After #MeToo, some congregations weigh changing their tune on Shlomo Carlebach
The wave of sexual misconduct accusations toppling dozens of icons has reignited the conversation about the complicated legacy of the ‘singing rabbi’
Every day brings a new revelation. For the first time, in a massive, communal movement, hundreds of victims of sexual abuse are finding their voices to accuse perpetrators, even when the abuse happened decades ago. Formerly infallible icons have been falling like dominoes, and abuse previously written off as “just the way things are” is now being reexamined in a completely different light. The dramatic events of the past two months are also forcing the Jewish community to examine its own icons, including Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
In the 23 years since his death, at least eight women have publicly accused the “rock star rabbi,” who inspired millions with his dramatically different and inclusive Jewish music, of sexual misconduct in the 1960s and ’70s. One researcher said he had spoken to 15 different women claiming to be victims.
Carlebach, considered to be one of the most important Jewish liturgical composers of the 20th century, created a new approach to Judaism blending the ecstasy of Hasidism with radically new and soulful tunes. Today, his music is so inseparable from Jewish prayer services across all streams of Judaism that many people are often unaware that the melodies they’re singing are his rather than traditional tunes.
Many who knew Carlebach well acknowledge his penchant for long hugs and kisses and his effusive expressions of love. However, uncomfortable rumors came to a head in 1998, four years after Carlebach’s death, when the Jewish women’s magazine Lilith published an article titled “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side.” It included detailed testimonies by several women who said they had been subject to unwanted sexual contact and advances by Carlebach as teenagers.
In the article’s wake there were communities that grappled with his behavior in small, side conversations, but there were also Carlebach supporters who denounced the piece, accusing anyone who spoke about the subject of defaming a dead man unable to defend himself. (Members of Carlebach’s family declined to be interviewed for this article.) The debate never took off.
But now, with the explosion of awareness from the #MeToo movement, and as conversations about sexual misconduct are coming to the forefront, some communities are rethinking their relationship with Carlebach and his music. While some of the late rabbi’s most ardent supporters wonder what good the discussion can do when the accused is long gone and unable to speak up for himself, others stress the importance of honesty and transparency as a means for communities to tackle ongoing abuse — even when the legacy of a beloved icon is on the line.
The questions at the forefront of these discussions about Carlebach are similar to questions widely discussed about the artistic work of other alleged sex offenders recently in the headlines: Can you separate the art from the artist? And should you want to?
But there is another concern more specific to Carlebach: What happens when the “art” is a form of prayer? With his tunes so deeply ingrained in Jewish life — so much so that many don’t even know when they’re singing Carlebach’s music — can the music be separated from the man, and should it be?
The long-whispered conversations about Carlebach have gained recent traction on social media, with Facebook threads generating dozens of comments, along with a number of articles in the Jewish media and researchers’ blogs.
The “ANYTHING but Carlebach” Facebook group, a place for prayer leaders to share alternative liturgical music for those opposed to using Carlebach melodies, has over 900 members (the group bans discussion of his alleged misdeeds and notes that “there is more than one reason people come to this group looking for alternatives to his ever-present tunes). Other educators have started addressing Carlebach’s alleged behavior in classes and discussions.
This is happening as victims of sexual abuse, sharing their stories through the #MeToo movement, have leaped out of the sphere of social media to create repercussions in the real world. Israeli sexual assault centers reported an increase of 20-50 percent in the number of women reporting abuse or harassment across the country compared to the same period last year, as a direct result of these public conversations.
“I think people who speak up [about abuse] are not stigmatized the way they were years ago, but it’s still not good,” said Iris Weiss, who met Carlebach at Brooklyn College when she was 18 years old. Weiss said that Carlebach tried to forcibly kiss her and all of her religious female classmates on the mouth, though many tried to push him away. The interaction left her angry at Carlebach and angry, even decades later, when her synagogue planned a Carlebach-style minyan.
“I’m surprised that in today’s world there are so many people saying this couldn’t possibly have happened,” said Weiss. “If we keep saying, ‘Oh no, I can’t believe it happened,’ that is like calling these women liars, and that’s harmful, too.”
Dr. Sarah Imhoff, assistant professor of Jewish studies and religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, has written about the allegations of Carlebach’s alleged assault of women in academic journals. She noted that because sexual abuse such as fondling or groping has no “concrete evidence,” sometimes girls who complained about abuse of that sort were told they “must have imagined it.”
