Contemporary

The Development of Neo-Hasidism: Echoes and Repercussions Part III: Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

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Ariel Evan Mayse

Editor’s note: This article, presented in four parts, is a revised version of a paper presented at the Orthodox Forum convened March 15-16, 2015. It will appear in the forthcoming volume, Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut, ed. Shlomo Zuckier (Urim, 2019), as part of the Orthodox Forum series. It is intended to spark a conversation about the origins of neo-Hasidism and to consider its contemporary relevance. After some preliminary notes, the first three installations are devoted to exploring in brief the works of foundational neo-Hasidic writers, thinkers, and leaders. This intellectual genealogy paves the way for the fourth part of the series, considering the impact of neo-Hasidism, and particularly its liberal forms, upon Orthodox Jewish life and examines how such liberal neo-Hasidism may continue to influence Orthodox religious thought.

See the first, second, and fourth installments of this series herehere, and here.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) was a gifted musician, teacher, and storyteller.[1] The scion of a great rabbinic family, Carlebach was raised in a traditional German Orthodox community but met the religious world of Hasidism in his youth. After the Second World War, he came to imagine a renewal of contemporary Jewish life grounded in the teachings of Hasidism. Described variously as “the singing rabbi,” “the dancing rebbe,” and “the Hasidic troubadour,” Carlebach became a worldwide Jewish sensation; his influence spilled across boundaries both geographic and denominational.[2] Reb Shlomo, as he was popularly known, mobilized the spiritual legacy of Hasidism to lift the hearts and minds of Israel out of the incomparable damage wrought by the Holocaust.

Shlomo and his twin brother Eli Chaim were born in Berlin but raised in Baden bei Wien, a town frequented by members and leaders of several Hasidic communities. The Carlebach family escaped to Brooklyn on the eve of the Second World War, and Shlomo continued his studies in the academies of Torah Vodaas and then in Lakewood under the aegis of the great Rabbi Aharon Kotler. But he left the insular yeshiva world in the late 1940s, following his brother to the Chabad court. The Chabad community, while fiercely Orthodox, was already beginning to show signs of interest in reaching beyond its own borders; Reb Shlomo later described this move from Lakewood to Crown Heights as having been motivated by a need to help the Jewish people after the Holocaust.[3]

The young Shlomo was sent out by Lubavitch to gain new recruits for Chabad. This outreach program, which was initiated by R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn and blossomed under the leadership of his son-in-law R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, reflected the belief that the Jewish people needed more than great Talmud scholars: they needed sensitive, dynamic rabbis who could “talk to people about Judaism.”[4] Together with a brilliant and outgoing young rabbi named Zalman Schachter, about whom much more will be said below, Reb Shlomo went to college campuses and gave impromptu performances that included Hasidic stories and music. Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were tasked with something quite new. Their goal of returning assimilated Jews toward a traditional life of commitment and observance had little precedent in the Hasidic world. The earlier figures of Buber and Zeitlin had inveighed against the apathetic and spiritually vapid lives of secularized European Jews, but neither of them suggested that their readers should actually become Hasidim. Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman hoped that those inspired by their teachings, melodies, and stories would journey to Crown Heights and devote themselves to a traditional life of observance. However, even in these early years Reb Shlomo molded the Hasidic tradition so that it would speak to the post-War seekers. In doing so he too was dramatically reshaped by the new generation of Jewish youth.[5]

Reb Shlomo traveled throughout the 1950s, developing a reputation as a talented Jewish performer. But he drifted away from Chabad, led by his belief that strict gender separations and the traditional prohibition against women singing were impediments for many contemporary Jews.[6] In 1966 Reb Shlomo was invited to participate in the Berkeley Folk Festival. In the Bay Area he saw the world of the counter-culture in all of its beauty and complexity: drug addiction, rebellion, youthful energy, sexual liberation, spirituality, the quest to recover one’s roots, a longing for peace and universalism, a deep distrust of authority, and the fundamental belief that the world is broken and in need of repair. Reb Shlomo found himself deeply attracted to the soulfulness of many of the young people he met in that world, finding them more open to his own sort of spirituality than many in the yeshiva world from which he had come. At the same time, he quickly interpreted the 1960s hippie culture as a displaced yearning for the sacred among a generation that was dissatisfied with the empty, close-minded bourgeois life of their parents.

Throughout the 1960s-70s Reb Shlomo attended hippie gatherings and cultural or religious ceremonies of all kinds, performing together with swamis, gurus, and other spiritual sages. In 1967 he founded the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco.[7] This institution, which existed in various forms for nearly ten years, was a synagogue for spiritual seekers as well as an experiment in communal living and a loving home for lost souls.[8] And, although they did not lead the services, the House of Love and Prayer created a far more embracing and welcoming space for women than most traditional houses of worship. In addition to continuing the Hasidic emphasis on the power of prayer, the House of Love and Prayer allowed Reb Shlomo to emphasize the Shabbat atmosphere as a method for inspiring ecstatic experiences rivaling those created by controlled substances; it is no surprise that one of his songs from these years was called “Lord Get Me High.”

