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.

 

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Separate tables

I find myself fascinated by this article in Haaretz.  While I myself would not to live the lifestyle of complete segregation of genders, even in one’s home, I am not looking to offer a critique of this Hasidic practice.  Rather, I would like to comment on the article’s descriptions as to why separate tables has become a way of life for many in the Hasidic world.

Gender separation in schools and synagogues has always been an important facet of ultra-Orthodox life and is generally not contested. But the Hasidic members of the ultra-Orthodox community are now determined to extend gender separation to other venues in the public domain, such as banquet halls, buses, health clinics, and even some sidewalks in Jerusalem on certain days of the Jewish calendar.

Among the various Hasidic sects, the Gur Hasidim are known to be most vigilant, going so far as to keep tabs on the activities of families and couples to ensure that the rules of gender separation are not violated. Among the most devout Gur Hasidim, a married couple will never be seen walking together in the street. Instead, the husband will walk ahead and the woman will follow, a few paces behind him. Not surprisingly, when gender separation was first instituted on buses about a decade ago, it began on those lines traveling from Jerusalem to Gur Hasidic neighborhoods in Bnei Brak and Ashdod.

Hebrew University lecturer Dr. Benjamin Brown, who specializes in Jewish philosophy and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, notes: “In the Gur Hasidic community, measures are taken to ensure that there is no mutual understanding between men and women, even between husband and wife.” Total gender segregation, especially among adolescents and young adults, he notes, is enforced. For this reason, a yeshiva student in the Gur community will never be present in the same house with a female guest, even if the female guest is a relation of a young woman who has just become engaged to a brother of the yeshiva student. Similarly, when they are invited to the wedding of a peer, Gur Hasid yeshiva students stay only for the ceremony and do not partake in the subsequent banquet. They also make a point of avoiding conversations even with their sisters-in-law.

According to Brown, this rigorous code of conduct is rooted in a desire to maintain what Gur Hasidim call “sanctity” in day-to-day life. It was formulated as a response to the appeal made by their legendary leader Rabbi Yisrael Alter (known as the “Beis Yisroel” ), who headed the community from the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948 until his death in 1976, that the principle of “sanctity” be formally integrated into family life. “The motive was not really the promotion of modesty,” Brown explains, “because during this same period, despite the strict code of conduct, women in the Gur Hasidic community always dressed elegantly and maintained a well-groomed appearance.”

When it comes to the general genre of gender separation, it would appear that one of the primary purposes is to increase one’s sanctity.  It is interesting to note how within much of the Haredi world, the idea of men learning (not just Torah) from women is not something looked well upon.  A women can attend a lecture given by a man, but not the other way around.  Much of this is related to the famous words from Psalms, Kol Kavuda Bat Melech Pnimah (45:14 – All glorious is the king’s daughter within the palace).  In the context of eating a meal together, it must be that since eating should be a sacred act, the sacredness of eating must not be done in the company of the opposite sex.  Further, by sitting together, even at different ends of the table, there is an increased possibility of social interactions, which would invalidate the sacredness of the meal.  A final thought comes to mind as well. 

For the Hasidic world, based on an idea of the ARI, the table is like a miniature mizbeach.  As such, the food we eat represents qodshim, which are to be eaten in a state of purity,  The table therefore cannot be hindered by gender mixing, as the meal is symbolic of partaking of the sacrifices in the Temple. 

Nava Wasserman, who is preparing her doctoral dissertation on Gur Hasidism at Bar-Ilan University, notes that the Beis Yisroel also favored separate tables for men and women. However, she points out, not all Gur Hasidim accept this strict code of conduct and there are no widely accepted norms in the community. Instead, each family applies the code or deviates from it, as it sees fit.

“In any event,” says Wasserman, “no one wants to see the woman of the family being forced to eat in the kitchen.”

But according to a Gur Hasid who asked to remain anonymous, when there are many guests for a meal and there is simply not enough space to accommodate them in the dining room or living room, the women sit in the kitchen. Whenever men and women sit separately, he notes, the men serve themselves so at least the women do not have to stand around, waiting to serve them.

To me, this was the most telling part.  I remember one meal at my Rabbi’s house, a chabad Rabbi, during Sukkot, when the men ate in the sukkah and the women ate indoors.  What was interesting about this separation was that the only reason was due to space limitations.  For many in these Hasidic communities, space is a real problem.  Even if one never invites non-family guests over, tables are full and sometimes it just becomes less of hassle to separate eating spaces instead of playing games.  It is like setting up a kids table when one has many guests.  It is not because kids shouldn’t be at the table, but there is no room and it becomes easier to separate kids and adults. 

