What makes denominations unique? What are their boundaries? How open are their doors? These questions are important and their answers may be divisive and alienating to some. Personally, I believe in the pluralism of Judaism but also, the oneness of the Jewish people. As a rabbi in training, I am simply more interested in what brings these communities together, rather than what separates us.
As the Shma community discusses the impact of various denominations on Jewish life, I look towards tehillim – psalms, and particularly, the melodies Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach composed for those psalms, as they seeped past religious barriers and engaged the Jewish masses.
Tehillim, traditionally attributed to King David as their prolific author, paint a panorama of what a person’s inner-life might look like. The heights of joy, the depths of despair, mountains dancing and trumpets blaring, praise and pain and more coexist in these 150 poems. These ancient writings make up a large chunk of what the traditional siddur–prayer book looks like. At a time of immense experimentation and boundary crossing in American culture, Reb Shlomo entered the scene, holding onto the seder–order of the siddur, perhaps to ground him in his sharing of spirituality with others.
Despite whatever controversy may surround him, no other person in the past century has created liturgical music that can be found in stringently orthodox yeshivot to the most egalitarian synagogues. He realized the power of melody to serve as a catalyst for dveykut – connecting to God, at a time when people were craving meaning and direction.
His unique talent was composing melodies that accurately reflected the passion and ethos of a particular verse. Listen to the open yearning of “Shifkhi kamayim libekh – pour out your heart like water” and notice how the melody flows like rushing streams. Or make your way to a Carlebach minyan for Shabbat services and experience how the major tunes accurately reflect the call of the Psalmist to join in song, “lechu nerraneh laShem.”
It was his grounding in Torah knowledge and religious upbringing that would laterinspire him to explore his other talents. Studying among the most preeminent religious thinkers, such as Rabbis Yitzchak Hutner, Aharon Kutler and the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe Yosef-Yitschak Shneerson, Carlebach translated the world of the rabbis to the modern world. He was able to relate and translate ritual and Torah so that it was germane for a largely disconnected community, through his teachings, stories and of course, guitar. He made tangible Abraham Joshua Heschel’s assertion of the Baal Shem Tov’s aim: “to lower Heaven to humankind,” often performing and teaching in music festivals, clubs and places uncommon for an Orthodox rabbi.
Reb Shlomo almost single-handedly rejuvenated Jewish prayer after the Holocaust, opening the door for countless others in the Jewish world to follow suit. However, their work often stayed within the confines of their own particular synagogues and communities. Through dozens of albums, countless concerts and classes, rallies for Soviet Jewry and meaningful personal encounters, Carlebach breathed fresh life into our ancient liturgy and texts. He appreciated the power of a simple tune to permeate people’s emotionality, writing hundreds of songs, though he could never read music.
As an aspiring rabbi who seeks to make Judaism and Jewish song a dynamic spiritual part of people’s lives, I believe song has the power to inspire and motivate. And so, Reb Shlomo’s music is a gift. It is his music, and the words of the ancient Psalms, that bring together so many different denominations every Friday night as we welcome Shabbat. Reb Shlomo was able to weave tradition and modernity seamlessly. In this way, melody served as the ultimate movement and it still can.
To hear Reb Shlomo on nusach – the musical liturgy and ideas behind Rosh HaShanah: