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Vaera 5767 — The Theology of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

Do you believe in miracles?

If you saw a mamash miracle, would it firm up your faith in God?

This week’s Torah reading, Va’era, is all about miracles.  The poor abused Hebrew people – our spiritual and physical ancestors – were languishing in slavery in Mitzrayim, Egypt, the “straits” or a constrained place.  A place that the Talmud calls the most impure of lands, the most distant from holiness because of their oppression and idol worship.  And in this week’s Torah reading, God sets in motion the plan to bring that oppressed rag-tag lot of slaves into the Holy Land and turn them into a nation of priests.  In our Torah reading for this week God brings one miracle after another – He turns all the water in Egypt red, he fills the whole country with frogs, even Pharaoh’s underwear according to the song.  God brings on vermin, wild beasts, anthrax, boils, and hail.  The big guns are saved for next week’s Torah portion, but that’s alright we have plenty of miracles in what we read this week.

A lot of modern, scientifically educated people have trouble taking this story literally.  They have trouble believing in miracles.  To them, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Reb Shlomo, Neshama Carlebach’s Abba, would probably say “you don’t have enough imagination!”

Reb Shlomo taught “Everybody likes it when God does miracles for him.  The question is, do you understand that you are a miracle, that your life is all miracles, that everything is a miracle?  If you’re living on the level where miracles are part of your life, if your trust in God reaches the level of a miracle, then miracles will happen to you.  If you’re not living life on that level, then miracles won’t happen to you.”

Or miracles will still happen to you, foolish you will just miss out on recognizing them.  One of my favorite blessings is the blessing we say after using the bathroom—a blessing in which we praise God who created us in a miraculous and wondrous way with all these intricate parts that all work so precisely.  I have it memorized and I say it every time I use the bathroom.  Anyone who’s ever been constipated can certainly appreciate what a miracle it is when all your plumbing works properly!

I’m a second generation talmid of Reb Shlomo.  I never had the zchut, the merit, to learn with Reb Shlomo myself.  Sadly, he had already passed away by the time I got reconnected with Judaism after a lengthy time in the spiritual wilderness, which is really too bad since Reb Shlomo’s “House of Love and Prayer” in San Francisco was still around when I moved to the SF area.  But I’ve learned a lot from his students, his words, and his music.  Reb Mimi Feigelson was a student of Shlomo’s, and she was one of my teachers at UJ and at Yakar, an institute in Jerusalem that was heavily influenced by Reb Shlomo.  I’ve also spent Shabbat at the “Carlebach Moshav” in Modi’in.  One of the things Reb Mimi taught is that one requirement for everyone in rabbinical school is that they should find their rebbe.  I don’t know if I’m a failure or an over-achiever – I’ve got lots of rebbes, Reb Mimi, Rebbe Dorff, Rebbe Shevitz, Rebbe Ezray, Rebbe Artson, Rebbe Heschel, Rebbe Nachman (Reb Shlomo taught everyone should have two rebbes, their personal rebbe and Rebbe Nachman who died almost 200 years ago), and I’d definitely include Reb Shlomo on my list of rebbes.

Reb Shlomo was a traditional maggid, a storyteller.  He would tell traditional Hasidic stories with his own twist, and he would tell his own beautiful stories, some of them things that had happened to him, some of them ones that he made up as a metaphor.  He never sat down and wrote a book of theology that described what he believed.  Rather he dispensed theology in short verbal bursts as needed.  Others listened, wrote them down, and collections of his stories are available in print and on the internet.  Very much the same as with Rebbe Nachman, who would give amazing teachings on Shabbat, and his students would memorize them and write them down as soon as Shabbos was over.

You’d never know it from looking at my desk—the outside is not necessarily a clue to the inside—but intellectually I’m a compulsive organizer.  I love picking up assorted stray facts I’ve accumulated and organizing them into some kind of coherence.  Boil them down to a few bullet points I can remember.  So what I thought I’d do this morning, in honor of Neshama Carlebach being here with us, is to try and do that with Reb Shlomo.  What was Reb Shlomo’s theology?  What are the key features of God and our relationship with God—and our relationship with each other, according to Reb Shlomo?