About the in-laws

Over the years, the Gur Hasidim have become somewhat more flexible on this point, and in recent years, according to Brown, have opened their code of conduct to internal debate. Meanwhile, other Hasidic sects, such as Slonim and Toldot Aharon, have gradually become influenced by the Gur way of life and have begun to apply similar prohibitions in the area of marital relations. In addition, in many Hasidic families, Brown emphasizes, when guests are invited for dinner, there are always separate tables for men and women. Gender segregation often begins when the nuclear family expands, as children marry and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law are brought into the fold.

According to halakha (Jewish religious law), brothers-in-law are not relatives of the first degree. As such, they are prohibited from listening to a woman in their wife’s family sing and they are not allowed to be alone with any of the female members of their wife’s family. Thus, in Hasidic families, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law never sit around and engage in small talk. Instead, they keep their distance from one another.

This is another challenge that is faced.  In addition to the shock of men and women coming together in marriage when neither side has a good understanding of the other gender, but then there is the greater challenge of interacting with others of the opposite gender who are not directly related.  As such, many find their meals more comfortable with less intermingling.  Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction between separate areas of the table and relegating women to eating in the kitchen.

We are not enslaved

I found a fascinating discussion of the idea of being enslaved in my pre-Passover reading which I wanted to share.  The Netivot Shalom in his discussion of the haggadah discusses the idea of what we mean when we say in the haggadah, “If G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharoah.”  The question that is posed is what does it mean to be “enslaved to Pharaoh” as opposed to any of our other exiles, when we were subjugated to different kingdoms and empires.  He answers that the slavery in Egypt was unique in that it was not just an enslavement of the body, but of the mind as well.  We are taught that the people had descended to the 49th level of Tumah and if they had stayed in Egypt longer, they would not have been redeemed.  In other words, the enslavement went beyond physical labor but was a spiritual enslavement as well.  The other exiles, as the Slonimer explains, were merely of a physical nature.  Hence, Egypt we would have remained enslaved if G-d didn’t redeem us, but not in any other exile.

After having read that, I came across the following from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks which echoed this sentiment (p. 14 Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah):

In the Kovno ghetto in the early 1940s an extraordinary scene took place on morning in the makeshift synagogue.  The Jews in the ghettto had begun to realize the fate that lay in store for them.  They knew that none of them would escape, that the work camps to which they would be transported were in fact factories of death.  And at the morning service, the leader of the prayer, an old and pious Jew, could finally say the words no longer.  He had come to the blessing in which we thank G-d for not having made us slaves.  He turned to the congregation and said: ‘I cannot say this prayer.  How can I thank G-d for my freedom when I am now a prisoner facing death?  Only a madman could say this prayer now.’

Some members of the congregation turned to the rabbi for advice.  Could a Jew in the Kovno ghetto pronounce the blessing thanking G-d for not having made him a slave?  The rabbi replied very simply.  ‘Heaven forbid that we should abolish this blessing now.  Our enemies wish to make us their slaves.  But though they control our bodies they do not own our souls.  By making this blessing we show that even here we still see ourselves as free men, temporarily in captivity, awaiting G-d’s redemption.’

Netivot Shalom on Prayer 3

The Netivot Shalom quotes a piece of Gemara based on the last week’s Torah portion, בשלח.  BT Sotah 30a describes how at the splitting of the sea, even the infant on its mother’s knee and the baby breastfeeding, experienced the שכינה and sang out in praise the words זה אלי ואנוהו, this is my G-d and I will glorify Him.   R. Berezovsky discusses how this shows that it is an essential element of the Israelite to feel an innate sense of needing to praise G-d in song, through the use of poetics.  This Gemara also teaches the idea of a sophisticated simplicity.  The infant recognizes the granduer of the divine but as an infant, there is no rationalization.  It is simply “This is My G-d and I will glorify Him.”

Are we resting on our laurels or striving forward?

In yesterday’s daily lesson in Tanya, we read the following (english text includes notes from lessons in Tanya).:

Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 15

In the category of Beinoni there are also two levels: “He who serves G‑d” and “he who serves Him not.”Yet he who “serves Him not” is not wicked, although he does not wage war with his evil nature, for never in his life has he committed even a minor transgression in the realm of negative commandments.

