learning,
but he told me that I should stop thinking just about what
I personally loved to do, and focus more on what the world
needed. So I started doing that: talking to people about Judaism.
1951 to 1955 I was, mamash [really], the Rebbe's right-hand
man, Today, Lubavitcher sends out messengers all over the
world, but then it wasn't yet organized and I was one of the
first, actually Zalman (Schachter-Shalomi) and I were the
first messengers of the Lubovitcher Rebbe. Zalman and I were
his representatives, reaching his message to the world.
I did outreach. But I had some problems and I told the Rebbe
about it. "Last night," I told the Rebbe one day,
"I had one hundred people come to learn and sing with
me." But in those days the Rebbe had the position that
women cou ldn't sing with men [kol isha, women's voices would
sexually arouse men according to some Orthodox traditions].
So I told the Rebbe, "When I told them that we had to
sit separately men from women, I lost 90 people, and when
I told them that women couldn't sing, I lost nine more, and
the one person who remained was the biggest idiot. So instead
of spending two hours with people who wanted to know something
about Yiddishkeit, I wasted my time on one idiot. Let's assume
that it's very important that men and women shouldn't sit
together. Still, this is like a manicure for Judaism, making,
it super-beautiful, but if the person is having a heart attack
you don't give him a manicure. So I can' t do outreach this
the Rebbe said to me, "I cannot tell you to do it your
way. But I can't tell you not to do it your way. So if you
want to do it on your own, G-d be with you." So I split.
If I had stayed, and the Rebbe had gone with what I was saying,
he could have been Rebbe of the world, not just Rebbe of the
Woodstock. Why should Swami Satchananda go there - why not
the Lubavitcher Rebbe? It would have been a gevalt -- it would
have changed a whole generation. But the Rebbe chose to be
the Rebbe of the Chassidim. You know, a few years after the
Rebbe became chosen to be the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he wrote
a letter to his Chassidim and said, "I have so many unbelievable
dreams, but I can't do them because your heads are so small."
then, let's assume I was a little bit homeless. I was not
with Lubavitch, I was not in Lakewood, and for two or three
years I managed. Then I saw someone playing guitar, and I
started learning. I got a teacher, and one day while she was
on the phone I started making up a melody and she heard it,
said it sounded beautiful, and she wrote it down. Then she
said, "Whenever you have a new song, call me and I'll
write it down." So a few days later I had a new melody,
for the wedding song "Od Yeeshamah,"and l called
her up and she wrote it down. And that's how my career began.
so I began to sing my songs, and in between one song and another
I realized I could talk to people about Judaism, because when
they sing their hearts are open. I made a living singing.
In fact, the first time I did a concert at a shul, I arrived
How completely out of character for you ... (laughter becauve
Shlomo became famous for always coming late).
SHLOMO: So the president of the synagogue gets up when
I arrive and he says, "We will not be paying, Rabbi Carlebach
for this concert because he is late." And so I said,
"Dear friend, you think you are paying for my singing?
I sing for free." And so I did the concert anyway.
1959 1 came out with my first record, and with the money I
made from that I bought myself a ticket and went to Israel.
I started singing there. I didn't think anyone would pay attention
to me, so I was just sitting on street corners singing and
slowly, slowly... And my first concert in Jerusalem that summer,
thousands of people attended, it was gevalt. And then I managed
to spend half of each year in Israel and half in America.
in 1966, the greatest thing happened to me. I was invited
to the Berkeley Folk Festival. There I saw all these thousands
of young people who the world condemned as being dope addicts
and I realized that they were yearning for something holy,
and their souls were so pure, awesome! The festival began
on Thursday morning. On Friday morning I announced that tonight
I'm going to the synagogue and any one who might want should
join me. I thought maybe ten or fifteen people would show
up, but over two thousand came to the small synagogue.
thought that the people at the synagogue would be so happy
that they came, but the president called me up and said, "It
was the most disgusting thing that ever happened." We
had people staying and celebrating Shabbat till four in the
morning, studying and singing, and then the way that the synagogue
responded was a shame. So I realized I had to have my own
place. So we created in San Francisco the House of Love and
Prayer and until 1974 they were there and then many of the
best people there went to the moshav in Modi'in in Israel.
What was it about the Jewish world that turned off these young
people from Judaism, people whom you saw as "pure souls"?
SHLOMO: Let me quote Rav Kook, one of our greatest prophets.
