Question: [Thursday, 23rd Marcheshvan, 5783]
I am Chabad and would like to know if there’s anything truly wrong with listening to Carlebach music? I really enjoy it, but all my friends tell me that we don’t listen to it in Chabad. Did the Rebbe ever actually speak about the matter?
I’m not aware of any documented negation of the Rebbe towards his music, even though there are rumors which exist that I have yet to substantiate. What is true, however, is that once he began practicing matters that are contrary to Jewish law in his concerts, the Gedolei Haposkim of that time contemplated discouraging people from listening to his music that was composed after his deviation from Jewish law. In a documented letter, the Rebbe personally disavowed his approach of compromising in Jewish law for the sake of Kiruv. Nonetheless, no mention is made by the Rebbe regarding his music, and some Poskim explicitly rule that there is no issue whatsoever with listening to the music that he composed prior to his deviation of Jewish law, and even the music which he composed afterwards is most likely permitted. In fact, some of his tunes have become classic Chabad Niggunim, such as Mikimi for Ani Mamin, and others. Practically, most Chassidim avoid listening to the music due to the controversy surrounding it, as well as due to the feeling that listening to it is a personal betrayal to the Rebbe who was much pained by his approach. Some however are either unaware or choose to ignore these matters in face of the fact that the music gives them much enjoyment and spiritual arousal for serving God, of which there is no debating that Reb Shlomo succeeded in bringing many unaffiliated Jews back to Judaism through his song, and even as late as 1992 we find that the Rebbe sent him blessing to be successful in Kiruv. On this I would conclude with the words of the Rama regarding drinking on Purim “One and the same are those who diminish and those who add so long as their intent is for the sake of heaven.” Hence, it all depends on your level of religious observance and Chassidishkite, as to whether listening to such music is considered for you to be going up in your spiritual level or going down.
Explanation: To begin with a bit of history: In the 1940s and 50s Reb Shlomo was a Torah prodigy and an avid follower of the Rebbe Rayatz, and later on of the Rebbe. Stories that have been told by people who lived at that time relate how Reb Shlomo had a most deep and close relationship to the Rebbe which was enjoyed by few. Aside for being a close confidant of the Rebbe he was also entrusted with various Shlichus missions to help bring Jews back to Judaism. At one point he was sent by the Rebbe to spread Judaism in the campuses, and seemingly this is where things began to go off. Reb Shlomo who was very fond of the guitar and playing soulful Jewish music would bring people closer to Judaism through his song. At first, this was only a blessed and positive endeavor within the Shlichus and Kiruv movement. However, in the late 1950s, Reb Shlomo began to deviate from matters of Jewish law that relate to modesty and Arayos in his concerts, such as mixed dancing and singing and touch of the opposite gender, for the sake of broadening his audience and achieving Kiruv on a much larger scale. This was the focal point of controversy regarding the validity of his music, and is what led to the sever in relationship between him and the Rebbe. While I am not aware that the Rebbe spoke of negation of his music, he did unemphatically negate his approach. In a response of Rabbi Moses Feinstein dated 1959, printed in his magnum opus Igros Moshe, he deals with the Halacha and Haskafa question of whether it is proper or permitted to continue listening to his music. He concludes that the music which was composed prior to the deviation from Jewish law is valid to be listened to, while the music that was composed after his deviation is debatable whether it is permitted, and depending on the level of deviation, it is best for Bnei Torah not to listen to such music although there is no clear prohibition in doing so.
Sources: For general historic information of Reb Shlomo and his relationship with Chabad: https://chabadpedia.co.il/index.php/%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%9E%D7%94_%D7%A7%D7%A8%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%91%D7%9A;https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/1196385/jewish/The-Forgotten-Bandage-and-Doing-a-Good-Deed.htm ; A partial translation of the letter of the Igros Moshe E.H. Vol. 1:96 dated the 22nd of Iyar 5719: “Title: Regarding the Niggunim which were made by a valid Orthodox Jew who after time deviated from the correct path, and as to whether his music may be played at weddings: Question: Regarding a certain Ben Torah who maintained a Chezkas Kashrus for many years and composed songs of holiness, and many of the Bnei Torah became accustomed to sing the songs during Mitzvah occasions, and now a bad rumor has spread regarding him that he does concerts in front of boys and girls together and you now ask whether it is still permitted to listen to his music which was composed before he deviated. Response: In my humble opinion I do not see any prohibition in listening to the music that he composed prior to his deviation. Now, [although it is forbidden to establish a name for a person who deviates from the path] we see from Yochanon Kohen Gadol that although he later in his life deviated from the path of Torah, the Talmud still mentions his institutions by his name… The same can likewise be found regarding the teachings of Elisha Ben Avuyah…. Therefore, the songs that he composed prior to his deviation may be listened to, despite the fact that it publicizes his fame, as the fame being publicized is one that relates prior to his deviation. Even Bnei Torah and Baalei Nefesh may listen to such music and there is no room to stringent in this. Furthermore, I even question whether the songs he composed after his deviation are in truth forbidden to be listened to if they are indeed Kosher songs with kosher lyrics as perhaps the prohibition against spreading the name of an evildoer does not apply towards his music…. Likewise, in this case he has only deviated from matters of modesty and not in matters of heresy and is hence not to be considered a heretic or Apikores and not even a Mumar Leteiavon… And if he wrote a Torah scroll it would be valid…..And therefore certainly his music may be sung and there is no need even for Bnei Torah to be stringent in this. Nonetheless, if the person has deviated from matters of philosophy that consider him a heretic, that although it makes sense that even in such a case is music is not forbidden, nonetheless, Bnei Torah and Baalei Nefesh should be stringent to not listen to such music that was composed after the deviation.” The letter of the Rebbe-Igros Kodesh 19:195 dated 23rd Shevat 5720: “Regarding that which you write that you are in question as to my perspective of a certain individual who is gathering [girls and boys and playing music before them] it is a wonderment and also painful that you suspect me of encouraging such a thing, going against an explicit ruling in Jewish law which prohibits Kol Isha etc. and mixed dancing etc. What is most wondrous is that I’ve emphasized many times in writing that this is one of the fundamentals of our Torah and mitzvah’s and especially Toras Hachassidus that one must love the creations and bring them closer to Torah and not God forbid to bring the Torah closer to them through compromise…. It is obvious that men of flesh and blood do not have the power to make business, God forbid, with God’s commands [to choose to compromise on certain matters of his commands for the sake of gaining more advocates].” See Beis Moshiach 307 p. 52