About five minutes into working on this project, I realized it was a sort of chutzpadik enterprise.  I only know him second hand through his students, his recordings, and transcriptions of his stories.  His very own daughter is going to be here, and I’m going to subject her to listening to my probably way off base analysis?  Then I came across this teaching Reb Shlomo gave in Kislev of 5733: “What happens if I want to do something very holy very strong, and the whole world laughs at me?  Then I must have holy chutzpa, azuz d’kdusha, holy arrogance.”  So, if my enterprise seems a little chutzpadik, at least it’s holy chutzpa.

So here are the three bullet points that for me sum up a “theology of Reb Shlomo:”

• The world is powered by God’s love
• You have to believe
• You have to be you

We’ll look at each one of the three in turn.  OK, so it’s not surprising that the founder of San Francisco’s “House of Love Prayer,” which opened in 1968, not long after the “Summer of Love,” a place that has been called the home of “Chasidic Hippies,” would talk about love a lot.

But Reb Shlomo’s love was much deeper than just the free-floating Age of Aquarius let’s all love one another.   Reb Shlomo’s love is not JUST between people, although that’s important – it’s even more about the love between God and Mankind, and it’s deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition.

I’ve often taught that the world is powered by God.  I tell people it’s like the sticker they might have on their computer that says “powered by Intel”—the world should have a sticker that says “powered by God.”  But Reb Shlomo, I think, would take it another level, and the sticker would have a flower on it and it would say “powered by God’s love.”

Reb Shlomo taught “In Psalms it says, “G-d created the world with love.” That doesn’t mean that there is a world, and G-d loves the world. It means that G-d has so much love, that G-d had to create the world. Imagine some people just get together without loving each other, and then a baby is born. Why are they all so angry? Because they are missing the most important part — you only create with love because G-d created the world with love.”

Even Yom Kippur – the day of Atonement, the day in which we are supposed to be trembling in our sneakers in shul, worried about which book we’re being sealed into, Reb Shlomo says is about love.  The following is my retelling of Reb Mimi’s retelling of the story, so it might not be word for word the way Reb Shlomo taught it.  A man named Moshe is riding a bus.  On the bus he meets a woman, Shpritzele, and it’s “love at first sight,” he knows, for sure, that this is his beshert, his soul mate.  The woman he has been looking for all his life.  The 20 minutes on the bus are the most incredible he has ever had.  They both have something else to do right now, but he writes down her phone number so he can call her later.

After getting back home, he reaches into his pocket to get the paper with the phone number and discovers a tragedy: the paper was cut, and he only has the first three of the seven numbers!

Heartbroken, he will not give up.  He starts to call: 679-0000; 679-0001.  He calls for hours.  He is going crazy.  Whenever he has a minute to spare he calls a few more numbers.  “Shpritzele?”  he always asks with hope.  “Wrong number” the continual reply.

He is careless about parking his car.  He pulls over, parks anywhere, gets out and tries another few numbers—this was before cell phones.  He starts to receive a lot of parking tickets for parking in strange places.

Eventually, he has to go to court because of all these tickets.  When he gets to the court, he is greatly surprised to see that the judge is his beloved Shpritzele.

How would you feel?  Worried about the parking tickets?  Or delighted to be together with your beloved, never mind that she’s a judge?  Of course the love would way override the fear over the parking tickets.  And that’s how we should feel on Yom Kippur, delighted, because this is the day we can come closest to the King, we can bask in God’s presence, never mind there’s a little judgment going on.

For Reb Shlomo, joy and love are both gifts from God, and they are related.  He taught “If a person wants to know what level his joy is, it is very simple. If you feel one with the world, it is because you feel the oneness of G-d. So if you walk around and say you are filled with joy, but you can’t stand people, it is not G-d joy.”

And love is the path to world peace – now there’s a 1960s world view, but it’s a beautiful world view, and it’s probably right.  On the challenges of finding peace, Reb Shlomo said “The world would really like to have peace, but they don’t know what it is, and they don’t know how to get it. Imagine you go into a hardware store to buy ice cream. They won’t have it, right? People would like to have peace, but they are always going to the wrong store. They talk to the wrong people about it.”  So who are the right people?  Peace doesn’t come through diplomats and negotiators, and certainly not through bombs.  By Reb Shlomo, peace comes one person at a time: “I want you to know, every time one person yells at another person, you bring war into the world. And each time a person says words of love to another human being, he brings peace into the world.”  He also said “The world needs happy people to speak joyously with each other.  Then there is peace.”