“I am optimistic that #MeToo and [the Harvey] Weinstein [scandal] can help communities turn the corner from hiding abuse and shaming victims toward believing them,” said Imhoff.
“At a basic level, #MeToo and Weinstein’s abuse have pushed people who might not otherwise have thought about it to start having the conversations about sexual harassment and abuse,” she said.
Imhoff credited social media with enabling women who felt uncomfortable with Carlebach’s behavior to connect with each other and give a platform to their voices, starting in the late 1990s in chat rooms.
“Some of these stories in isolation might have seemed minor: a hug held too long, a late-night phone call, or surprisingly intimate conversations,” Imhoff wrote in an email. “Social media allowed these women to see they were part of a pattern of Carlebach’s abuse — that their discomfort and bad feelings about the contact was not just a product of their imagination.”
Dr. Shaul Magid, also a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, presents the current debate as a struggle for control over the way Carlebach is remembered. Magid, who knew Carlebach in the 1970s, said the rabbi was a major influence in his journey to become Jewishly observant.
“There’s going to be a battle going on for another decade or so: Who is going to be in charge of Shlomo’s legacy?” said Magid.
“It really is unfortunate that it’s become an all-or-nothing thing,” he said. “One side is denying he acted that way. On the other side, they are acknowledging he acted that way and saying we can’t listen to his music and that anyone who listens to his music is aiding sexual harassment.”
Rumor vs. fact
Part of the difficulty in the conversations about Carlebach is that he was never questioned by authorities, much less charged with any wrongdoing, and never had the chance to defend himself because he died before any of his accusers came forward. Nor is it surprising that no one reported Carlebach’s alleged behavior to the authorities: Ideas about what constituted sexual misconduct in the 1970s were drastically different from what is considered unacceptable or abusive behavior in 2017.
Relevant, too, was Carlebach’s status as a rabbinical rock star, thrust into the limelight at a moment when the entire country was undergoing a sexual revolution. There is an imbalance of power inherent in any relationship between a follower and a charismatic leader, exacerbated when the followers are coming to that leader for spiritual and emotional support.
Rabbi Dr. Natan Ophir, who authored a 2014 biography of Carlebach, is one of the most vocal in denying claims of Carlebach’s sexual abuse. At times he has lashed out on social media at individual women who shared personal stories of experiences with Carlebach they felt were inappropriate or abusive.
“His hugging and affectionate gestures ‘saved’ many lonely souls, but it also deterred, and sometimes offended, those who didn’t appreciate his intentions,” Ophir wrote in his book. He maintained that Carlebach was targeted by the religious community for being an odd sheep, but that his oddness and refusal to adhere to traditional Orthodox rules governing physical contact with women, or hearing women’s voices in song, brought him closer to many people who otherwise might have felt alienated by Orthodox Judaism.
In emails and conversations with The Times of Israel, Ophir denounced all publications and blogs mentioning Carlebach’s alleged sexual misconduct. He said he had carried out dozens of interviews with women who claim to have been harassed or abused by Carlebach, and did not include them in his book because he could not corroborate their testimonies.
Magid, who has written extensively about Carlebach’s influence, called Ophir’s attempts to discredit the women “pernicious.”
Still, Magid and others bristled at comparisons of Carlebach to men currently in the news for sexual misconduct.
“If you ask me, I don’t think Shlomo Carlebach was a sexual predator in the way that Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator,” he said. “I think he was a person who did not have a lot of self control, and in some ways he was weak.”
In more than a dozen emails to The Times of Israel in an attempt to stop publication of this article (including personal attacks on this reporter), Carlebach supporters reasoned that the rabbi’s problematic relationship with women was more a product of the times than concentrated predation.
Separating the art from the artist
Most Jewish leaders acknowledge that Carlebach’s music is such an integral part of prayers it would be impossible to excise it even had they wanted to.
“It’s part of the Jewish liturgical canon at this point, and that’s a sign of his musical greatness that he’s able to do that,” said Magid, who lived for a period on Mevo Modi’im, the so-called “Carlebach Moshav” next to the central Israeli city of Modiin.
Carlebach entwined many seemingly disparate parts of the American experience in the 1960s and ’70s – free love, Orthodox Judaism, counterculture, love for tradition, post-war expression, hippie concerts, fervent prayer — and his presence still echoes today. Four years ago, the musical “Soul Doctor,” about Carlebach’s life and his relationship with singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone, hit Broadway.
