Book Review/Personal Observations: Holy Beggars – Update

Someone recently lent me the book Holy Beggars, by Aryae Coopersmith.  The book describes the author’s experience as a follower of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  See here for some reviews of the book.  I will offer some of my observations from the book.

For me, Aryae’s story is interesting in that even when the book ends, I feel the author has not yet figured out his own life’s journey, though perhaps he would concede that point as one’s journey only ends at death.  It was imcomplete, which I think is crucial.

To me, one of his essential points is his statement that the spiritual gurus of the 1960s were able to guide people towards a spiritual journey, but they were unable to guide them in understanding how the journey jived with their relational lives.  I have observed among many in the various new-age movements the amount of multiple failed marriages people have.  I think the author was acutely aware of it, having been married three times and divorced twice.  How does one grow in a relationship without their partner growing as well?

The life of Shlomo Carlebach itself, as a Chabad Shliach, was more succesful than I had imagined.  To think that his inner circle from the House of Love and Prayer had so many people who became religious is a testament to his charisma as well as his absence.  Carlebach was always in their lives, yet he was merely a stepping stone for greater growth.  To me, Carlebach’s uniqueness shines through and is most impactful during a scene in the book when the author describes the group with R. Shlomo, walking 27 miles on a Friday night to arrive at their destination for Shabbat.  They had to walk because of the traffic on the way to the synagogue.  What is most fascinating is that the synagogue was a Reform Temple.  During the late 1960s, this could happen.  I cannot even fathom a religious rabbi walking so many miles today to provide spirituality to people who are not practicing religious Judaism.  If you even consider the last couple of sentences, you will see the contrast.  Our views on denominations are such that it is unfathomable.  However, if one truly sees all people as spiritual beings, the particulars become less important.

Having said that, R. Shlomo draws a line when the author decides to marry someone not Jewish.  He will teach all who want about Jewish spirituality but he has a limit as well.  As is a well known contrast, R. Zalman Schachter Shalomi is a universalist while R. Carlebach was still Judeo-centric in his thought.  Both had a mission from the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, and in some respects, both were successful.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.  It spoke to my heart at points, somewhat unexpectedly.

Update:  I came across a new book review of this work as well as another recent book, which contains R. Carlebach’s thoughts on the first parshiyot on Bereishit. It is interesting to see a different perspective on the above discussed book. I do not agree with certain of the reviewer’s assessments regarding the chapter discussing R. Carlebach’s relationship with women.  While one never likes to see other’s dirty laundry, it is important to discuss in light of the fact that we all know Carlebach was challenged in this area.  If we don’t acknowledge his flaws, then all we are left with is the cult of personality, which would also be unfair.  True, he can’t defend himself any longer against those accusations, but anyone reading this book is aware on some level of his relationships and as such answers, even speculative, are in order.

Books contain both virtues, flaws

by Rabbi Jack Riemer

THE TORAH COMMENTARY OF RABBI SHLOMO CARLEBACH, VOLUME ONE, GENESIS, edited by Rabbi Shlomo Katz, Urim Publications, Jerusalem and New York, 2011, 263 pages and HOLY BEGGARS, A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem by Aryae Coopersmith, One World Lights, El Granada, Ca. 2011, 396 pages.

I confess my sin today. Very few of us, myself included, took Shlomo Carlbach as seriously as we should have while he was alive. Today, we realize what a pied piper he was and how many young people there are whose souls he reached but back then, most of us dismissed him as just an entertainer and we did not realize how bold his vision was and how much he cared about the lost souls that he reached out to. And therefore, these two books about Shlomo Carlbach are books that I wanted very much to like, but I had some difficulty in doing so.

The first is a collection of his words of Torah on Bereshit and the second is a memoir of what life was like in the House of Love and Prayer that Carlbach founded in San Francisco during the sixties.

The reason that I wanted to like these two books was that Reb Shlomo called me — just as he called every other person whom he ever met — one of his “top men” and so I treasure his memory. The reason that I am unable to like these two books as much as I want to is that each has at least one flaw within it that overshadows to some extent its undeniable virtues.