Reb Shlomo was not dismayed that it seemed to be taking so long for peace to come to Israel.  He said “You know friends, if you build a little bungalow, it doesn’t take very long. But if you’re planning to build Rockefeller Center, it takes very long. You know a lot of people are complaining, why doesn’t Israel get its act together; why is it taking so long? So you know what we are saying… Gevaldt! What kind of house is G-d building if it takes so long? It must be an unbelievable house!”

And Israel is a house that needs to be built on love.  Love is the antidote to hate.  He quotes Yad HaK’tana who says “What do you do if you hate people for no reason, and you just can’t get out of it?”  “The only way out,” Reb Shlomo advises, “is loving people for no reason.  Just love, because love is a very holy fire that will drag out all the darkness of hatred.”

It’s no challenge to love people who are lovable.  The real challenge is loving those who are difficult to love.  In Poland, Reb Shlomo was asked how he could greet, shake hands with — and even hug — children of the perpetrators and even perpetrators themselves. Reb Shlomo answered, “If we had two hearts like we have two arms and two legs, then one heart could be used for love and the other one for hate.  Since I have but one heart, then I don’t have the luxury of hating anyone.”

Now some people look at the mitzvot, the commandments, like they are some kind of tax you have to pay for being Jewish.  A burden to bear.  Which as the wrong attitude.  As Reb Shlomo describes, even the mitzvot are a reflection of God’s love:  “We have 613 mitzvot, 613 laws. I don’t like the word “laws,” because they are not laws. The word law reminds you of police, some “straight” character sitting there telling you what to do. Very bad translation. Mitzva means that G-d gave us 613 ways to come close to Him. The ways are divided into two parts, 248 ways of reaching G-d by doing certain things, and 365 ways of reaching Him by not doing certain things. If there is a red light and I don’t go, nothing happens, right? I just don’t cross the street. However, if G-d’s red light flashed and I stop when I have a chance to do wrong, then something happens inside me. Something happened to me; I walked a few steps higher.”

So how do we get to a world of love and peace?  It takes belief.  Now a lot of people have trouble accepting anything on faith, of relying on belief.  But as Reb Shlomo shows, every single thing we know, even our intellectual capability to doubt, is built on a bedrock of belief.  So Reb Shlomo taught “According to Chassidus the mother teaches the baby belief and the father teaches the baby truth. How do I know the truth? Unless I believe, I’ll never get to the truth. Reb Nachman says the whole world is operating on the basis of belief. A child goes to school and the teacher teaches him the ABC, and the child completely believes the teacher. Imagine if the child would be an intellectual. “How do you know this A is an A and this B is a B?” Thank G-d we teach kids the alphabet while they still believe. The whole world is based on alphabets. The mother teaches the alphabet, which is the utmost of belief and the utmost of truth: this is really an alef, this really is a beit.”

Some people look at the stories in this week’s parsha, eight plagues, one more horrible and more miraculous and the next, and think, “if only I could see a miracle like that, then I’d really believe.”  But the Midrash tells us that’s not so.  After seeing all these miracles, and the two big miracles in next week’s parsha, darkness and the death of the first born, what do the people do when they get to the shore of the Red Sea?  They stand there.  They still didn’t have faith.  They still didn’t believe God was going to take care of them.  It wasn’t until Nachshon went in up to his neck – showing at least he believed – and the water started to part that everyone else was willing to move.   Reb Shlomo teaches that because someone comes along and does some tricks we should believe him?  He said “If I as a Jew need a miracle to show the world that I am chosen, that is depending on tricks. On the highest level, even G-d’s miracles are tricks. True belief is much deeper than all that.”

It doesn’t mean Reb Shlomo didn’t believe in miracles – far from it.  As I said in the beginning of this talk, if you don’t believe in miracles it means you don’t have enough imagination.  Reb Shlomo taught “The holiness of the soul is really the holiness of imagination. What is a person who is really tied onto this world imagining? What is the whole thing of believing in the Messiah or not believing in the Messiah? It is a question of imagination, right? A person says, listen, I see the world. People believe in money, people believe in war. You will tell me that suddenly some day the Messiah is coming and on a donkey! – he’ll blow a little trumpet, the whole world will come running, and everybody will say, ich ves, “Shalom Alehem!” It’s crazy! It’s a question of imagination. If you have good imagination why not? That’s all there is to it. Why not?”

