Shlomo’s Torah transported listeners emotionally and imaginatively, connecting them to inner states of longing and healing — to a different state of being.
On a winter’s evening in the early 1990s Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, in his late 60s, wearing a pacemaker that had been implanted in his heart a few years earlier, arrived at Ben Gurion airport, and picked up two heavy suitcases which held a few items of clothing, some vitamin pills, a bottle or two of cologne and dozens of “sefarim” — volumes of Talmud and commentaries, Hasidism and Kabbalah. Wherever he travelled — and he was always travelling — Shlomo, as he liked to be known, carried sefarim. Though arriving from South Africa, where he had spent three grueling days giving concerts, visiting schools, synagogues of all denominations, and community centers, Shlomo’s night was just beginning. From the airport, he rode in a taxi to a concert in Bet Shemesh, where he took the stage and moved the crowd to ecstatic dancing, weaving stories and spiritual encouragement between the songs. The show ended at 9:30, and after a half hour or so of greeting people, he rode to Jerusalem, to the home of Yehoshua and Emuna Witt in Nachlaot, arriving at 10:30. Packed into the Witt’s cavernous home were more than a hundred “Shlomo hevre,” a ragtag group of hippies, yeshiva bachrim, university students, and spiritual seekers of all kinds who had heard, by word of mouth, that there would be a learning at the Witt’s that night. By 11:00 Shlomo was strumming his guitar, singing with the crowd, and eventually, demanding silence, beginning to teach. The words poured out of him, hypnotic and uplifting. Couched in simple language, using everyday situations to dramatize and explain profound concepts, Shlomo taught his rapt audience until 2 in the morning. He still was not finished. With a smaller group of disciples, he took another taxi to what he called “the Holy Wall,” there swaying with longing in the early morning air before finally retreating towards his hotel room. At the guard house on the way out, one of soldiers stationed there accosted him: “Shlomo, play us a song,” and so he did, taking the guitar out of its case, playing one more song for a lonely soldier at 3 AM.
Shlomo is rightfully famous for the post-holocaust revolution in Jewish music that he almost singlehandedly catalyzed. For me, however, and for hundreds, if not thousands of those who found him a source of living waters, it was his Torah, transmitted in humble settings like the Witt household, free to one and all, that fed us with hope and touched us in places inside ourselves that we did not even know existed. Shlomo’s Torah is the least-known aspect of his legacy so far. But his distinctive, unmistakable teachings may yet become recognized as one of the most profound contributions to Judaism and world spirituality in the second half of the 20th century.
For this to happen, several things must occur. First of all, the primary format through which Shlomo taught — teaching sessions that lasted for two hours or more — must be transcribed and made available to scholars and seekers. While highly edited nuggets of Shlomo Torah have been published in a dozen or more books and pamphlets, and have the advantage of being easily digestible, they are no substitute for transcripts of entire teachings. Thankfully, an archives project has preserved thousands of hours of audio and videotape of Shlomo’s teachings. The importance of listening to full tapes or transcripts is that, although his style might seem associative, even rambling, mixing stories with parables and interspersed with songs, closer examination demonstrates that Shlomo developed closely argued themes in his learning sessions, returning over and over again with every new turn in order to reveal deeper and more complex insights. More than that: Shlomo said that the difference between the head and the heart is that the head never thinks the same thought twice, thoughts are always moving, always changing, while the heart, deep inside, thinks one thing for an entire lifetime. My intuition is that Shlomo’s Torah, while saying many things, had a coherent and singular message at its heart. Articulating that message in our own language is a task whose time has come.
Shlomo’s Torah transported listeners emotionally and imaginatively, connecting them to inner states of longing and healing — to a different state of being. This state, however, was not necessarily conducive to systematic analysis: even Shlomo’s closest disciples might be hard-pressed to trace his thought process in words. In his absence, though, it seems to me that it is now necessary to do just that — to begin to try to unpack Shlomo’s message, to hold it, as he held it in his person.
This is not a task to be completed in a single essay or even by one person. But I would like to make a modest attempt to begin to unearth a few of Shlomo’s main themes, using transcripts from several teachings, while keeping in mind the dangers involved in rephrasing, categorizing, and summarizing Shlomo’s language and interpretations, thus risking disconnecting them from the rich resonance of their place within the web of tradition.