The problem with the collection of Carlbach’s stories and comments on the book of Bereshit is that these stories were meant to be heard, not read. The editor, Shlomo Katz, has transcribed them from tapes of concerts, conversations, classes and interviews, but even though he gets the words right, there is no comparison between the living moment and the cold page, between hearing Carlbach tell these words and reading them, between hearing them while standing together in a circle with a crowd of rapt listeners and reading them alone. You wish that this collection had been put out on disc instead of in print, because then, as you listened to them, you would understand that they were aimed, not only at your mind, but also at your soul.

Aryeh Coopersmith’s memoir is more complicated to judge. I came to it thinking that it was the story of Carlbach but instead it turns out to be the story of the author and of his own experiences at the House of Love and Prayer in the sixties. Carlbach is often somewhere offstage during this book while the author is always at the center of the story.

He does preserve some of Carlbach’s wonderful one-liners. For example, he tells the story of how he called Carlbach long distance in order to tell him that he had found a place for the House of Love and Prayer and asked him if he wanted a mechitsa in the prayer room or not. Carlbach answered:

“There are enough walls in this world between people already. Our job is to tear walls down, not to put them up.”

And he tells the story of what happened once when a pugnacious Orthodox Jew came into the House on a Friday night while the young people were dancing round and round and berated Carlbach for allowing these kids to dance together instead of insisting that boys only dance with boys and girls only dance with girls. Carlbach looked at the man, and said: “You know, when they rush someone to the hospital for an emergency operation, they don’t stop in the operating room to worry about whether his toenails need cutting or not. These kids are almost dead Jewishly and you want me to care about this?”

The man stayed, got drawn into the circle and eventually became a part of the group.

What then are the shortcomings of this book?

One is that it focuses more on the author and on his own spiritual journey than it does on Carlbach and on his journey. The author comes across as someone who sometimes is a disciple who wants to learn from his rebbe, and who sometimes wants to be him. This is why the narrative goes on for years after Carlbach’s death, taking us to the author’s reunions with his hevra in Israel and in America and telling us more than we need to know about how they have reconstructed their lives, some as haredim, some as business people, in the years since they left the House of Love and Prayer.

The other — the major fault of this book is that it includes a chapter on Carlbach’s relationships with women, which is simply inappropriate in view of the fact that Carlbach is no longer alive to respond to it. And that is all that need be said about a person who was never judgmental of others and therefore should not be judged — at least not posthumously — by others.

For those who want to have some idea of what the sixties were like for many young Jews and who want to know something about the one person who paid attention to these young people and reached out to them with a vision that they could help bring the day when the whole world would sing the song of Shabbas, this book is an invaluable guide. It is precisely because it achieves so much that it leaves me wishing it had done more and that it had left out some.


Mussar for Moderns – Thoughts to ponder

Mussar for Moderns, by R. Elyakim Krumbeim, sets out to discuss the idea of self-improvement, mussar through the eyes of a modern thinker living in a world in which psychology plays a primary role.  Instead of writing up a general review of this book, I decided that I would present some of my thoughts that I garnered from his book.

  • R’ Krumbein’s book, which originally was a weekly email shiur from VBM, is written for an audience that has some involvement in mussar study yet struggles with how to adapt that way of thinking into the Modern Jewish life.
  • His book, while not a how-to book, is a good introduction to Mussar ideas.  He presents a systematic approach, providing both general concepts and then specific areas that people should work on.  While he doesn’t always present a clear cut path for growth, R. Krumbein does begin the conversation on character improvement.  For a clearer picture of a how-to approach in today’s world, see here.
  • One of the challenging aspects of R. Krumbein’s work is his emphasis on individualized readings of text.  As an example of his thinking, he says: (Mussar is) “study who’s avowed aim is to learn how to live.  According to this definition, the aim of the author of the book is irrelevant; it is the goal of the reader that makes the difference (p. 14).” While I agree with R. Krumbein about the reader’s input and the reader’s goal, to separate out the authorial intent does someone a tremendous disservice.  If I understand the context of a passage I am reading, I personally believe that it would help me have a better grasp of where the passage is supposed to lead me.  This is a general contention regarding the use of academia in the Beit Midrash and whether authorial context is relevant when developing an idea.  The question reminds me of one of R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s (see here as well)most famous essays, Torat Hesed and Torat Emet:  Methodological Reflections, found in volume 1 of Leaves of Faith.
  • The reader needs to spend time on the text’s R. Krumbein quotes.  His eclectic use of hasidic and mussar texts to develop his methodology is refreshing.