When the House of Love and Prayer closed its doors in 1977, many of its former members joined other disciples of Reb Shlomo in founding a community in Israel called Moshav Me’or (Mevo) Modi’in. This settlement, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, might be described as part yeshiva, part pioneer kibbutz, and part Jewish ashram. And although the community was variegated and approaches to Jewish practice and life varied somewhat, the rhythms of life—and communal standards—were largely traditional.

Although he became more interested in Israel after 1967, Reb Shlomo’s impact in the Holy Land began much earlier.[9] He gave concerts throughout Israel during a series of visits between 1959-1961, attracting young followers both religious and secular. Reb Shlomo was fiercely active in promoting morale among soldiers in the aftermath of the many wars. He drew upon Rav Kook in claiming that there is a spiritual kernel to the work of “secular” people involved in sacred pursuits. This was true for the American hippies, and was equally true for the Israeli soldiers fighting in defense of the State of Israel. Indeed, Rav Kook’s mystical nationalism had a marked impact on Reb Shlomo’s thought. Though describing himself as sensitive to the plight of the Palestinian Arabs, Reb Shlomo supported the Jewish right to settle the greater land of Israel. He maintained this position throughout the conflicts of the 1980s, and gave concerts in support of the settlers, performing in the West Bank alongside figures like the radical R. Yitzchak Ginsburgh.

Reb Shlomo saw himself as carrying forward the spiritual legacy of Hasidism. Like the other Neo-Hasidic thinkers surveyed in this series, he understood that Hasidism was grounded in an inward approach to religion.[10] But he also showed people a new way of living that was grounded in the sacred rites of Jewish observance. Thus Reb Shlomo was, in general, not rebelling against the practices of Orthodox Judaism, but rather against the intellectual small-mindedness, the rote or perfunctory approach to religious service, and failure to recognize the paramount importance of the inner world.[11] Even after the aporia of the Holocaust, taught Reb Shlomo, there is meaning beyond absurdity. Every moment and each action, be it ritual or seemingly mundane, can be transformed into a sacred encounter with God and an opportunity for true and unbridled connection with other people. This message of the necessity of absolute and unconditional love of others, of the infinite capacity of kindness, of devotional interconnectivity across the members of a community (and between individuals of different circles), and of joyful compassion were key elements of his spiritual legacy.

Shlomo Carlebach is remembered best for his stirring and inspiring music,[12] which blended folk traditions with an innovative Hasidic style. He understood the pedagogical value of song in addition to its aesthetic power, and once explained: “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.”[13] Music can be used to grab the attention of the audience and to open their hearts to a spiritual message. This devotional aim is clearly visible in the accompanying notes from a 1965 album, which bespeak the neo-Hasidic quality of his musical project:

Now a vibrant new Jewish personality has emerged to express the Hassidic [sic!] heritage in the context of our times. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, directly descended through a noteworthy rabbinic line of scholars, seeks to make manifest the original message of Hassidism. Shlomo is an Orthodox rabbi, a man of God—but he is also a folk singer in the truest sense of the word. A bard who utters from the fibers of his own being, music and words that speak with the world around him. Shlomo is a link in our time to the heroic figure of the Baal Shem Tov. In his presence one may experience that glow of warmth and courage, the Hassidic spark of divine fire that melts estrangement and soul weariness.[14]

The many hundreds of tunes that Reb Shlomo composed have seeped into Jewish communities across the globe. Some have essentially supplanted the traditional melodies of prayer, and many have become so universal that they are no longer associated with him. Many of Reb Shlomo’s tunes are deceptively simple, although some, particularly the early works, are rather complicated. He was very careful with the melodies, and demanded absolute precision.[15]

Reb Shlomo was famous for his original renditions of Hasidic tales. Unlike Martin Buber, who reworked the stories in written translation and made them accessible to a broad readership, Reb Shlomo was an oral storyteller who mastered the art of live performance.[16] His appearances always included a selection of Hasidic stories, chosen because of their thematic links to musical numbers as well as to the occasion for the gathering. Reb Shlomo was less explicit about the creative element of his tales than Buber. But he too had inherited the notion that Hasidic stories are meant to inspire, and therefore must always fuse the ethos of Hasidism with the needs of the contemporary listener.

