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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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.

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Angel’s dvar Torah contains one of my favorite Hasidic stories dealing with prayer.  The story is about Rabbi Levi of Berditchev and his experience of a synagogue in which are the prayers remained instead of going up to heaven.  What are we thinking about when we pray?  How are we directing our prayers?  Are our synagogues conducive to creating a spiritual space to allow our prayers to go beyond words we are saying by rote?  These are the challenges spiritually inclined people face on a daily basis.  We must always strive to carve out privacy in the middle of a public ritual.

Even the mundane can become holy

Sefer Baal Shem Tov Bereishit 114 ( Tzavaat HaRivash):

Also, serve God with all your might, because everything is “required [for Above].” 3 God wishes to be served in all possible ways. This means the following:

Sometimes one may walk and talk to others and is then unable to study [Torah]. Nonetheless, you must attach yourself to God and effect yichudim (unifications). 4 So also when on the road, thus unable to pray and study as usual, you must serve [God] in other ways.

Do not be disturbed by this. For God wishes to be served in all possible ways, sometimes in one manner and sometimes in another. That is why it happened that you had to go on a journey or talk to people, i.e., in order that you serve Him in that alternate way.

The Baal Shem Tov believes human beings have the capacity to multitask.  We have the ability to talk to someone and be able to focus on G-d.   This is illustrated by many stories of great rabbis, in the midst of a conversation with another person, the rabbi would be able to give the person full attention while also be focused on G-d.  Or the tailor who works on fixing garments while in the meantime is focus on unifications (Yichudim). 

The question for today is; Is the Baal Shem Tov really assuming this is a possibility for all people or is this the level of great people, while the rest of us are not capable of such singlemindedness? In my opinion, I do believe this line can be read and incorporated into any individual’s daily practice.  However, as is a noted argument amongst historians of Hasidism, I am not convinced that the Baal Shem Tov would have considered this to be for the general public, rather this was an idea that would be for the aspiring elite.