The first axiom I would like to put forward is that Shlomo’s teachings, at their heart, are about human transformation. What kind of transformation? In one of his teachings Shlomo says that exile is when our life is not connected to our neshama. One way of articulating the transformation I sense as being at the core of Shlomo’s teaching means (re) creating this connection. I must add as well that Shlomo never used the word transformation as far as I know; he had his own symbolic vocabulary. I am using the word in order to try in some way to translate the poetics of Shlomo’s Torah by expressing it in another language; this is an exercise in interpretation and understanding, an exploration. To me the word “transformation,” which I am sure is inadequate in other ways, indicates a spiritual metamorphosis, the reaching of a higher state of being that expresses itself both in the inner life of the person as well as in her relationship to others.
This metamorphosis is necessary because human beings are often lost, disconnected, exiled, distracted. “When God called each creature into being,“ I once heard Shlomo teach, “He did it with a special melody — a unique melody for each created being. And every moment, each being is still hearing that melody. Humans are the only creatures in G-d’s creation that can cease to hear the melody through which G-d called them into being.” Shlomo sometimes expresses this state as something inborn, a brokenness that is part of one’s inner structure or state of being:
Every person has something wrong with them inside. This is why we are in the world, because if I would be complete, then I wouldn’t have to be in this world. So basically, this world is a hospital. This world is where I fix myself. The truth is that even after I fixed every aveira (sin) I did since I was born, I am still not fixed, because there is something deep, deep inside of me which needs fixing.
Shlomo also addresses the fixing we need to go through and the long path human beings have to follow, including the pain we must endure, in contrast to G-d’s other creatures, due to a lack of understanding of why we are in this world.
You know, friends, imagine I would come down from Mars and I would hear that there are creatures in the world that are just G-d’s creatures and then there is a creature which is called man who is G-d’s image. So I would say most probably the creatures that are just created by G-d it takes them a long time till they know what they have to do. I would say an ox has to live hundreds, hundreds of years until an ox knows exactly how to be an ox. A human being, since he’s G-d’s image, right away the first day we know exactly what we have to do. It’s the other way around. A cute little ox it has no problems right? You know I always say I‘ve never seen an ox going to a psychiatrist. I’m having an identity crisis, you know. I always wanted to be a cow and now…it’s hard on me…I have a twin sister, a cow, and she’s always in my way. Anyway, l’chaim. Isn’t it crazy? We’re in God’s image and it takes us so long, so long to find out what we are supposed to be…and not only that — you have to go through so much pain.
Deep inside of us, there is a wellspring from which the answers can come, but until we “reach that level,” the inner knowledge that awaits us remains totally unconscious. Our conscious mind is clueless, and this is expressed strongly through our confusing array of desires.
G-d has carved something into us something so deep, so deep. But you know before you reach that level…you know friends, sometimes it can take a lifetime until I know what G-d has carved into me…. Most of us don’t have the faintest idea of what we really want. We want a thousand things, but we mamash don’t know. We don’t know what we really want.
Our “wanting a thousand things” is a kind of desperate flailing about that is the result of a deep, unconscious need that lies at the root of our desires. You know what I really want deep inside? I am missing so much that my soul should be full. You know, friends, what the most heartbreaking thing in the world is? When my soul is empty, I want to fill it with being stupid. What I want to fill it with makes my soul even more empty. What is the depths of life? That I’m here in this world to fill my heart. I have to fill my heart with something. I don’t want my soul to be empty.
By its very nature, what we truly want is unknowable until we reach a higher level of development. Thus it is not our conscious mind that creates spiritual growth, but rather our connection to our subconscious — to that which G-d has “carved into us so deep.” When we have gone through a deep spiritual process, the end result, as we will see, is that we know what we truly want; we have reached the divinity that G-d has carved deep inside of us. But Shlomo underlines and emphasizes that we can’t reach there only through our conscious decisions; of course, these are important, but they don’t determine who we really are. The juxtaposition between the Tree of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden story is a major theme in Hasidic thought beginning with the Baal Shem Tov and is a major axis for Shlomo’s thought. Shlomo identifies conscious judgment with the Tree of Knowledge and goes far in limiting the significance of consciousness, even to the extent of saying that you can “consciously” do everything right your entire life and still be missing life’s essence:
Who are the people who have some kind of holy fragrance, paradise, right? Paradise fragrance does not come from good deeds. You know I can do right my whole life and I still don’t have a good smell. And sometimes there are people who do everything wrong. And they have this kind of a holy smell, some kind of holy fragrance about them, right? Where’s it coming from? It doesn’t come from the Tree of Knowledge. It’s coming from the deepest, unconscious, subconscious deepest deepest depths in the world. Take a piece of meat. It looks like meat, and it is meat. And it smells so bad. You know what’s missing? There is no life in it anymore. Life is not a thing you can see with your eyes. I cannot see G-d; I cannot see life. I can smell it. Life is something so deep. You what life is? Life is this deepest, deepest depths.