His approach to prayer through accessible song and dance was revolutionary, opening the tent of Judaism through concerts in venues as diverse as Jewish day schools, arenas and Buddhist monasteries. He created bridges between Jews and the world and also bridges between far-flung Jewish communities.
“Shlomo was influenced by the folk revival in the 1950s,” said Magid. “He took the kind of music people were listening to, and he was writing Jewish liturgical music in that genre.
“He was the most important Jewish liturgical musician in the last half-century,” he said. “he represented a combination of a particular kind of authenticity.”
But there are a growing number of observant Jews who, while acknowledging Carlebach’s contribution, do not want to perpetuate its legacy.
“His music is a very powerful tool,” said Rabbi Elli Fischer, an Orthodox-ordained rabbi and doctoral student in Jewish history at the Tel Aviv University. “It really broke down boundaries and drew people into Judaism, and continues to do so today.”
However, Fischer said, he had difficulty using Carlebach’s tunes in liturgy due to the sanctity of prayer. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Mick Jagger was doing the same thing, but I’m not bringing Mick Jagger into shul,” he said.
Fischer added that it was hard for him to hear synagogues announcing from the pulpit that they were fighting sexual harassment and reaffirming that synagogues are safe spaces, and then reminding the congregation of a Carlebach-style Shabbat coming up the following week.
“You just destroyed your entire message,” he said. “You lionized the guy, you bring him into the sacred space.”
For other congregations, branding is the problem.
“The issue of distinguishing between art and the artist isn’t relevant in this case, because here the context is the praise of the source of holiness of the creator,” said Rabbi Barry Kornblau, the rabbi of Young Israel of Hollis Hills-Windsor Park in Queens, New York, and a member of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. “[In prayer], our sensitivity to other people and to ethics and morals has to be at an extraordinarily high standard.”
Kornblau worried that when communities join in prayer to sing a familiar tune, it could trigger discomfort or even resurfaced trauma for women affected by Carlebach’s behavior. “Many of those people are still alive, and they see the glorification of a man who they allege sexually assaulted them, sometimes mildly, sometimes very seriously,” he said. “Sorting out what to do is hard.”
He said that his congregation decided several years ago to use Carlebach tunes during Friday night services, but not to call the service “Carlebach-style.”
“When it was proposed in my shul, I was reluctantly willing to accept the singing, but I was extraordinarily uncomfortable with putting his name on any promotional material,” said Kornblau. “He’s not a role model or religious figure that I want to project.”
“Even if people continue to sing the songs, if his name is no longer associated with them, that’s a big deal,” Kornblau said.
Imhoff, of Indiana University, said she has noticed a trend of synagogues calling the prayer style “neo-Hasidism” rather than “Carlebach.”
A teaching opportunity
Fischer added that Judaism has a precedent when it comes to a charismatic leader who irrevocably influenced Jewish liturgy: King David. The brilliant psalmist was also an inveterate womanizer who ordered Uriah the Hitite into battle so he could take his wife Bathsheba for his own, though there is no mention of whether Bathsheba consented to the arrangement.
Rabbi Eliyahu Yaniger, the rabbi of the Carlebach-style “Shirat Shlomo” (Song of Shlomo) congregation in Efrat, said that he sees a teaching opportunity in sharing Carlebach’s complete story, in all of its glory and complexities.
“I’ve spent many years learning about Shlomo, reading stories about Shlomo to family and guests, being awestruck by his devotion, generosity, originality, and willingness to go places people didn’t go, or changing the perception of what prayer should be,” said Yaniger. “Any one of those would be an achievement on its own, but he did them all. I’d like to see him as a lamed vavnik [one of 36 righteous people in every generation] and think these rumors are not true.”
But Yaniger said conversations with Debbie Gross from the Tahel Crisis Center for Women and Children, who is helping Shirat Shlomo implement standards to prevent child sexual abuse as part of an initiative to award organizations “Child Protection Certification,” convinced him to give weight to the women’s testimonies.
“In my opinion, it should not be hidden for a number of reasons,” he said. “One reason is that if our children or people who are trying to learn about Shlomo from us get the impression that our admiration for Shlomo is based on the denial of reality, and our perception of Shlomo is colored by cognitive dissonance, they’ll throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that’s not a good thing to do educationally.”
