By Zalman Alpert
The famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein commented, “Philosophy puts everything before us and neither explains nor deduces anything. Since everything lies open to view, there is nothing to explain.” Essentially this is what Rabbi Chaim Dalfin does to Reb Shlomo Carlebach in his new book—it’s all there (The Real Shlomo, JEP Press).
Reb Shlomo was a complex personality. He was almost universally recognized as a great Jewish singer and composer, yet it was his persona and his teachings that stirred controversy in the Jewish world.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—singer, teacher, neo-Chassidic Rebbe—has always been an enigma, and even more so after his death in 1994. Some called him a hippie, others a great singer, still others in the chareidi world had a great deal of disdain for him, because of alleged personal flaws. While Shlomo was alive, discussions about the nature of the man were held in private; after his death these discussions took a more public nature; witness numerous articles and books that have been published about him since 1994. Some have presented him as a new-age guru, others as a genuine Chassidic mystical personality on the par of men like the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Baba Sali. A few even demeaned him in a mean manner. Yet few offered objective facts and an analysis of Reb Shlomo’s life and teachings.
The author of the The Real Shlomo, Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, is a Lubavitcher chassid and teacher who has authored numerous insightful works about the Lubavitch movement and the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
Given Shlomo’s close ties to Lubavitch, Dalfin is qualified to undertake a serious analysis of Reb Shlomo’s life and activities.
Dalfin traces Carlebach’s life as scion of a famed German rabbinic dynasty (his uncle was Rav Dr. Joseph Carlebach, the late chief rabbi of Hamburg who refused to forsake his community in Germany and died a martyr’s death in Latvia). We then meet young Shlomo in the U.S. as a refugee exploring new paths in Judaism by enrolling in the Lakewood yeshiva and studying under Rav Aaron Kotler there and under Rav Shlomo Heiman at Torah Vodaath yeshiva in Brooklyn. Shlomo became attracted to chassidus and became a follower of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Joseph I. Schneersohn (d. 1950) and later of his successor and son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Yet Shlomo did not stop his spiritual seeking. Without leaving Chabad, he became a follower of the Modsitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Saul Y.E. Taub (d. 1948) and of the Bobover Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Halberstam, adopting various teachings from each Rebbe. (In the case of Modsitz, Dalfin posits a strong influence on Carlebach’s music.) Dalfin also writes of the influence Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner of Yeshivat Chaim Berlin had on Shlomo.
Dalfin further explores the intellectual underpinnings of Carlebach’s teachings, namely the teachings of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, the Mei Hashiloach, and he explores the profound influence Rav Nachman of Breslov had on the youthful scholar. We also learn that Shlomo was a Talmudic prodigy and destined for greatness as such.
Dalfin explores Carlebach’s family relations, the role his parents played in his character development, the conflict between Lakewood and Lubavitch over the future of this man, and how all these led to a more independent-minded Shlomo who sought out his own unique brand of Jewish identity. We learn of the bitterness Shlomo felt towards the mainline Orthodox world that attacked his outreach program and his lifestyle.
Dalfin also spends much effort on outlining Shlomo’s personal life, his time at the House of Love and Prayer, his complex relationships with such different men as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, the current Amshinover Rebbe in Jerusalem (Rav Millikowsky), and the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter, the father of the Jewish renewal movement and an old confidant of Shlomo.
Rabbi Dalfin presents us with many facts, stories, testimonies, interviews, and other primary sources. He also attempts to analyze these materials and draw some common denominator between the various stories and different identities reflected in them.
Yet Rabbi Dalfin practices a form of authorial tzimtzum—that is, he withdraws and allows the reader to make sense of these at times conflicting stories and facts. Thus the book demands a careful reading and some thought in trying to understand the different roles Shlomo played in his life. Was he a rebel, was he a Chabad follower, and was he close to the late Rebbe? Were he and Zalman Schachter spiritual “twins”? Dalfin guides us, provides facts and great background, but we are left to try to figure out Reb Shlomo based on our own impressions and our own identities.
Clearly the author spent much time on this book and has accumulated a number of important sources. Most unique are accounts of Carlebach’s relationship to the contemporary Chabad movement starting in 1940.
My own impression of Carlebach’s relationship to Chabad after 1955 is best expressed in an old Chabad saying, “Anyone who ate the kasha (buckwheat) of Lubavitch remains affected.” Shlomo may have left Lubavitch, but both the seventh Rebbe and the world of Chabad remained a profound influence on Shlomo until his death.
No work is perfect and this author does not emphasize the influence that Carlebach’s genetic and cultural background as a staunch Yekke had on his character. I knew Carlebach and met him many times and his Yekke nature was there front and center. The author mentions this, but fails to explore this, as most stereotypes are based on some reality. But this is a minor point in an otherwise important and well-researched work.
I would urge all those interested in Carlebach’s music, his life, Jewish outreach, and in contemporary Chabad to read this book and give it some thought. The book includes interesting photographs and reproductions of letters. We wish Rabbi Dalfin a hearty yasher koach and success in his future research and work.