Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on parshat shalach
Earlier this week I was randomly browsing SoundCloud and I came across an audio recording of a young Shlomo Carlebach. There are only three audio files posted and one, from a late 80’s Ruach Retreat in upstate New York was on parshat shalach. Ok, Ok,.. so when it comes to Reb Shlomo, maybe there’s no such thing as random….
Carlebach, known as “The Singing Rabbi” who wrote melodies that have enhanced every aspect of every denominational liturgy also wrote Am Yisroel Chai; the anthem of the Soviet Jewry movement. You may have also heard his stories preserved in a CD set. But he was much more than a singer or story teller. Carlebach was an original thinker and charismatic leader who affected thousands of change makers in the Jewish world.
The audio talk that you are about to listen to is brilliant in its audacity and passion and surprisingly timely. It relates to those living outside of Israel who criticize Israel. It relates to “small” and fearful rabbinic authority and leadership and, with a little extrapolation, it relates to a modern Israeli trend of secular Jews (hilonim) taking back Judaism on their terms.
I am pleased to share this audio file on Madlik and in the tradition of the Yeshiva, I provide below the imagined sources (mareh mekomot) and context of Rabbi Calrebach’s talk below.
- Meraglim – These are the 12 biblical “spies” appointed by Moses to scout out the land of Israel (Eretz Yisroel) in Numbers 13. Ten of these scouts returned with a negative report which resulted in a 40 year delay in entering the land of Israel.
- Carlebach talks about the positive commandment to wear ritual fringes (tzitzit) and he talks about the morality play of the biblical scouts. These two themes adjoin each other in the text of Numbers 13 – 15 and Reb Shlomo, like Rabbinic scholars before him provides an explanation for the connection between the two seemingly unrelated subjects.The traditional answer relates the word “to EXPLORE (la-tur) the land… TO EXPLORE the land of Canaan” (13:16-17) with “You shall not EXPLORE AFTER (lo taturu acharei) your hearts…” (15:39) (for more see: “You Shall Not Explore After Your Heart and After Your Eyes…” By Rav Amnon Bazak). The scouts sinned by what they observed, the fringes are meant to correct one’s moral vision. Carlebach takes this implicit connection further by contrasting “little” tzitzit to small vision (see below)
- Reb Shlomo talks about little ztitzit and big zitizit and compares them to the little Shabbos and the Big Shabbos. This is based on a statement in the Talmud Berachot 57b that our weekly Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come. This concept is the source of the prayer in the Sabbath grace after meals “May the Merciful One grant us a day that shall be entirely Shabbat and eternal rest.הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יַנחִילֵנוּ לְיוֹם שֶׁכֻּלּוֹ שַׁבָּת וּמְנוּחָה לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָמיםand the sixth stanza of Ma Yedidiut, a song sung at the Shabbat Table: Meayn Olam haba Yom Shabbat Menucha
מעין עולם הבא יום שבת מנוחהI believe that Carlebach’s extension of this concept to another commandment, such as tzitzit is novel. In any case, his point is that the spies or scouts could only see the small fringes, and we need leaders or rebbes who have the large tzitzit.
- Reb Shlomo tells an outrageous miracle tale typical of Hasidic stories about a student (talmid) of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Hasidic Movement). You can hear the smile in his voice and laughter in the background. The Zanser Rebbe is reputed to have said of such miracle tales, “If you believe them, you’re a fool (“tippish”). If you don’t believe them, you’re a heretic (apikoris).”
- Baal Teshuva – A Baal Teshuva is literally a master of repentance and is traditionally a term applied to a sinner who changes his ways and returns to a life of observance. In the 80’s, in large part through the efforts of Chabad and outreach yeshivot such as Eish HaTorah, many young Jews (yiddin) who were searching for their spiritual roots returned to Judaism and gave birth to what has been called the Baal Teshuva Movement. Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi both started as Chabad emissaries but as they addressed the spiritual needs of the children of the ‘60s they broke out of the constrains of Orthodoxy and created a Jewish Renewal that has enhanced all aspects of Judaism. There is a tension between these newly inspired Jews and the pre-existing Orthodox community that Carlebach makes reference to. (his quote that Baal Teshuva is a nechtiga baal avera and a hyntica Am Ha’aretz Yesterday’s sinner is today’s ignorant Jew; is priceless..)
- Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934), Israel’s national poet, famously exclaimed, “we will be a normal state only when we have the first Jewish prostitute the first Hebrew thief, and the first Hebrew policeman.” Carlebach uses this quote as if he is quoting a traditional Jewish text. This is radical in and of itself. What is more radical is where he takes it. Reasons Carlebach, if we will be normal when we have secular Jewish thieves and a Jewish Underground, then we will really (mamash) become normal when we have our own [secular Jewish] Rebbes. I’m not sure Carlebach envisioned the secular (hiloni) movement in contemporary Israel to take back Jewish texts and learning spearheaded by Bina, Elul, Beit Hillel and Ein Prat and other organizations, but his Bialik proof text works for me.
- Shietal is a wig for head covering
- Majority decides – see Exodus 23:2 “after a multitude to pervert justice”
and Babylonian Talmud Hulin 11a “From here we learn we go after the majority”. See also the story of The Oven of Akhnai (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59b) which ends with the punchline “the Torah was already given on Mt. Sinai, and it says in it, “Follow the majority’s ruling” (Ex. 23:2). So we do not obey voices from Heaven.”Carlebach argues here, that when it comes to big decisions like going to the Land of Israel and seeing it’s potential, or …. Choosing a mate… or women learning Torah… we should not follow the majority, nor any rebbe, but follow our inner voice.
- “Thousands of Jews would have stayed alive if they had not listened to their Rebbes” Carlebach’s family fled Germany and where spared the Holocaust. Carlebach is here squarely putting the blame for the death of thousands of faithful Jews on their rabbinic leaders who advised them not to emigrate to the secular yishuv in Israel. Those same Rabbis are advising us on whether women can study Torah, and I would add are advising us (on the left) to take part in BDS boycotts of Israel and (on the right) to indefinitely occupy land located in Greater Israel. I think that Carlebach is saying that we learn from the meraglim that we cannot be governed by fear, rebbes or majority opinion … we need to consult our conscience.