Mind of the Mourner – book review

One of the most challenging areas to write about is death and dying.  While there is a plethora of literature on the subject, due to the humanness of the experience, there are always new ways and insights to be presented about the emotional and psychological states a person is going through while grieving the loss.  The standard bearer in Jewish circles has always been The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by R. Maurice Lamm.  A recent attempt has been made to compliment his work, The Mind of the Mourner by R. Joel Wolowesky.  R. Wolowesky’s goal is to present the psychological underpinnings behind Jewish mourning practices.

As someone who deals with death and dying on a daily basis, I am always looking for a new insight, a new way of thinking about how people experiencing the loss might be feeling.  While that usually comes from the bereaved themselves, it is often helpful to have  a knowledge base to further draw upon, not for the purpose of categorizing, but as a means of offering support if that is what the bereaved needs at the time.

R. Wolowesky’s book does not fulfill this need.  Instead, it is a good summary of the thought of Rav Soloveitchik on areas of mourning and halacha.  However, R. Wolowesky misses the underpinning of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, namely that Rav Soloveitchik was writing and sharing his experiences in the form of philosophical treatises.  His words were meant to describe his own suffering and difficulties in his losses, not necessarily as a means of conveying a psychology of the halachic systems view of grief and bereavement.  Further, it is difficult to accept based on my experience his underlying theme, that if one fulfills the Jewish method of mourning, the grieving process will not be complicated.  In fact, for many people, the ideas in this book would be counter to providing them with a halachic grieving experience.

Overall, I feel this work was disappointing and still leaves a hole for a work on how the Jewish methods of grieving may or may not provide a strong base for someone to experience a normal grieving process.  Nevertheless, R. Wolowesky’s book does provide a good overview on the thought of R. Soloveitchik on mourning, and would make a good introduction to studying the depths of the emotional challenges that loss presented to that great Rabbi.



Orthodoxy and Innovation – book review and thoughts

One of the most challenging aspects of Judaism is its male centricity.  If one looks at our liturgy, there is a clear male bias.  The challenge we face today is the question of changing the liturgy or keeping the status quo.  R. Dr. Daniel Sperber (hebrew wikipedia) offers his argument in a new book,  On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations (disclaimer, I bought this book and did not receive it to review). 

I will begin by highlighting some of the positives of the book.  As usual with Dr. Sperber, he is well researched and and includes proof texts for his arguments.  He makes a strong case for the notion that liturgy has changed over time, some due to scribal errors and others due to particulars customs and traditions.  His primary argument is that since change has occured throughout history, we should be allowed to make other changes in the text of the liturgy as long as the traditional premises remain.  For some general discussions about how Sperber confronts modernity see: Orthodoxy and Innovation, A Torah expert faults the rabbis and Our Dialogue with G-d: Tradition and Innovation.

With that said, the book was highly troubling to me.  For starters, his arguments, while filled with proof, are very weak.  Some of that has to do with the fact that the writing is poor.  You could clearly tell that this work was written by someone who is not a native English speaker.  The other troubling part if his argument is that he is advocating for liturgical changes for societal reasons.  The problem here is that his proof texts generally relate to changes due to grammatical error or some mystical reason, like the numerology of Hasidei Ashkenaz.  To me, arguing for change because of the sensitivities of women, while admirable, doesn’t seem to fit with how liturgical change occurred. 

 Dr. Sperber, if he wants to make certain changes, doesn’t outright tell you what is offensive.  He makes reference to three potential changes to be made.  The first would be the removal of שלא עשני אשה in the morning blessings.  The second seems to be the inclusion of אלקי שרה… as part of the first blessing of the Amidah.  His third is the removal of a line in Tachanun that relates sin to menstruating women.  However, never does he outright say, this is the change we should make.  To me, if a person is going to go so far as to conclude his/her book with a call for a liturgy sensitive to women, then tell us what that would like.  The problem he faces is that if he were to make the outright claims, his book would probably not have been by Urim publications and he would also have been accused of being a Conservative Rabbi, thus ending the discussion right there. 