Yaniger also said community leaders must understand that their positive actions in public don’t immunize them from being held responsible for unacceptable behavior in private. “[I don’t want] them to take Shlomo as an example and think, ‘I can possibly get away with this kind of behavior.’ It’s important to know that this man, whose achievements have exceeded most of what we can even dream of — we’re even going to hold him to task for this. Nobody gets an exemption.”
Yaniger called the conversations “painful,” but warned that they shouldn’t overshadow everything that Carlebach did. “The good has to be celebrated, but with some qualifications, so we don’t compromise the truth and our accountability and the people who have suffered from him,” he said. “But we still have to celebrate the good that he did. We can’t let that light fade away because of some badness there.”
Some people said that Carlebach may have been starting to come to terms with the pain caused by his behavior toward the end of his life.
Rabbi Menachem Kallus, a student of Carlebach who is currently a kabbalah researcher at Haifa University, said he recalled a Saturday night event with Carlebach on the Lower East Side in 1990 when the rabbi addressed some of the abuse allegations without naming them. “He said that he regretted all of the moral failings that he had demonstrated when he was younger,” Kallus recalled. “I took that to mean the gender failings he had manifested.
“I think that he acknowledged that he did something inappropriate,” said Kallus, who first met Carlebach in the 1970s. “It was known to me — I assume that it was something that was widespread knowledge — that he was loose with regards to inter-gender relationships.
“I think the fact that he regretted it implies that he knew he had something to be regretful about,” he added. But he also thought that Carlebach had begun a journey of acknowledging the harm he had caused, though he had not taken concrete steps to atone by the time the fatal heart attack hit on October 20, 1994. “The fact that, as far as I can tell, the kind of behavior didn’t occur in the last few years of his life is an indication that he was serious about change,” said Kallus.
Kallus said as far as he knows Carlebach did not make any other statements regarding his personal behavior before he died. The Lilith article mentioned a 1980s women’s study session in Berkeley when Rabbi Sara Shendelman confronted Carlebach about his behavior with some women. After initially denying it, he allowed, “Oy, this needs such a fixing.”
But others say that even if Carlebach was on the path toward acknowledging his failings, he never made a request for forgiveness from the ones who needed it most: his alleged victims.
When women are believed
Imhoff said there’s a lesson that Jewish communities can take away from Carlebach’s alleged behavior: believe women.
“It may sound simple, but it’s not,” she wrote. “When women feel believed, they feel less shame. When women are believed, other women who experience abuse are more likely to report it. When women are believed, the community is supporting more openness rather than a culture of covering it up. So believing women is crucial for the women who are abused, but it’s also important for creating a more ethical community.”
For some communities, that may mean an open and honest discussion about what place Carlebach’s music has in their prayer services. Openness and conversations can also be a tool to educate people who encounter behavior that is abusive or borders on abuse, encouraging them to speak up as soon as possible.
One woman, M., who said Carlebach sexually molested her as a teenager, said she wants the focus to move beyond Carlebach. M., who declined to have her name published due to fear of harassment from Carlebach’s more fervent supporters, argued that focusing on Carlebach distracts attention from those currently committing sexual abuse.
“[Talking about Carlebach] is the wrong use of energy. Do something about people who are hurting now,” she said.
“Carlebach was completely sexually inappropriate with a lot of people. But so what? It’s not happening any more. It was tolerated by a generation of people who are very old now. [Today’s] generation wouldn’t tolerate that. They would hear about this, and they’d say, ‘Let’s find out what happened, let’s do something about it.’ It’s not about, ‘Let’s cover it up.’ Now we have a voice.”
M. said it took her years of therapy and support, but that she is now in a place where she chooses to focus on positive actions that can be taken, rather than the negative that has already taken place.
“My message to the Jewish community is to find the kindest and most professional ways to help increase safety in our communities and in families,” she said. It will take a combination of police background checks, education, sensitivity training, women’s empowerment, confidential reporting methods, and communities accepting responsibility.”
She stressed that Jewish communities must also find ways to treat perpetrators with fairness and, in some cases, compassion, and ensure they receive effective treatment.
Indeed, honesty, openness, education, and compassion are things that Carlebach stood for, some of his supporters argue.
Carlebach has become such an icon that his supporters are trying to build him up as a “faultless figure,” Magid said. “It’s so unfortunate; creating a person without fault is the opposite of the message he was trying to convey — that we are all broken people, that we all have faults.
“The defensive side is trying to deny this,” added Magid. “And I can imagine him saying, ‘You missed the whole point! The point is that we’re all sinners.’”
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