How does Shlomo describe the end result of the transformational journey that he describes us as struggling to reach? This is a broad and multidimensional subject for future investigation of Shlomo’s legacy, and I can only begin here with a description or two, a note or two, in what I am certain will prove to be a complex and profound melody. One way in which Shlomo describes the transformed individual is in the unity of desire and action in which there is no need for contemplation of choice because the will to do good in the world has reached a virtually instinctive level. When you are in this state of being, you do good deeds not out of duty, not because you have to, but because you want to with all your heart. Since there is no distance between your desire and the right thing to do, there is also no hesitation, as Shlomo says “Anything I do because I have to takes me one second to do it,” but even this tiny second indicates distance, alienation.
Shlomo makes this idea come alive through a parable:
You know, all our children should be well. Imagine, G-d forbid, chas ve’shalom, it should never happen, our children, chas veshalom, are drowning. It’s clear to me that I have to jump in. It’s on the level that mamash I don’t know anything. On the level of neshikene meneshikot pihu — kiss me with the kisses of your mouth. Its beyond me…to jump in for my children doesn’t come from my consciousness. It’s not thinking. Deeper than thinking. Deeper than knowing.
Shlomo compares the actions of someone who has moved towards spiritual transformation, or, in language taken from the teaching quoted earlier, one who has reached within himself deeply enough to touch “what G-d has carved into him” to a parent jumping into the ocean to save his drowning child — there is no need for thought or decision making, no distance between personal desire and acts of goodness. His motivation comes from what Shlomo describes as consciousness’s twin, what he calls “super-consciousness.” It is significant, and I think a key element of Shlomo’s teaching, that this super-consciousness is not abstract or disembodied, but, to the contrary, it is compared to something deeply personal — the love of a parent for a child. Speaking of the astrological sign of the twins, mentioned in the Sefer Yetzirah as the sign of the month of Sivan, when the Torah was given, Shlomo says:
The twins are my consciousness and my super-consciousness, mamash like I told you to jump in for my children doesn’t come from my consciousness. I’m not thinking. Deeper than thinking, deeper than knowing. It touches something so deep inside of me….
In another Torah, Shlomo describes Avraham Avinu (Abraham our forefather) as having achieved this super-conscious level: The Gemorah says that Avraham Avinu had no Torah, but his very bones were teaching him…it was deeper than choice. It was not that he learned and he thought he understood….
In these teachings, and many others, Shlomo seems to break down the polarity between conscious knowing and choice and the subconscious by describing a state that is “deeper than choice,” something that is coming from our “very bones.”
In another elaborately developed teaching, Shlomo describes this super-consciousness in another way, and from a different angle. Here he breaks down another opposition — that between giving and receiving. He begins with a mashal about soup:
And here I want you to open your hearts. You know the difference between eating soup in a restaurant or eating soup…I’m coming to somebody she mamash made soup for me with so much love and [she gives] it to me. We’ve learned it a thousand times. It’s very simple. The deepest question is: Are you receiving the outside of the soup or the inside of the soup? Is it mamash your soup or just soup. If I go to a restaurant and I pay five dollars for a plate of soup, it’s not really my soup. I ate it and I paid for it. If someone loves me very much and they are giving me soup, it is mamash my soup. And you know, friends, when someone gives me soup, and it’s mamash my soup, basically then I don’t need anything anymore. It’s so good. It’s so good. So you hear, friends, the same way, the way God gives us, sometimes God gives you just soup, right, and you don’t have it, and then you are unfulfilled; you are empty and you are crying, “I need more.” And sometimes God gives you something and it’s so deep, it’s so deep.
