Book Review of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy

December 24, 2015

By Judah M. Cohen

carlebachbioWeb1Natan Ophir’s book, a major new study of Shlomo Carlebach, doubles as a treatise on researching modern figures who exist most vividly in the followers’ memories and recordings. Scholarship today must reckon more than ever with nonwritten sources. Commercial sound, image, and video repositories such as YouTube stand alongside nonprofit efforts such as the Internet Archive (archive.org), institutional portals at museums and research centers, digital archives at national and university libraries, and massive and growing personal media archives in home collections. Charismatic leaders still often present their ideas through written texts; but the immediacy of audio/visual sources, coupled with expanded options for their creation, dissemination, and preservation—whether on cassettes or the internet—can now match or exceed the significance of their textual output. Faced with such a range of materials, how will scholars organize and interpret them? Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson offers some hints of the emerging situation: though the author of a considerable written oeuvre that continues to anchor his intellectual legacy, he remains the subject of a huge, even growing collection of images, audio, and video. But what about a significant and influential thinker whose media presence vastly outweighs his written work?

Few twentieth-century figures offer as interesting a case in this regard as Shlomo Carlebach. Despite a slight literary output, Carlebach’s vast array of teachings—in person and in performance, preserved in memory and on recording—continue to occupy a formidable space in contemporary Jewish life and in reverberating circles beyond. Understanding his worldview, however, arguably requires a fundamentally different scholarly paradigm for research and analysis. Ophir takes on this challenge with intelligence and enthusiasm; and his consideration of Carlebach as “a modern day Baal Shem Tov” (pp. 425–427) late in the book perhaps best characterizes the result.
Actively recognizing a sometimes hagiographic level of hyperbole that accompanies his subject, Ophir views Carlebach’s spiritual and intellectual legacies as a universal “Hasidic” message, which he documents in large part through the eyes and narratives of others. Read the rest of this entry »