Some of Reb Shlomo’s tales were recorded and included on musical discs, though many others were printed in written form only after his death. The message uniting all his stories, often heartrending yet always inspiring, is quite clear. They affirm life in the face of death, meaning in the face of absurdity, connection in the face of intractable loneliness, and sublime altruism and goodness in the face of unspeakable cruelty and destruction. The crux of every story, the moment in which Reb Shlomo invites his audience to open their hearts, is a sentence such as: “Do you know how many favors you can do in Auschwitz at night?” These are words that one cannot hear without being touched, piercing through even the most hardened veil of inattention and apathy. This painful context of redemption through kindness in the midst of the Holocaust ensures that Reb Shlomo’s message—“the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor”—is a powerful reminder to strive for goodness in the face of absurdity and tragedy.[17]

The creative deployment of Hasidic teachings is the third element of Reb Shlomo’s neo-Hasidic legacy. He frequently drew upon the sermons of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav together with lesser-known Polish Hasidic masters such as Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef of Izhbitz and Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno, whose works he helped to popularize among a contemporary readership. Reb Shlomo quoted from a wide variety of early Hasidic masters and on a number of occasions he actually handed out copies of Hasidic books, tailoring each selection for the intended recipient. Reb Shlomo neither quoted Hasidic teachings verbatim nor simply paraphrased their contents; he summarized and repackaged the message in a way that spoke to his contemporary audience.

For example, Reb Shlomo adapted an explanation of the biblical prohibition against a priest coming into contact with a corpse given by Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef of Izhbitz. The Hasidic master suggests that a kohen must not be allowed to encounter death because it will lead him to anger and frustration with the injustice of divine Providence.[18] This attitude of protest makes it impossible for the priest to perform his religious function. In a second teaching, R. Mordekhai Yosef adds that priests are tasked with serving God in a state of pure and constant joy. Reb Shlomo, however, combined these two distinct homilies into a single teaching and then extended their relevance into the present day. We serve God through prayer and study, he says, and our worship must be founded in joy. Yet this pure joy is impossible after the Holocaust, to which our response can only be anger. But all is not lost:

Young people today are so hungry for that light, for that meaning, for that melody—for the deepest inner dimensions of truth. And if they can’t get it from Judaism, they’ll go anywhere that love and light are to be found. Thank God our hungry, searching, younger generation found some traditions that weren’t so angry with God.[19]

Optimism and happiness, argues Reb Shlomo, must be maintained despite the brokenness of the Holocaust, although things cannot continue as they have always been. So the spirituality of contemporary seekers should be embraced, because it runs from new rivers and holy places untainted by our anger at the Nazis. Reb Shlomo knew that they would go to other sources of inspiration if they could not find an authentic Jewish language for their quest, but he also acknowledged that the shattered Jewish people was in need of the new generation’s type of pure joy and illumination.[20]

Another very important element of Reb Shlomo’s life must be addressed. Allegations of behavioral impropriety and sexual misconduct began to surface shortly after his death. Some of these date to the 1960s, when rumors were already circulating, and new allegations have continued to emerge into the present day. He acted toward young women in his orb in unacceptable ways, taking advantage of his personal charisma and of the trust his followers had in him. This is the case even by the standards of the time in which the events occurred, but is magnified when judged by the ethos of our own day.[21]

Continuing to see the good in Reb Shlomo and use his music—even if we acknowledge his bad behavior and condemn it—does send a message about how seriously these indiscretions are treated. To do so requires a great deal of caution and sensitivity.Wholesale erasure of Reb Shlomo’s legacy, however, does not account for the complexity of his legacy. Condemning such indiscretions in the strongest possible terms, it cannot be denied that he had a positive impact on many through neo-Hasidic performances filled with stories, teachings, and music.[22]

Reb Shlomo embodied the itinerant Hasidic master in the modern world, constantly moving from place to place and illuminating the people around him.[23] He trained a number of close disciples, ordaining some as rabbis and designating others as spiritual leaders of various sources.[24] His devoted followers, many of whom may rightly be called neo-Hasidim, run the gamut from Orthodox to liberal and avowedly heterodox.[25] Reb Shlomo’s own perspective, however, tended toward a traditional—if unconventional and expansive—religious ethos.[26] He maintained close connections with many parts of the Orthodox and Hasidic world. And although Reb Shlomo changed particular laws or customs, especially those that erected boundaries between people (metaphorically as well as physically), his commitment to Jewish practice was quite traditional.

Reb Shlomo experimented throughout his life, but, in the end, he never made a clean break with his past in the Orthodox world. In this sense, he may be said to have interpreted an idea central to the theology of the Izhbitz Hasidic dynasty. Most of us, said Reb Shlomo, are still within the framework of halakhah, but our dreams reach far beyond it. In rare times and under rare circumstances, the will of God and the halakhah as codified are not identical, and in those moments, we must have the audacity to break free and answer the call of the hour. Reb Shlomo’s neo-Hasidism was largely within the structures of traditional life, but without the intellectual and spiritual close-mindedness of the Orthodox world.[27] He knew that the generation of hippies and seekers would be lost without a new kind of Jewish spiritual leader. Reb Shlomo also understood that the post-Holocaust Orthodox world, including that of the Hasidim, required a burst of creative energy combined with an eternal message of hope.[28]

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014) was an exceptionally creative and dynamic spiritual teacher.[29] Reb Zalman, as he was affectionately known, was born in Poland but raised in Vienna, coming of age in a diverse Jewish environment with connections to the Hasidic world. After passing through Belgium and France to escape the Nazis, Zalman’s family moved to America. There he became close to the leadership of Lubavitch, who recognized his brilliant intellect and charismatic talents, and he enjoyed a short career as a Chabad missionary. But exposure to the wisdom of other faith traditions and the American counter-culture movement fundamentally changed Reb Zalman’s paradigm of Jewish spirituality, and he devoted the next fifty years of his life to inspiring a spiritual awakening among North American Jews based on the teachings of Hasidism.

The young Zalman grew up in a religious world (the family’s roots were in the Belz Hasidic community), but from an early age he was drawn more to the European intellectual world than to the arid spirituality in the highly-assimilated circles of his youth. During his family’s sojourn in Antwerp he first encountered a community of Chabad Hasidim. Reb Zalman would later describe his tremendous disappointment at the collapse of Western culture with the rise of the Nazis, noting that this Chabad group accepted his anger and bitterness without gazing at him askance. Reb Zalman was inspired by their spiritual depth, their commitment to contemplative prayer and religious experience, their relative openness to modernity, and their holistic approach to intensive spiritual education. He later recalled that:

I was drawn to the Lubavitch tradition, a form of Chabad, because of its promise that one could become adept enough to attain certain mystical experiences in this lifetime…. I also liked the nature of the relationship between the Rebbe and the individual Hasid. In this kind of Hasidism, the Rebbe shows you the way, but you have to do the work yourself—rather than hang onto his coattails.[30]

Reb Zalman was particularly attracted to the Chabad emphasis on the inner work of each individual Hasid. Some other Hasidic communities, by contrast, place the near-total focus on the rebbe’s worship and thus pave the way for a purely vicarious type of religious service. Having met and been deeply impressed by R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future Rebbe of Chabad, in Marseilles in 1941, Zalman decided to study in the Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn in the 1940s.

Reb Zalman, along with Reb Shlomo Carlebach, spent several of his formative years as a Chabad emissary sent out to American colleges in order to expose people to the teachings of traditional Judaism. In the 1950s, Reb Zalman worked as an Orthodox pulpit rabbi in New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts, but he also enrolled in graduate school at Boston University. He studied with the great theologian and preacher Howard Thurman, who exposed Reb Zalman to other religious traditions, particularly the powerful piety of his own mystical African-American Christian faith. Reb Zalman learned a great deal about spiritual leadership and community, and Thurman also showed him how religion could be taught in an experiential manner.[31] These skills based on the spirituality “labs”—practical exercises, such as different modes of devotional reading, singing, dancing (amplifying devotional skills that he had found in Chabad)—accompanied Reb Zalman throughout his career in communal leadership and university positions across North America.[32]

In the early 1960s Reb Zalman was beginning to push against the boundaries of Orthodoxy, although he was still part of the broadly-defined Chabad community. In a significant essay from that period, written for people totally unfamiliar with the world of Hasidism, he outlined the major tenets of Hasidic spirituality, including the Hasidic approach to study, song, introspection, and contemplative prayer. He also noted that one can only become a Hasid through apprenticing himself to a veteran member of the community, and ultimately to a particular rebbe, since the inner life of devotion is a skill that cannot be absorbed through books. Reb Zalman also offers the following remarks regarding the nature of Hasidism and its relationship to Jewish practice and Orthodoxy, perhaps the clearest statement of his early thinking on the subject:

Hasidism really relates perpendicularly to any form of Judaism, including Orthodoxy. It defines its teaching as the interior Torah, the Torah’s innermost part. It views its mode of prayer not in terms of liturgical dissent from the Ashkenazi ritual, but in terms of the service of the heart. Its field of action it views with an inner aliveness, with kavvanah (intention). It views God, Israel, and Torah as one, but with two aspects—the outer manifest one and the inner hidden one. It strives to impose interior recollection, joy and discipline, on outer traditional forms. The spontaneous is preferred over the dryly habitual. Yet it demands a higher awareness, and paradoxically, a pre-meditation within the spontaneous.

While basically, Hasidism has no quarrel with Orthodox Judaism, it feels that the latter is neither vital nor profound enough. Orthodoxy, while it teaches what ought to be done, does not, however, show its adherents how they may do this. Hasidism corrects this….

While Hasidism affords its adherents great individual freedom, it gives this only within the traditional framework. Latitude is given as to whether one prays earlier or later, depending on one’s interior recollectedness, or whether one wishes to pray with song or chant, rhythm or motion, or meditatively: but it does demand the praying of the liturgy in tallith and t’fillin…. It would be a mistake to assume that Hasidism frees anyone from divinely given obligations: what it does is to provide him with the joyous, fervent wherewithal to fulfill them.[33]

This is a beautiful summary of the inner path of Hasidism, which infuses existing rituals—indeed, the entirety of Jewish practice—with new religious meaning. The performance of sacred deeds does not ever replace the inward glance, but neither does contemplation or meditation supersede the obligation to act. It is important to note Reb Zalman’s increasing connections with non-Orthodox institutions and his work for Hillel, work that took him beyond the “four cubits” of the highly traditionalist world of Orthodox Hasidism. Already in this essay, we see that his emergent understanding of Neo-Hasidism is not wedded to any particular mode of practice or denomination. It is a reservoir of spiritual wisdom that may be deployed in all religious actions and settings.

But Reb Zalman’s expansive spiritual vision did not allow him to remain with Chabad forever. His drift began in the 1940s, and, though he never stopped feeling and projecting a connection to Lubavitch, by the mid-1960s he had left Chabad and become increasingly distanced from Orthodox Judaism.[34] In part, Reb Zalman left because of his appreciation for the power of psychedelic drugs, seeing in them the keys for unlocking new vistas of human consciousness. His awareness of and appreciation for the spiritual disciplines from other faith communities, his sense of the problematic strictures of Orthodoxy, and its intellectual myopia, also led him into new realms.[35] He had come to realize that Hasidism, as such, would not suffice as the religious fuel in contemporary America, due to its gender separation and inequality, and the strict hierarchy of the rebbe on top, untouchable, that nobody else could ever become. And, though his position on the subject changed over time, it was clear to him that halakhah as traditionally interpreted was no longer compelling and useful for the majority of American Jews.[36]

The encounter with Chabad was Reb Zalman’s earliest exposure to living Hasidism, but he also read the works of Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin, and Abraham Joshua Heschel.[37] His admiration for Heschel and Buber was tempered, however, by a critique of their versions of neo-Hasidism. He argued that Buber was alienated from Jewish practice and remained an outsider to the lived experience of Hasidism. Heschel, argued Reb Zalman, spoke with an indigenous Jewish vocabulary that Buber had lacked, but had forsaken the mystical aspects of Hasidism in order to emphasize the idea of a transcendent God to whose call mankind must respond with sacred deeds. But Reb Zalman’s most trenchant critique of Buber and Heschel is levied toward the fact that their neo-Hasidic projects were expressed in books rather than in charismatic leadership. Reb Zalman felt strongly that a neo-Hasidic spiritual master must be alive in order to offer guidance and spiritual counseling. He felt that the writings of Buber and Heschel can inspire their readers, but without a living leader to inspire embodied practice, the religious growth of a Hasid can only progress so far.[38]

The relationship between a spiritual leader and his (or her) disciples was of great concern for Reb Zalman over the course of his life. It was the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Hebrew Union College and several subsequent books, but Reb Zalman also spent much of his career cultivating and inhabiting his role as a living neo-Hasidic teacher. He sought to develop ways of communicating the spiritual tools of the Hasidic leader to the contemporary American rabbinate. The modern rabbi, claimed Reb Zalman, is more like a rebbe than an Eastern European rav, whose primary task was deciding points of law and adjudicating disputes.

The contemporary rabbi is called upon to offer spiritual guidance, and must therefore be schooled in the practical arts of pastoral psychology and how to interpret the dynamic spiritual world of Jewish theology in a modern (and post-modern) context.[39] But part of Reb Zalman’s neo-Hasidism was his portrayal of the rebbe as a matter of function, not essential identity: the same person may be the teacher one moment and a disciple in the next.[40] This egalitarian element to Reb Zalman’s neo-Hasidism, visible in his attitude toward gender and in his attempt to decentralize the rebbe without relinquishing charismatic leadership, represents a critical development.

Reb Zalman was also interested in establishing a devotional community.[41] Influenced by Trappist and other Catholic spiritual works, in 1964 he published a call to found a Jewish monastic order. The goal of what Reb Zalman called the “B’nai Or” community, similar in many respects to Zeitlin’s dream of Yavneh, was to serve God wholeheartedly and with undivided attention. The aim of such worship is defined as follows: “so that He, be He blessed, may derive nahat (pleasure) from us. Or, to put it differently, to realize God in this lifetime; to achieve a higher level of spiritual consciousness; to liberate such hidden forces within us as would energize us to achieve our highest humanity within Judaism.”[42] Here, presented in traditional Jewish language and then translated into the terms of counter-culture spirituality, is the ultimate goal of Hasidic devotion in the modern world.