Every year, the less traditional movements continue to produce new, innovative siddurim while the Orthodox world, when they do make changes, tend towards adding more material that can become sacred even if the liturgy was not meant to be an absolute requirement.  For example, the new Artscroll Siddur, by including prayers like פרק שירה, will now lead to more people reciting this text without them understanding what it is they are reciting.  It will become part of the standard liturgy.  From that perspective, Dr. Sperber is onto something.  However, as I have already mentioned, to make liturgical changes for sociological reasons can be a very dangerous area to walk down. As far as the book goes, to me it is a good reference work but I am not sure it really accomplishes presenting a strong case for changing prayer to meet Modern orthodox sociological needs.

Book Review – The Value of Human Life

There are many topics which tend to remain in the world of the elite or the learned.  One of these is Jewish Medical Ethics.  A recent book came out which I believe will allow those not as versed in the subject to get a good sense of how halacha confronts modern medicine.  Feldheim published The Value of Human Life, which contains articles from a Jewish medical ethics conference held in Italy in 2008.  All the usual suspects are represented, such R. JD Bleich and Professor Avraham Steinberg.  The essays cover topics regarding infertility, organ donation, end-of-life care and also two essays on general issues of taking care of oneself during life.  The book is sparsely footnoted, which makes it easily readable (for those who want more in depth discussion, this book is not the primary source).  One of the more fascinating stylistic points of the book is that they kept the essays in a similar format to the actual presentations, including stories, references to other talks, etc.  I would recommend people read this book to get a feel of the questions that would need to be asked and investigated if, G-d forbid, people should confront the harshness of life.  While I don’t agree with all the opinions presented, it is important to know debate exists, and the authors tend not to give definitive answers so much as the questions needed to be investigated. 

As a healthcare chaplain, one of the more neglected elements is that families don’t know how to be advocates for themselves, speaking up when something doesn’t seem appropriate or right.  Some of this is due to lack of informedness.  If I don’t know, I can’t know what questions to ask.  I always find myself in the role of patient advocate, teaching patients and families that they have options and choices they can request from the healthcare provider.  Obviously, there is a limit, but the limit is not as narrow as sometimes presented.

Messianism and End of History

Eliyahu Touger, most well known for his translation of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, authored a book about messianism and his experiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l,  From Dawn to Daylight.  While his book rehashes the standard Chabad messianic descriptions (not to be confused with doctrines of Rebbe as Messiah), I found his first appendix to be most fascinating.  In it, he discusses how the world we live in today is already manifesting aspects of the predicted messianic period.  More people have the luxury of recognizing G-d in life, whether due to modern technology or to the increase in new-age spirituality, in which finding meaning in the divine, in whatever manifestation, is at an all time high (even as the latest religious revival comes to an end).  Without being able to discuss this in much detail, his appendix reminds me of the debates regarding “the end of history.”  These debates took place in the post-berlin wall world, before 9/11 might have changed the world back into empire building (an example is Robert Kagan’s recent works, including “The End of the End of History.” and his book The Return of History and the End of Dreams).

The Rebbe – further online reflections.

It seems the Chaim Rapoport review on The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson has spurned a response from Heilman and Friedman.  See the Seforim blog for links to all three documents, Rapoport’s review, Heilman and Friedman’s response and Rapoport’s rejoinder.  I guess this goes to show the challenge of attempting to capture the life of great, controversial figure truly is.

Heilman and Friedman claim that many of those who have offered critiques of their work are doing so based on R. Rapoport’s review and not from having read the book itself.  To reiterate points I made earlier, their book was disappointing because it seemed too speculative and that their speculations tended towards a preconceived conclusion.  Now, it happens that R. Rapoport was better qualified to make various arguments about the book, but I did not need him to spell out the problems in order to come to the conclusion of being underwhelmed.  Besides, it is clear that Heilman and Friedman have attempted to take on the wrong reviewer.  One thing about R. Rapoport from his writings is his thoroughness in checking and presenting sources.  It is almost encyclopedic.  Just the fact he has written 72 pages of critique and says he has more for an updated draft should cause them to pause and reconsider.