Academic journal article American Jewish History

Shlomo Carlebach and Meir Kahane: The Difference and Symmetry between Romantic and Materialist Politics

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Shlomo Carlebach and Meir Kahane: The Difference and Symmetry between Romantic and Materialist Politics

Article excerpt

Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) and Meir Kahane (1932-1990) were two ubiquitous figures in postwar America. (1) Each evoked controversy in the Jewish world--Carlebach for his validation of the counterculture and pushing the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism, Kahane for his advocacy of militarism and his unrelenting battle against what he saw as the hypocrisy of the American Jewish establishment. (2) In some sense, one could say that Carlebach was a proponent of a certain kind of Jewish liberalism that was beginning to synthesize liberalism with Jewish spirituality, while Kahane was opposed to that very synthesis. (3) In fact, as I will show, Carlebach's romantic view was not an expression of liberalism, but was closer to a utopianism founded on a belief in the ability of love to overcome human conflict without the rights-based foundation of a liberal ideology. Carlebach was one representative of the romanticism of the New Age, while Kahane represented a militant form of right-wing radical Zionism as a critique of American Jewish liberalism. Kahane espoused a form of diasporic Revisionist Zionism refracted through a post-Holocaust lens. Yet there still appears to be a strong symmetry between them. Gal Beckerman noted the Carlebach/ Kahane connection in passing when he wrote about the Soviet Jewry Movement: "Like Shlomo Carlebach, who combined a distinct tradition --Hasidism--with early 1960s counter-culture, Kahane blended the political philosophy of revisionism with extreme identity politics of the late 1960s. (4)

One would think the differences between these two men would result in very different positions along the Jewish political spectrum. In spite of the ideological and spiritual differences between them, there is a striking similarity with regard to how Carlebach and Kahane understood Israel and its place in the American Jewish psyche. The romantic and materialist politics that each represented arises from the similar fundamentals each shared regarding the dangers of the challenges to Jewish existence in the postwar period.

Anyone familiar with either of these men, either as personalities on the Jewish scene in postwar America or, in the case of Kahane, through his voluminous writings, will immediately see the vast differences between them in terms of approach, sentiment and religious inclination. And yet, on an emotional level, many considered themselves disciples of both. In a recent blog in The Times of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Katz, an American-born Israeli settler, wrote an essay, '"Never Again' or 'Like Never Before'--a Tale of Two Yahrtzeits," in which he argues that the symmetry between Carlebach and Kahane is deeper than one would think, and thus, the fact that they have common disciples (Katz being among them) makes perfect sense. (5) Beyond the vast differences between these men lies a more fundamental similarity on a series of points. This creates an unlikely symmetry, whereby Carlebach's romanticism manifests itself as, or can be articulated as, a strongly rightist political platform, even against Carlebach's better judgement.

The year 1967 was a watershed year for anyone whose attention was on Israel, which Carlebach's and Kahane's surely were. The Six-Day War resulted in Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall) and various other holy sites that were housed in the West Bank, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem and Joseph's tomb in Nablus. Surprisingly, Kahane did not write much about the Six-Day War in its immediate aftermath. In fact, in the recently published five-volume collection of his writings, Beyond Words: Selected Writings, 1960-1990, there is no entry for 1967, and the entries for 1968 only touch on the war. Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in 1968 in response to the Brownsville-Ocean Hill, N.Y. teacher's strike, and his 1971 book Never Again! does not focus on the war. Kahane did publish a book advocating a pro-war position, The Jewish Stake in Vietnam, under the pseudonym Michael King, (the printed edition I used from 1967 had the names Michael King and Meir Kahane) but this was written before the Six-Day War in June of that year. …

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