Sunday, November 13, 2011
A Mediation on Shlomo Carlebach
Today marks 17 years since the death of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach - one of the most powerful influences on modern Jewish expression in the past 30 years. I think that his influence is really taken for granted - especially in the Jewish music world but also in the realm of tefilla.
Considering that the Kabalat Shabbat service was introduced only in the 16th century and is arguably one of the most popular tefillot, it is hard to think of davening or singing in camp without a 'Carlebach' niggun. Someone once told me, and I tend to agree, that the two most influential personalities on people "returning" to the practice Judaism in Israel are Rebbe Nachman from Bretslav (stories) and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (songs). Whether this is true or not I cannot empirically prove nor do I have the time to do so. What I can say is that the Jewish content that they have created has positively touched thousands of Jews beyond their immediate circles and has generated new connections to the Jewish tradition.
For Jewish day-school students today, the concept of a niggun is actually mainstream. For Hebrew School students, thankfully there are other versions to "david melech yisrael" than the one with the funky hand gestures. By the way, I also think that Debbie Friedman (who passed away almost a year ago) did much to bring non-Orthodox music into a new more meaningful era. If there was a Carlebachian influence on Friedman I do not know...
The point of this post is to first of all appreciate that the tone, tune, and variety of music has improved dramatically over the past few decades and actually engages a lot more people to participate or even dance in shul. The second point of this post is to highlight the often overlooked meditation element to singing a Hasidic niggun. Repeating a word allows participants to focus on the theme at that moment. Removing words and humming or shouting a meaningful tune permits more people to feel included. And most significant is that a niggun stretches a powerful moment - at a wedding, a brit, the welcoming of Shabbat, or a prayer for soldiers - to be longer than the one minute it actually might take to say the bracha. This is mediation and I sadly have not and do not hear many educators of tefilla teaching their students practical steps to block out distractions and learn to elevate their focus.
While there is indeed controversy surrounding some of the actions and stories of Reb Shlomo, his name is now a ubiquitous tag line to sing-songy service honors his memory and reminds us that, like the addition of Kabalat Shabbat nearly 500 years ago - things can change for the better.