Shlomo goes on to say that the problem with misers is not that they can’t give; it’s that they have never received “the inside of the soup,” so to speak. Since they don’t really have what they have, they can’t give it. This is the first step in Shlomo’s Torah. The second step is to say that, as important as it is to give, there are some things which we have no right to give away. “The Rizhiner says there is such a thing that I’m giving something to you and then it’s yours. And if it’s yours, you could do with it what you want. And there is something so deep, I’m still in the middle of giving it to you…the giving never finishes.”
As in many of his Torahs, Shlomo sets up a polarity only to unify it. First he teaches that you can truly give only once you have really received the inside of what you have been given. But the most personal of gifts you can never give away because they are always in the process of being given — “I’m in the middle of giving it to you, the giving never finishes. This is a deeper form of receiving. Quoting the Rizhner Rebbe, Shlomo says: “Basically in order to serve G-d there has to be two levels. There has to be one level that you receive from G-d and you give it over to the world. But the deepest depths is if you receive from G-d that which I can’t give it away. I can’t.” This teaching is part of a much longer discourse, at the end of which there is a final twist: it is possible to achieve an even higher form of giving, in which you are able to give away what is still in the middle of being given, because you are receiving and giving at the same time:
“You know I can give everything away, but I can’t give my breath away. I want you to open your hearts in the deepest way. Do you know, chas veshalom, somebody is dead, and I say “Hey brother, don’t die yet, khop nisht, you know, take your time, I’m giving you my breath.” But I want you to open your hearts. How did [Elisha] the Prophet revive the...dead person? He mamash put his mouth to him and gave him his breath. This is awesome. You know what the deepest reviving of the dead is? That I am giving you over the deepest, deepest depths that cannot be given even. And the way I am giving it over to you, it is not on the level of giving. I am giving it to you and then it is yours. Remember, I told you before there’s a certain giving, it’s always mine and while I’m giving it’s still mine, while you have it it’s still mine…. I want you to know the deepest depths. You know when you kiss somebody, you know what you do? I’m putting my mouth on you. I’m giving you nothing, right? But you know what I’m telling you? I love you so much I could revive you with my mouth. You have to be very close for that. I can give everybody a dollar. I [can] buy everybody a house. I can give you a car. But to give you my breath. to give you that deepest depths which I cannot give away. I can’t. And yet I can.
Towards the very end of this teaching, Shlomo, in a way that is characteristic of his thought, brings us back to very basic and simple interpersonal experience, something we all know about: friendship: “You know what the deepest depths of friendship is? Not someone who tells you [you] did right or wrong. The greatest friendship in the world is if you can revive someone. Mamash revive somebody. And reviving somebody is not by telling them what [to] do or not to do. You know it’s a very little holy fragrance….
Here it seems to me that Shlomo is talking from his own experience and about his own aspirations. Shlomo wishes to teach a Torah that can revive us — can make us, as individuals, and the Jewish tradition as whole, fully alive again. This is the Torah of transformation, the Torah that is not about right and wrong, about conscious decisions, but about integrating our conscious and subconscious, receiving and giving, duty and desire. How do we do this? Does Shlomo provide a map or a set of instructions? I believe that he does.
I believe that encoded within the thousands of hours of teachings that have blessedly been preserved on tape and digitalized, we will find not only a vision of human transformation but a path for getting there—a path that is not a path, but a path none the less. Here is one hint, I think, at the form this path takes: Shlomo asks, in one learning session: “How do we cleanse our heart from anger?” – a fundamental question for him, a foundation of his path in Hasidism. “You can decide a million times to do it, but it won’t help,” he says. “The only thing you can do is at the moment you are getting angry, when your anger is so powerful you don’t see any way to stop it, and then you remember, and from somewhere high above, from a place you can’t even reach, from your superconscious-unconscious somehow you get the strength to be a little bit less angry….You can only do it at that moment.” You can’t do it consciously. That’s why it’s a path that is not a path. The only thing we can do is to open ourselves, through our intention and preparation, our readiness at the moment of testing, for the gift of cleansing and transformation that comes through our subconscious from above.
I was privileged to see Shlomo embody this ideal. Though surrounded by throngs of needy souls, demanding his love and attention, I never saw him lose his temper in a personal way. Instead, his aura created a loving space, a space of inspiration and aspiration to holiness, for all that were in his presence. I believe that through the effort to understand the hidden code, the one thought, running through his Torah, we can recreate that space, and activate that presence that is already within us.