Reb Zalman notes that the members of his imagined community are drawn to this new life because they are dissatisfied with contemporary secular and religious cultures; both have become essentially materialistic and self-centered. The cure for this, suggests Reb Zalman, is to form a community of unmitigated devotion to God. The day is to be divided equally into eight hours of rest and respite, eight hours of labor, and eight hours of divine service and spiritual work. The goal of this devotional community, open to both men and women, is to devote all aspects of life to God. While this vision of B’nai Or was never realized, Reb Zalman eventually established a host of small communities that eventually coalesced into Jewish Renewal, a contemporary movement that embodies his spiritual vision as well as the fundamental teachings of Hasidism.

Many aspects of the original call to establish B’nai Or accompanied Reb Zalman over the course of his entire career. Throughout his life he became increasingly devoted to expanding the role of women as equals in all religious settings. Reb Zalman’s concern with the practical methods for cultivating the art of prayer was a central aspect of his neo-Hasidism.[43] He wanted to make prayer meaningful for the contemporary Jewish community, and in order to do so he was interested in developing tools, practices, and techniques that could inspire greater levels of devotional attunement. Finally, although his approach to neo-Hasidism was primarily Jewish in thrust and practice, Reb Zalman was ready to borrow from other traditions when necessary. The heart of his spiritual vocabulary was grounded in the Chabad Hasidism of his youth,[44] but his vision of a common core of human spirituality led him to draw upon the experiential elements of other faith communities.[45]

Reb Zalman’s version of neo-Hasidism includes a radical element that became more pronounced over the course of his career. Simultaneous to his own uncoupling from the boundaries of Orthodox thought and praxis, Reb Zalman came to believe that humanity was undergoing a transformation of consciousness. He described this as a “paradigm shift” or “turning,” referring to a moment (or process) of total reformulation or even transvaluation of religion.[46] In a work published shortly before his death, Reb Zalman interprets the fiery spirituality of Hasidism as a specific manifestation of a universal human drive toward the life of the spirit.[47] He felt that mankind was on the verge of another such shift, in which the essence of Hasidism (itself a deeper human phenomenon) would become manifest in surprising and courageous new ways. This part of Reb Zalman’s vision was an echo of his Lubavitch origins, essentially a New-Age and universalized translation of the messianic thrust of twentieth-century Chabad.[48]


[1] For an outstanding biography of Carlebach, see Natan Ophir (Offenbacher), Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy (Jerusalem and New York: Urim Publications, 2014); see also the Hebrew work of M.H. Brand, R. Sheloimel’eh: Masekhet Hayyaṿ ve-Olamo shel R. Shelomoh Karlibakh (Efrat: 1996).

[2] His remarkable presence in American culture is attested by the recent Broadway musical Soul Doctor, based on the story of his life.

[3] The moves, both to Lakewood and then to Chabad, signaled a rejection of Carlebach’s German Orthodox heritage, perhaps because of its embrace of rational, secular culture as a necessary complement to modern religion, a belief that was shattered by the Holocaust; see Yaakov Ariel, “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius: The House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, 1967-1977,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 13:2 (2003), 140; Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum, Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1997), 52.

[4] “Practical Wisdom from Shlomo Carlebach,” Tikkun Magazine 12, no. 5 (Fall, 1998): 53.

[5] Ariel, “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius,” 141.

[6] In the Tikkun interview Reb Shlomo expressed sadness that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was unwilling to come with him into these uncharted and unconventional waters. But in 1959 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein penned a responsum in which he alludes to Reb Shlomo in veiled terms, referring to a prodigal scholar whose infractions are not heretical beliefs but rather the fact that he plays before mixed audiences. See Iggerot Mosheh, Even ha-Ezer, vol. 1, no. 96; Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 89; and for a different incident, see ibid, 243. More broadly, see Yaakov Ariel, “Can Adam and Eve Reconcile?: Gender and Sexuality in a New Jewish Religious Movement,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9, no. 4 (2006): 53-78.

[7] On the House of Love and Prayer, see Aryae Coopersmith, Holy Beggars: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem (El Granada, CA: One World Lights, 2011). In this same year Reb Shlomo took over the leadership of the New York synagogue where his recently deceased father had been the rabbi for several decades.

[8] It is noteworthy that Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel were listed as spiritual advisors to the House; see Coopersmith, Holy Beggars, 163.

[9] Ariel, “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius,” 156.