And everything – not just miracles – happens because of God’s plan.   Reb Shlomo quotes the Baal Shem Tov who taught that “divine providence is so strong, whenever a wind blows, divine providence knows exactly where every leaf has to fall. Divine providence is on every leaf, knows exactly where this leaf has to fall. And this leaf has to fall there. So someone says to him, I can’t believe that! Divine providence? G-d in heaven has plans for every little leaf? After a hurricane, where every leaf should fall? I can’t believe that. The Ball Shem Tov says, you can’t believe it? You don’t want to believe it.”  The rest of the story is the Baal Shem Tov gets a lesson on how it can be difficult to believe things even if you want to.

Now you might be tempted to argue, but what about free will?  How can there be Divine Providence, everything planned by God, if there is free will throwing in an unpredictable variable all over the place?

Reb Shlomo responds by quoting the Chinuch.  “The holy Chinuch says we believe in free choice. On one hand a person has free choice, so why get angry at somebody else? He has his free choice too, but on a higher level there is such a thing as divine providence. Despite my free choice of action, what somebody else does to me is my divine providence. What I do to you is completely free choice in my world, and I really shouldn’t do anything wrong to you. If you do something wrong to me, in my world it was divine providence. In your world it was free choice, but in regard to me it was divine providence.”  Which is another reason not to hold a grudge against other people – as Reb Shlomo points out, if you hold a grudge against someone, if you stay angry with someone, that means you don’t believe that it was God.

And Reb Shlomo teaches when you believe in God, nothing is impossible.  After all, what’s too hard for God?

And this brings us to bullet point number three – you have to be you.  It’s not enough to just believe in God – you also have to believe in yourself.  Belief in God and belief in yourself are intimately connected.  If your belief in God is strong, you won’t be afraid to be yourself.  If your belief in God is shaky, you’ll be worried about pleasing other people all the time.  Reb Shlomo quotes Rebbe Nachman: “He says the question is, are you G-d’s servant, or people’s servant? There is no in between. G-d says, “Look at yourself. What are you? You were my servant before.  I gave you tough chutzpa to do right, and you prefer to listen to people. Okay, be a slave to them. Make up your mind who is your master.” If you are G-d’s servant, then you are the highest person in the world, because you know exactly what is right. if you know what is right, then you don’t listen to anybody – just to what the soul of your soul tells you is right. When I lose my holy arrogance, then I am a slave to every shmendrik. The moment I am a slave to every shmendrik, I hate the shmendrik, because he is my master. Have you seen a slave loving his master?”

Not only that, he points out if you stick to your guns, the truth is people will like you better anyway.  “If you have holy chutzpa, if you are strong enough to stand on you own two feet, nothing can bend you. Then the world really loves you. People mamash love you. If someone walks in with a yamulke, and everyone laughs at him, and he still wears it, they can keep on laughing. You know what the person who is laughing really thinks? “Gevalt! I respect him so much.” If I wear a yarmulke and people say, “Take it off – this is not the place!” and I knock it off, people laughingly say, “Really a strong character, this person!” You know how people are? When you listen to them, they spit at you. When you don’t listen to them, they love you. Craziest thing in the world!”

But who is this you that you need to be?  As a Jew, Reb Shlomo would say you are both a part of an ancient tradition and a part of the world around you.  He brings a great story about the lamed vav tzadikim, the 36 righteous people who support the world.  Some of them were sitting around talking about the binding of Isaac, and one of them says I don’t see what was so great about Abraham’s test.  If I heard God’s voice telling to sacrifice my son, wouldn’t I run right out and do it?”  One of them answered, “Hah! Do you know why you would do it?  Because you had a father Abraham who taught you to do it.”

We’re all part of that tradition – so how do we reconcile it with the modern world we live in?   Reb Shlomo teaches it by analogy.  “The Bible says Melki-Zedek greeted Abraham by offering him bread and wine. Our holy rabbis teach us wine, the older it gets, the better it tastes; bread is only good when it’s fresh. The world needs both bread and wine, the world has such longing for new revelations, for new teachings, for new ideas, for new life. Yet, in the deepest depth, they are crying for old wine. Melki-Zedek, the high priest, tells Abraham, G-d’s spokesman to the world, “If you want to bring G-d closer to the people and the people closer to G-d, you must know the secret of bread and wine, You have to know that when a person comes crying for bread, give him fresh bread. G-d has new things all the time. As we say in our prayers, G-d always renews the world.  Abraham, you have to know that when people come crying for old wine, always have one drop of old wine for them. But, the deepest truth is G-d’s word; anything which is holy, precious and beautiful, I knew yesterday.”

Now Reb Shlomo very definitely considered himself Orthodox all his life – but what he taught sounds very much like the “Tradition and Change” statement which is practically the motto of the Conservative movement.  How do we manage to balance fidelity to tradition and halacha on the one hand with doing what’s right for us in this world?

Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, were both early shlichim, emissaries, of the late Lubavticher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  Both broke off from the Rebbe; Reb Zalman’s path allowed for a lot more halachic innovation, a lot more people choosing what work’s for them in the Reform model.  Reb Shlomo remained committed to halacha but he was willing to meet people where they were, and that was why he split with the rebbe.  The rebbe heard about the mixed crowds and so on at the concerts Reb Shlomo gave and he didn’t approve of such intermingling of the sexes.  But Reb Shlomo saw that if wasn’t able to reach the kids where they were they would be lost – his attitude was if the patient is on life-support, you don’t worry about trimming their fingernails.  Let’s get them off life-support first.  Let’s bring their souls back into the Jewish orbit, then we can worry about the bringing them to the finer points of halacha.

Reb Shlomo was a big supporter of equality for women.  He said “Women’s Liberation is a very holy thing.”   But it wasn’t enough for Reb Shlomo that women should simply aspire to be like men.  He said “What is equality? Do you want to be like a man, like a dopey man? There is no equality, because man doesn’t have his place either. The whole world is degraded, and nobody has his place. G-d has no place in this world. Right now, before Messiah is coming, something is happening to the whole world. People will know where they are supposed to be. Woe to the woman who is equal to a man now, because the man is the biggest shmendrik in the world. What’s so good about him? What’s so good about being equal to a man who works like a dog and then comes home, watches television and snores?”

Equality does not mean being the same, and that’s as true on a large scale, among the different religions of the world as it is on a small scale, between individuals.  Once upon a time, I thought being the same was the answer.  I wrote a paper for a doctoral seminar in business school, a seminar about the interaction between business and society, where I came to the conclusion the world needed a new religion.  I got an A+ for a paper called “Toward a New World Religion in the Next Period of History: An Initial Look at the Essential Elements.”  I invented an epistemology, metaphysics and ethic.  Now, of course, I think that’s a ridiculous idea.  It simply shows how ignorant I was of my own religion.  As Reb Shlomo taught, there’s no point in making a gefilte fish of the religions.  He said “Thank G-d, the religions are getting together more and more, people are getting together. And I don’t mean to make gefilte fish out of religions, which, sadly enough, hurts me a little bit. Some people think, let’s make a gefilte fish out of all religions; everybody put a spoon in, and let’s make a new soup. This is not what I am talking about. What’s happening in the world is that everybody really wants to know: What do you think? What do you believe in?

“It doesn’t mean that I have to change. If I see that somebody else has a beautiful nose, it doesn’t mean that I have to take off his nose to put it on my face. He has his nose and I have my nose. I’m just looking at his nose and seeing that it is beautiful. You know, people have to realize that basically every religion is a revalation of G-d. All I can ask is, let me know a little bit of what G-d is revealing to you. But I have to do what G-d is revealing to me, because if I cut myself off from my own revelation, than again I’m not living up to G-d.”

So progress comes when we each find our real place in the world—both as individuals and as communities of religions, peoples, nations.  As Reb Shlomo put it, “Everybody has a little brick for the Great Highway, and until everybody has put his or her stone in the right place, the Highway isn’t yet finished.”  There’s no road for the Messiah until we each do that one piece, that one job, that we are uniquely qualified to do.

I’ll close with one final piece of advice from Reb Shlomo to all spiritual seekers, all who truly hunger for God.  Reb Shlomo said “Full experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.”  Bo Lozoff replied: “Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?” The answer: “To be as accident-prone as possible.”

Shabbat Shalom

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

One thought on “Vaera 5767 — The Theology of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

  • Dear Reb Barry,

    I enjoyed reading your article and your dealing with trying to define the theology of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Recently, I completed writing a comprehensive biography of Reb Shlomo in which I try to provide the basis for such a reconstruction. Please email to receive more details.

    Dr. Natan Ophir


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