He has also fulfilled all the positive commandments which he was able to fulfill, including the precept of Torah study — which is equal to all the other commandments combined— to the extent that his mouth never ceased from study, despite the difficulty involved in this.

Yet he is still described as one who “does not serve G‑d,” for he does not wage any battle against his evil inclination to vanquish it through the aid of the Divine light that illuminates the G‑dly soul abiding in the brain, which rules over the heart — as explained above1 that the G‑dly soul and the Divine light illuminating it are the Beinoni’s answer to his evil inclination. He (“who serves Him not”) does not struggle with it — for his evil inclination does not oppose him at all in an attempt to deter him from his Torah study and divine service, and thus he need not wage any war against it. So it is, for example, with one who is by nature an assiduous student due to his stolid temperament, and who is also free of conflict with sexual desire due to his frigid nature; and similarly with other mundane pleasures he need not exert himself to master a desire for them, for he naturally lacks any feeling for enjoyment.

For this reason he does not need to contemplate so much on the greatness of G‑d to consciously create a spirit of knowledge and fear of G‑d in his mind in order to guard himself from transgressing any prohibitive commandments.

He also need not create a love of G‑d in his heart, which would motivate him to bind himself to Him through fulfilling the positive commandments and through Torah study which equals all the other commandments together.

The hidden love of G‑d found in the heart of all Jews, who are called2 “the lovers of His name,” is sufficient for him to motivate his fulfilling the commandments, since he is naturally so inclined.For a Jew who must engage in battle with his evil inclination, the love hidden in his heart is not enough. He must arouse it to an active, conscious state. For the person who is free of conflict with evil, however, this hidden love (together with his naturally favorable character traits) is sufficient.

For this reason, he is not considered “one who is serving G‑d” at all.

For this latent love is not of his making or achievement by any means. It is our inheritance, bequeathed by our Patriarchs to the entire Jewish nation, as will be explained further.3With this the Alter Rebbe concluded the thought that within the level of Beinoni there are two sub-categories — “he who serves G‑d,” and “he who serves Him not.”He now goes on to say that even one who is not naturally endowed with traits favorable to G‑d’s service, may yet come under the category of “he who serves Him not.”

So, too, he who is not inherently studious, but has accustomed himself to study diligently, so that this habit has become his second nature; thus, diligence is now natural for him,— for him, too, the hidden love of G‑d is now sufficient, unless he wishes to study more than he usually does.To do so, he must arouse a conscious love of G‑d in his heart. Only such a love can supply the strength necessary to free himself from the restraints of his acquired nature.

FOOTNOTES
1. See chs. 12 and 13.
2. Tehillim 69:37.
3. Chs. 18, 19, and 44.

Life is always a process of growth or stagnation.  We can very easily believe we should rest on our laurels, thinking we have already reached a high level.  The true servant of G-d is the one who never thinks that he/she has made it.  Rather the person should always strive for more.  This is the challenge we all face in our day to day lives.

Netivot Shalom on Prayer 2

In discussing the concept of prayer being worship of the heart, R. Berezovsky presents a fascinating interpretation of a passage in BT Berachot 8a.  The Talmud states:  “R’ Hisda said that a person must always enter through two entrances and then pray.”   This passage has a few meanings.  Some read this literally, that a synagogue needs two entrances before the sanctuary.  If we look at most synagogues, the sanctuary is not immediately at the entrance of the synagogue.  There is at least one additional door to enter before the sanctuary.  R. Berezovsky reads this passage as referring to two levels a person must achieve before reaching the place of prayer.  The first is to rid one’s mind of all extraneous thoughts, only focusing on our worship of G-d.  The second door is to then work towards unifying and pairing with the divine. Only once we reach those two levels can we truly be praying, which is the worship of the heart.

Netivot Shalom on Prayer

In the modern Hasidic work, Netivot Shalom, R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe of Jerusalem, discusses the concept of how asking for our needs can be considered part of תפילה.  His question is predicated on the equation of prayer with service of the heart (עבודה שבלב).   If we are serving G-d through our words, it would seem antithetical to be asking G-d for our needs.

R. Berezovsky argues that part of prayer, based on the R. Chaim of Brisk’s famous essay on Rambam’s view of prayer, is to be focused on standing before G-d.  When we are truly focused on where our prayers are directed, we bring about a connection between ourselves and G-d.  As such, when we are pouring our hearts out the G-d, we are connecting to G-d, for we are recognizing that it is only G-d that can truly provide for our needs and remove our troubles.