Shlomo Carlebach was the Charismatic "Soul Doctor"

Soul Doctor is the story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s life as interpreted in a musical play. It's soon closing a run at the Actor's Temple Theatre. Go see it if you can. It is a wonderful play. [(212) 239-6200. ACTORS TEMPLE THEATRE, 339 W 47th Street, New York, NY 10036 (between 8th and 9th Avenues)]

Josh Nelson stars in this production as the charismatic Rabbi Shlomo.

Juda Engelmayer reviewed the current production in the Jewish Standard, "Shlomo Carlebach musical has the soul to heal frayed race relations."

Eric Goldman reviewed the previous production of the ‘Soul Doctor’ - in The Jewish Standard. Goldman liked the play, the acting and the music. He concluded:
For anyone who has ever been affected by having encountered Shlomo Carlebach in person or has been deeply moved by his music, this is a performance that you surely will enjoy. For everyone else, “Soul Doctor” is a story about a complicated man who changed Jewish life by doing Jewish outreach in a most unusual way...

“Soul Doctor” is a play with strong performances, incredible melody, and a moving story about a man whose music continues to revolutionize Jewish life and culture to this day.

“Soul Doctor” is playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York.
I add a few comments to these excellent reviews. Carlebach's music is often played at Jewish weddings and sung in synagogue services. Professional musicians and cantors that I know have mixed feelings about his contributions. Many ordinary religious Jews today admire his tunes and are drawn to his work, years after his death in 1994.

Beyond what Goldman discussed in his review, I saw in the dramatic production additional dimensions of the Carlebach story and questions about the nature of rabbinic authority. His story to me is the struggle of a charismatic rabbi and musician with his  anti-charismatic community and with his fixed and rigid traditions.

The sociological designation of charisma goes back to Max Weber. It implies a form of leadership that has exceptional power legitimized by a leader's exceptional personal qualities and by his or her "demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers" (see wikipedia. "charismatic authority").

Carlebach was not just a rabbi with charisma. He was a truly charismatic rabbi. In Carlebach's case his charisma defined him. His following, especially among young Jews, generated by his charisma made him powerful and feared by the mainstream rabbinate who cringed at the thought of personal charisma as a distinct source of authority.

There is a big difference between a rabbi with charisma and a fully charismatic rabbi. Of the rabbis that I have known who had some palpable personal charisma, my teacher Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik stood out. However he was not empowered by his charisma alone. He stood firmly as a rabbi in his traditional world. Yet he had as well a vibrant personality and public presence that no doubt was charismatic. Thousands of followers attended his topical public lectures -- a fact which was puzzling since these events were spoken presentations with no music, often characterized by lengthy technical philosophical insights and biblical and talmudic interpretations. Yet, the Rav did not leverage his charisma to exercise authority to utterly dominate his community.

Rabbi Carlebach was a charismatic personality of  an entirely different sort. He piercingly transcended and influenced his community through his musical creativity and his personal flare.

That independent talent had its good and bad effects on his reputation, on his life and on his legacy. Some insights into aspects of that conflict and dichotomy do come to the fore via this critically praised interpretation of the Carlebach life and legacy in Soul Doctor. 

1 comment:

ד"ר נתן אופיר said...

Thank you for your insightful comments. Permit me to recommend the New Reb Shlomo Carlebach Biography which can shed a little more light on the "charisma" of Reb Shlomo. This is what Prof. Jonathan Sarna wrote: At last! A carefully researched and meticulously annotated biography of Shlomo Carlebach. A must-read for anyone interested in Reb Shlomo and his legacy.
Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University
For a video about the book see:http://bit.ly/1daHhaB; http://on.fb.me/1daHM4w