[10] Reb Shlomo once remarked that religion, like homeopathic medicine, “has to work from inside to outside”; see “Practical Wisdom from Shlomo Carlebach,” 53.

[11] One of Carlebach’s veteran students described him as follows: “Rav Shlomo was continually pushing all those around him to strive for the fullest Jewish experience at every moment, never accepting rote performance of any mitzvah… he taught that every moment is a unique opportunity to connect to God and to each other. He was a unique blend of tradition and spontaneity, halachah and creativity”; see Avraham Arieh Trugman, “Probing the Carlebach Phenomenon,” Jewish Action 63 (2002), 12.

[12] See Sarah Weidenfeld, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Musical Tradition in its Cultural Context: 1950-2005,” Ph.D. Diss. (Ramat Gan, Bar-Ilan University, 2008) [Hebrew]; Sam Weiss, “Carlebach, Neo-Hasidic Music, and Current Liturgical Practice,” Journal of Synagogue Music 34 (2009), 55-75; Shaul Magid, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and His Interpreters: A Review Essay of Two New Musical Releases” Musica Judaica Online Reviews (September 2010), accessed January 17, 2016. See also Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 55-57; Ariel, “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius,” 141.

[13] “Practical Wisdom from Shlomo Carlebach,” 53.

[14] Quoted in Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 108-109. The text, from the album Mikdash Melekh (In the Palace of the King), is by Sophia Adler. See also Robert Shelton, “Rabbi Carlebach Sings Spirituals,” New York Times, October 24, 1961, p. 24 (accessed January 26, 2016), cited in part by Ariel, “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius,” 142; and Mark Kligman, “Contemporary Jewish Music,” American Jewish Year Book 101 (2001), 99-104.

[15] See the discography and the list of songs in Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 463-480.

[16] The public career of this energetic performer and teacher spanned nearly five decades, but the fact that Reb Shlomo wrote very little has made it difficult for scholars to appreciate his contributions. His thoughts must be pieced together from oral testimonies, or from fragments of teachings recorded and transcribed by private individuals.

[17] Here I refer to the story “The Holy Hunchback,” included in the 1980 album L’Kovod Shabbos.

[18] Mei ha-Shiloah, Emor, 39b.

[19] Based on the paraphrased transcription by his student David Zeller, Soul of the Story: Meetings with Remarkable People (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2006), 148-151. See also Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 156-157; and Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 203-204.

[20] In reworking this teaching, Reb Shlomo excludes something present in the original teaching: the literal understanding of Divine providence, a characteristic element of the Izhbitzer’s Torah made frightful if applied to the Holocaust.

[21] See Sarah Blustain, “A Paradoxical Legacy: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side,” Lilith 23, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 10-17; and the replies in “Sex, Power and Our Rabbis: Readers Respond to ‘Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side,’” Lilith 23, no. 2 (Summer 1998):12-16; and Sarah Imhoff, “Carlebach and the Unheard Stories,” American Jewish History 100.4 (2016): 555-560. Cf. Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 421-425. See the op-ed piece by Reb Shlomo’s daughter Neshama Carlebach, a talented singer and performer in her own right: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/my-sisters-i-hear-you/ (accessed October 23, 2018).

[22] Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 195, describes him as having “crystallized a unique style combining three types of presentation: singing-whistling-guitar playing, musical storytelling, and ethical-theological exhortations spliced with personal anecdotes.” See also ibid, 53-59.

[23] For a popular collection of tales about him, see Mandelbaum’s Holy Brother.

[24] He gave rabbinic ordination to women as well, taking such a bold step far before the issue arose in the mainstream Orthodox community. See Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 363-380.

[25] Trugman, “Probing the Carlebach Phenomenon,” 9-12; Joanna Steinhardt, “American Neo-Hasids in the Land of Israel,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 13:4 (2010), 22-42. Shefa Siegel, “Shlomo Carlebach – Rabbi of Love or Undercover Agent of Orthodox Judaism,” Haaretz, Sep. 4, 2011, available at: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/books/shlomo-carlebach-rabbi-of-love-or-undercover-agent-of-orthodox-judaism-1.382475, retrieved Mar. 8, 2016. Micha Odenheimer, for example, has described his efforts on behalf of social justice worldwide as a direct outgrowth of the lessons imbibed from Reb Shlomo; see Tomer Persico’s recent interview with Odenheimer, available at: https://tomerpersicoenglish.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/changing-the-world-one-bit-at-a-time-an-interview-with-micha-odenheimer/, retrieved Feb. 1, 2016.

[26] Ariel, “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius,” 155: “As liberal and inclusive as he was, Carlebach wished to remain within the realm of Orthodox Judaism and was reluctant to go along with Schachter. With all his criticism of the lack of flexibility and inspiration on the part of the Jewish Orthodox establishment, his goal was to bring young men and women to a traditionally observant, if open and innovative, environment.”

[27] For an example of of Reb Shlomo’s own thoughts on the power of traditional Judaism and his relationship thereto, see Micha Odenheimer, “On Orthodoxy: An Interview with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,” Gnosis 16 (1990): 46-49.

[28] Shaul Magid, “Carlebach’s Broken Mirror,” Tablet Magazine, Nov. 1, 2012, emphasizes the extent to which Carlebach fabricated a “prewar Jewish world that never existed” in order to inspire his listener; available at: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/music/115376/carlebach-broken-mirror, accessed Jan. 20, 2016.

[29] Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, My Life in Jewish Renewal: A Memoir, with Edward Hoffman (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2012).

[30] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, The First Step: A Guide for the New Jewish Spirit, with Donald Gropman (Toronto and New York: Bantam Books, 1983), 2.

[31] See Edward K. Kaplan, “A Jewish Dialogue with Howard Thurman: Mysticism, Compassion, and Community,” CrossCurrents 60 (2010): 515–525.

[32] In reflecting upon the years in which he was becoming increasingly aware of other religious traditions and their spiritual “technologies,” Reb Zalman invoked the same teaching of R. Nahman of Bratslav used by Hillel Zeitlin in his description of the deep wisdom to be found in non-Jewish sources; see Schachter-Shalomi, The First Step, 10.

[33] Zalman Schachter, “How to Become a Modern Hasid,” Jewish Heritage 2 (1960), 40.

[34] Reb Zalman often later described his move from Chabad as a graduation rather than a clean break. See, for example, Zalman Meshullam Schachter-Shalomi, Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidism (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991), xiv-xvii.

[35] He was friends with Timothy Leary and took LSD for the first time in 1962. Heschel eschewed the use of drugs altogether, citing the turn toward such addiction as a sign that the youth were looking for spiritual uplift and met only stiltedness and banal, meaningless religion; see Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In Search of Exaltation,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 228-229.

[36] Later in life he expressed regret over the wilder elements of his past, and at times he presented his legacy as having undergone a process of refinement.

[37] Reb Zalman also knew Heschel personally; see Schachter-Shalomi, My Life in Jewish Renewal, 169-174.

[38] Zalman M. Schachter, “Hasidism and Neo-Hasidism,” Judaism 9:3 (1960), 220, notes that: “No book can be written about such things…. Neither Buber nor Heschel can replace the Rebbe. They can lead a prospective Hasid to one or another Rebbe, preaching one or another way. But without a Rebbe, the becoming of the Hasid is frustrated.”

[39] Schachter-Shalomi, Spiritual Intimacy, 316-318.

[40] Ibid, xvi-xvii. Several of his disciples recall Reb Zalman embodying the role of a Hasidic rebbe at neo-Hasidic gatherings, delivering an illuminating sermon and sitting in seat of honor at the head of the table. But Reb Zalman would then ask everyone to move down one chair, thus allowing a new rebbe to ascend the throne and speak to the community. This technique reflects his attempt to retain the value of charisma while democratizing the community, something Reb Zalman saw as essential in the contemporary American Jewish context.

[41] Ibid, xiii-xv. Reb Zalman saw himself as inhabiting a place in a long chain of mystical, devotional communities of Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Eastern seekers, all of whom strived to know the One through different practices and spiritual vocabularies.

[42] Zalman M. Schachter, “Toward an ‘Order of B’nai Or’,” Judaism 13:2 (1964), 185.

[43] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, with Joel Segel (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012).

[44] Schachter, “Toward an ‘Order of B’nai Or’,” 189.

[45] Ariel, “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius,” 155.

[46] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Paradigm Shift: From the Jewish Renewal Teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, ed. Ellen Singer (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1993). See also Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); and Shaul Magid, “Between Paradigm Shift Judaism and Neo-Hasidism: The New Metaphysics of Jewish Renewal,” Tikkun Magazine 30:1 (2015), 11-15.

[47] Netanel Miles-Yepez and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Foundations of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism: A Manifesto (Boulder, CO: Albion-Andalus Books, 2014). See also Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Credo of a Modern Kabbalist, with Daniel Siegel (Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2005).

[48] See Schachter-Shalomi, The First Step, 124-125.

Ariel Evan Mayse
Ariel Evan Mayse joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2017 as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies, and serves as rabbi-in-residence of Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute (https://www.atiqmakers.org). He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el. His research examines conceptions of language in Hasidism, the formation of early Hasidic literature, the renaissance of Jewish mysticism in the twentieth century, and the relationship between spirituality and law in modern Jewish thought. Together with Arthur Green, he is the editor of the forthcoming two-volume collection A New Hasidism: Roots and A New Hasidism: Branches (The Jewish Publication Society, 2019).