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It didn’t take the religious community long to get wind of Carlebach’s doings. Yet for most of his life, Carlebach managed to maintain a precarious balance between the Orthodox world from which he came and the New Age circles in which he traveled. Even while he played at Jewish Renewal retreats (he and Renewal leader Zalman Schachter-Shalomi were friends since their days in Lubavitch) he maintained his Orthodox pulpit on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. To this day he occupies an ambiguous position within Orthodoxy, where his music is prevalent but his activities are vaguely disreputable.
This nebulous position allowed Carlebach to spread his music and teachings widely, but it came with a host of unresolved contradictions. Was he attempting to push against the strictures of Orthodox Judaism in order to create a more inclusive, spiritual practice, or was he was just willing to bend the rules in order to bring people closer to Orthodoxy? According to one story, told by Coopersmith in his 2011 memoir, “Holy Beggars: A Journey From Haight Street to Jerusalem,” Carlebach rejected a mechitzah to separate men from women in the House of Love and Prayer because “There are enough walls in this world between people.” But on other occasions he used a triage rationale for this arrangement, arguing that the flaws of his approach were minor compared with the spiritual threats facing American Jewry. When it came to the controversies surrounding his methods, it’s unclear what Carlebach’s underlying position was, or if he had one.
As a Broadway musical aimed at the general public, “Soul Doctor” focuses more on Carlebach’s rebellion than on his outreach. Here we see him defy his parents and community, first by joining the Hasidim and then, more seriously, by connecting with gentile musicians like Nina Simone and moving to San Francisco to fulfill his calling as a spiritual teacher. Unsurprisingly, it does not bring up the allegations leveled at Carlebach in a 1998 Lilith magazine article — Carlebach died in 1994 — that he routinely made sexually suggestive late-night phone calls to female acquaintances and that he physically molested numerous women over the course of decades. Such accusations naturally provoked fierce controversy about how to remember a man many considered a saint. For his part, Wise has rejected those allegations, as you would expect the creator of a Shlomo Carlebach Broadway musical to do.