He says the world always thinks that religious people are
the ones who are close to religion, and non-religious ones
don't care about religion. But it is often the case that the
non religious people are yearning for something so deep and
they look at the religious people and they don't find that
there. People who are announcing themselves as messengers
of God are often very mediocre people and they don't even
sense the yearning of those unbelieving people. I see it all
the time in Israel - All those secular soldiers in the Israeli
army want something deeper than what they see among the religious.
I once went to visit our Israeli troops in Lebanon during
the Lebanese War, and I met the IDF chaplain and asked him,
"How is everything?" And he responded, "Fine.
The meat is kosher." So I said, "If I want good
salami, I wouldn't come to Lebanon for it. How are the soldiers
doing? Are you talking to them?" He said, "Oh, they
aren't religious, they aren't interested." So I said
to him, "I'll bet you ten dollars that if you offer to
teach these soldiers something deep, like Rav Kook, that they'll
respond." So I went out to the unit, and walked up to
the most coarse-looking soldier, and you could see on his
face that he ate on Yom Kippur not three times but five times
just to show you, and I walked up to him and I said, "Would
you like to study Rav Kook, something for your soul?"
His eyes lit up. He didn't even know that Jewish people talk
about the soul. He thought all we talk about is kosher meat
and a yarmulke and other religious rituals. Unbelievable.
What could be done in the organized Jewish world so that the
people whci present Judaism could have this kind of approach?
SHLOMO: Listen Michael (Rabbi Michael Lerner conducted
the interview], if everyone would have your vision, the messiah
would be here already. The sad truth is that the people who
teach Judaism think that when someone approaches them to learn
about Judaism, the teachers think that they must teach them
what to do and especially what not to do. I once met a homeopath
and he told me the difference between conventional medicine
and homeopathy is that medicine works from outside to inside,
homeopathy works from inside to outside. That's the whole
thing religion has to work from inside to outside.
In the past thirty years there is a movement called the ba'al
teshuvah (master of repentance) movement, but it turns out
that overall many more people are leaving Judaism than have
come back. Do you have a strategy to create more people who
can speak on the level of going from the inside to the outside,
who will speak to the heart?
SHLOMO: I started the House of Love and Prayer in San
Francisco, and every Friday night hundreds of people would
come. There was an opening so that we might have a whole generation.
We could have taken over .... There were thousands of kids
who were interested. I hate the name ba'al teshuvah, because
it implies that these young people were doing wrong and now
they are repenting. I said to the Jewish establishment, "We
have to do teshuvah, We must have done so much wrong that
these kids left us," They are the real Tzadikkiin [righteous
ones]. They came back to Orthodox Judaism, and the first time
they were told that up until now you were a sinner. No. Every
religion is a flash light. We in Judaism have a psychedelic
light, but there is no need to knock any other religion, I
love a girl and want to marry her, I don't have to say that
every other girl is ugly.
the beginning of the House of Love and Prayer, there was a
man who came to services on Friday night and at the end of
the service he pulled out an instrument and started to play
Of course, that is not what we do in an Orthodox shul on a
Shabbat, but I said nothing, because he was coming on Shabbat
and I was glad he was there. He did it again the next week,
and the week after that, and then he come to me and said,
"Thank you for not saving anything to me. I was testing
your patience, and I now see that you really would accept
me here." Now, he is a doctor and president of the PTA
of an Orthodox yeshiva. I never, never tell people what to
taught us one time on Mount Sinai. Imagine if G-d would be
sending thunder and lightning every Friday and saying, "You
Jews, you'd better keep Shabbos, otherwise I'll tear you out."
But G-d doesn't do that. The holy Sanzer Rebbe called in his
children after they were bar mitzvahed and said to them, "From
now on, I just want to be your best friend." That trust
gave those children self-confidence.
we've pushed away 90 percent of the kids who wanted to come
back. When they came to the Orthodox circles, they didn't
find the real fire souls. We have a few million Jews, but
we only have a few thousand ba'al teshuvahs. It's a joke.
So do you have a strategy for how to change this? Your own
shul attracts a few hundred wonderful people, but that isn't
really doing the outreach on the level that you are talking.
The only group that seems to have a strategy is the Lubavitch
movement, and they seem to repeat the very errors you are
SHLOMO: The most we can do is keep our hearts open, and
when people come and want to learn, we can tell them where
to learn, I have to tell people to go to yeshiva to learn,
and unfortunately after a few weeks either they leave the
yeshiva or you don't recognize them anymore because the spark
is gone from their eyes and they don't care for the world
You've said in the past that we don't have the right yeshiva.
