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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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Neshama Carlebach and the Politics of God

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach did not belong to any religious movement, but his daughter Neshama now belongs.

Neshama Carlebach. Her late father Shlomo would never have declared his move from Orthodox to Reform, because he was never Orthodox. He never belonged.

Neshama Carlebach. Her late father Shlomo would never have declared his move from Orthodox to Reform, because he was never Orthodox. He never belonged.
Photo Credit: You Tube

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was an enigma, for sure. His faith was not only unquestionable, it was big enough and unrestrained enough for thousands to use as they saw fit. He was a Rebbe in the finest and deepest meaning of the word—you could see the world changing as he walked by.

He certainly changed my life, so much so that my own Rebbe has received his ordination from Shlomo.

To say that Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was an Orthodox Jew is like saying that a beautiful flower is vegetation. It is, but the term is almost too alien to befit the life and works of this magnificent individual.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach would never have made a statement like “How I became a Reform Jew,” the title of his daughter’s JTA article – because to him being Jewish was a continuum, and he traveled, happy and unafraid, along this endless path, hugging and kissing Chasidim, Modern, Liberal, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New Age, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and their wives.

He wouldn’t declare his move from Orthodox to Reform, because he was never Orthodox. He never belonged.

But his daughter, Neshama, now belongs. Utilizing the considerable cache of her last name, she announced her move to become a Reform Jew, indeed a delegate to the 2013 URJ Biennial convention on the West Coast.

It couldn’t have been easy growing up as Shlomo’s daughter. The way Neshama describes it, it was a nightmare, and I believe her:

As the daughter of this great man, I bear witness to the intolerance, cruelty and ostracism he suffered for daring to step outside the “daled amot” (personal space) of observant Jewish life. As his child, I suffered alongside him, when he tried to give me a platform to sing, the outcry from my Orthodox brothers and sisters invariably drowning out my voice and suffocating my love for Jewish tradition.

I can really see how living on the receiving end of the taunts and name calling and angry voices and enraged faces “of those who believed — genuinely believed — that what I called prayer was an affront to God,” as she describes it, her experience was terrifying.

But she couldn’t possibly argue that this was the sum total of her encounters with observant Jews. I would be the first to admit, even declare, that Haredi Judaism has been out of whack for some time. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik’s much lauded 1984 article in Tradition Magazine attempted to explain this post-Holocaust phenomenon, suggesting it was mostly because of the post-Holocaust thing. An entire nation was burned alive in Auschwitz, and in the black pit it left behind much fear, strictness and loathing have blossomed.

Still, my personal experience, albeit not as the offspring of a giant Rebbe, has been in observant shuls that were mostly accepting, encouraging, cheerful. Is it possible that wherever I looked, God in His mercy showed me only the nice shuls, while leading Neshama Carlebach only into hell holes?

I completely accept her argument about the involvement of Reform congregations with “Tikun Olam,” as she puts it. They appear to be socially active in caring for the poor and the needy, often in collaboration with local churches. Of course, it would have been nice if she cared to mention the Satmar Bikur Cholim program that goes out of its way to accommodate all Jews in need while a loved one is in the hospital, as well as showering Jewish patients with goodies every day, but especially on erev Shabbat. And the outstanding sacrifices of Chabadniks who rush to help Jews in need practically everywhere on the planet. Or the Gemach movement, which is broad and numerous and amazing, offering everything from interest-free loans to wheelchairs. Or the Tomchei Shabbat associations around the globe, feeding thousands of Jewish families. Or the Hatzolah volunteer associations saving Jews and Gentiles.

The Reform movement should be very happy for their new asset. Neshama Carlebach justifies everything they’ve been saying about their right to a seat at the table, never mind the sad fact that some of their congregations are majority-gentile. And never mind that their position on the 2-state “solution” supports destroying the lives of 650,000 Jews. And never mind that they’re seeking to influence religious life in Israel, even without living there—religious colonialism if I ever saw one.

But I’m not sure Reb Shlomo Carlebach would be so happy.

Don’t misunderstand me, he wouldn’t be angry, because—at least as I experienced him—anger was not something he did. But I suspect he would be sad.

Nevertheless, he must be keeping in good shape, on account of the rolling in his grave…

Yori Yanover

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.

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