So what is the right yeshiva?
SHLOMO: The right yeshiva is a place where there is so
much love that it's awesome. G-d gave us Torah with so much
love, so if I want to give over the Torah to my children it
has to be done in that same way. Rabbi Nachman says that each
time vou learn you are bringing the Torah down from heaven.
If you teach the Torah with anger, and tell them: "You
have to, you have to, you have to" - No. It has to be
so deep that they want to. The spiritual depths of the Torah
have to be presented.
It would be wonderful if our TIKKUN constituency could really
learn from you. But I see two barriers. One is the issue of
the relationship to women, the way that the tradition does
not give enough space to women.
SHLOMO: I know its a bad scene on that question.
The second issue is our relationship to "the other"
in general, and to Palestinians in particular. The Jews jumped
from the burning buildings of Europe and we landed on the
backs of Palestinians. We were jumping for our lives, and
it wasn't our fault that we've hurt others in the process.
But we have to be sensitive that we did hurt others. ... I
remember this past Pesach when I saw you bringing your own
daughter up to the bimah and her head was resting on your
shoulders as you davened the Kedusha, so I know that you are
struggling with this as best you can within the context of
Orthodoxy, but the context of Halakha places real limits.
SHLOMO: With Halakha I could have managed. It's not Halakha,
but the smallness of the heads of most peple. In the House
of Love and Prayer I didn't have mechitza [separation between
women and men]. After the Six Days War, I was one of the first
people to walk into the Old City and I walked up to every
Arab and kissed them, our cousins. I went to the top people
in Israel, and I said, "If we want to live in peace with
the Arabs, as much as we need an army to make war, we need
an army to make peace. The army to make peace -- give me five
thousand free tickets to bring holy hippies from Los Angeles
and San Francisco, to bring them here, and we will go to every
Arab house in the country and bring them flowers and tell
them that we want to be brothers with them. We will bring
musicians and we will play at every Arab wedding and we want
them to bring their bands to play at our weddings. We have
to live together. So everyone was crying the suggestions,
but in the end they said, "Don't call us, we'll call
We've managed to turn a population into our enemies. The Palestinians,
remember, did not fight in 1967. The Jordanians fought, but
the Palestinians did not fight.
SHLOMO: The heartbreaking thing is that until a few years
ago we might have reversed things.
To switch to another topic, what is your advice to people
who find themselves in synagogues on the High Holy Days where
there is very little happening spiritually? How do they change
SHLOMO: They need to get themselves a better rabbi and
a better cantor. Let me tell you a story.
I was invited to lead a Shabbat service for the Young Leadership
of the UJA. So, people came and then the director of this
particular group comes to me and says, "Rabbi, would
you please do the davening in a hurry so that we can get people
to eat in a short while." So, I said, "No, get yourself
another rabbi if you want someone who is hurrying." I
davened, and we went through the prayers with full intensity,
and many of these people who thought that their entire relationship
with Judaism was to sign a check had a very different kind
next day these people held a session about the future of Judaism
and some of the people were saying that their children were
asking, "Why should we be Jewish?" And they didn't
know what to say. They asked me, and I told them, "If
they are asking why, it's because they didn't experience anything
that adequately turned them on, and that is our fault not
theirs." And I told them, if you want to save Judaism,
you have to shut all the synagogues and all the Hebrew Schools
for one day, and then we have to reopen them with different
rabbis and different cantors and different teachers. Because
we are standing by while the current leadership is ruining
a whole generation, and we don't say a word! We need new synagogues
all over the United States. So they told me, "This is
You seem to be having the same experience with the Jewish
establishment that we at TIKKUN have had.
SHLOMO: The establishment is bankrupt in the worst way
Perhaps vou could help our readers learn something about the
way that Judaism suggests to develop a personal spiritual
practice. I know that it's often not easy to find in existing
synagogues. I think of my experience saying Kaddish for my
mother when I davened each morning at Oheb Zedek [the Orthodox
synagogue in New York]. It is a no-nonsense davening, everybody
getting through the prayers as quickly as possible so that
they could get down to Wall Street in the morning to be there
for the opening bell. But not much seemed to be happening
SHLOMO: There was no time to get into saying "Good
morning, G-d." Well, even if it may be hard for some
people to find a synagogue in which to find genuine spiritual
encounters, there are still many books to read that give people
a way in. There is Buber, Heschel, Aryeh Kaplan. There are
millions of things that are available if you are open to developing
your spiritual life as a Jew and really open to seriously
and Writings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach