“Morally speaking…indifference to evil is worse than evil itself[.] [I]n a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” That statement by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, made in 1972, perfectly encapsulates the sentiment around #MeToo. Abusers are guilty, and all of them must be held accountable for their crimes, but those of us who let it happen, the enablers, the bystanders, those of us who, whatever our motivation, turned a blind eye to the abuse we knew was happening, and those of us who shielded our eyes from seeing, muffled our ears from hearing, and silenced ourselves from speaking, are all morally responsible.
Harvey Weinstein’s predations were an open secret—an open joke—among the Hollywood cognoscenti. Seth MacFarlane now famously joked about it at the 2013 Oscars. The same was true of Lauer, O’Reilly, Louis C.K., and many others. People around them knew, and did nothing. Said nothing. Continued to worship their celebrity, and ignore the pain their abuse was causing. Sexual abusers and harassers are only able to get away with abusing and harassing for as long as they do because they know they can count on the silence of people around them, particular when they’re powerful men with the ability to ruin careers and lives.
“Morally speaking…indifference to evil is worse than evil itself[.] [I]n a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” – R Abraham Joshua Heschel
Of course, the tenor of the responses to these accusations changes depending on how invested in these abusers the communities surrounding them are. Consider the fact that Weinstein was ousted from The Weinstein Company, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences relatively quickly following the multitude of allegations against him, while Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and Woody Allen remain members. The expulsion of Weinstein was clearly motivated not by concern over sexual assault, but by expediency. There was more agitation in that moment about Weinstein’s membership than there was about Cosby’s or Polanski’s, despite the fact that Polanski pleaded guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old.
When people have a personal vested interest in an abuser, they tend to think about everything except the abuse and the survivors when considering how to handle the accusations. Within the Jewish community, no example is clearer than that of Shlomo Carlebach.
We saw this kind of consideration of expediency over justice in the case of Roy Moore. Despite being accused by multiple women of making sexual advances on them or sexually assaulting them when they were minors, Moore received the endorsement of many on the religious right in Alabama, and eventually the endorsement of the President. Moore’s voters, and the public figures who endorsed him, made it clear that they cared more about their political agendas—more about keeping a Democrat out of the senate—than they did about the young women Moore preyed on.
In 1998, Lilith Magazine published an article titled Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side, in which it detailed several cases of abuse committed by Carlebach. By the time I read it, nearly 20 years later, the Lilith article had been widely denounced as being a feminist hit-piece. That impression is what initially motivated me to look into the allegations myself.
Carlebach represented Judaism’s Platonic ideal for me—a Judaism of love rather than the Judaism of fear with which I’d been raised.
I grew up loving everything about Carlebach. I knew that he’d done questionable things like hold mixed-gender concerts, and publicly violated the laws of Negiah, but those were always framed as a temporary, and necessary aberration to bring a drifting, increasingly disconnected generation back to Judaism. If they needed hugs and kisses to bring them back, then thank God for Carlebach.
One of my favorite Carlebach stories was the one about when he was in an airport, and met a Jew who wasn’t wearing a kippah. After talking to him for a while, he handed the man his kippah, and asked him to wear it. The man took it, and put it on. A while later, one of Carlebach’s detractors happened upon him in the airport, and saw him without a kippah on. After quietly accepting the man’s criticism, Carlebach’s response was just, “I’m bringing more people back to Yiddishkeit without my kippah than you are with yours.”
To me, that was powerful, particularly since I was already having difficulty in yeshiva, as a result of the abuse I was experiencing at home. Carlebach, to me, represented the hope, the dream, that Judaism could represent something beautiful, and inclusive. Carlebach made me long for a Judaism that embraced me despite my imperfections, that didn’t judge me for being born into a family rife with abuse and mental illness, that didn’t disadvantage me in the shidduch market because of my family’s issues. Carlebach represented Judaism’s Platonic ideal for me—a Judaism of love rather than the Judaism of fear with which I’d been raised.
And then I read that Lilith article.
I had every single one of his songs on my computer, and I’d listen to them for hours every Motzaei Shabbos. I’d listen to his stories with tears in my eyes, mourning the loss of such a clearly great and revolutionary tzaddik. Yossele the Holy Miser, and Schvartze Volf were my favorites. If I hadn’t gotten them on MP3, I might have worn down the cassette I had with how many times I listened to those stories.
And then I read that Lilith article.
I bought the narrative that Lilith wasn’t credible because it’s an unapologetically feminist publication.
At first, I didn’t care. I bought the narrative that Lilith wasn’t credible because it’s an unapologetically feminist publication, and disregarded it. (I’ve since come to realize that, as actually pointed out in the Lilith article, if anything, Lilith’s feminist bias, whatever it may be, would, by all rights, put them in Carlebach’s corner, as he was the most egalitarian Orthodox rabbi of his time. Additionally, prior to this piece recently published here on the subject, Lilith was the only publication to have a named accuser.) That year, as in previous years, my shul, Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park, held its annual Carlebach Shabbos. Chazzan Benzion Miller and choir led a packed house in an inspiring Carlebach Kabbalas Shabbos. Throughout the service, the assembled congregation sang along with the Chazzan and choir, enraptured by the beauty and camaraderie of Carlebach and his music. Right along with them I sang, loving every spiritual second of it. The service would last for over three hours, but to everyone there, it felt like five minutes.
The shul typically hosted a Friday night dinner on their annual Carlebach Shabbos as a fundraiser for the shul, and as an opportunity to join with other members of the shul, along with the chazzan and choir, in a Shabbos meal filled with Carlebach zemiros. And that’s all it was, for many years—a catered meal and Carlebach kumzitz.
Listening to him praise Carlebach, kicked the forgotten Lilith article loose in my mind.
Then, in 2014, they decided to make the meal more enticing by inviting Sammy Intrator, Carlebach’s long-time “gabbai” and former rabbi of the Carlebach Shul on Manhattan’s upper-west side, to speak during dinner, and lead the zemiros. Listening to him praise Carlebach, kicked the forgotten Lilith article loose in my mind. How could a man so generous that he died heavily in debt from all the charity he gave have abused so many women? How could a man who symbolized love, empathy, and acceptance, have so fundamentally violated his followers? Silently I sat there and mulled this question over in my mind. I tried to forget about it, tried to shake the conflict, but it wouldn’t go away. This was right about the time that the accusations against Bill Cosby became public.
“Shlomo Carlebach’s sweet melodies take on a totally serrated edge, because they seem to mock my abuse.”
Within a day, 50,000 people had read it, and it had been shared over 2000 times. Women started coming forward to me, both in the comments section on my post, and via private message on Facebook. Some of them were friends of mine, people I’d known for years, telling me stories of themselves or relatives being abused by Carlebach. In many of the groups in which the article was posted, many women came forward in the comments to tell their stories of being abused by Carlebach.
In December of 2014, I wrote a post for my blog referencing the Lilith article, and articulating the conflict. On the one hand, perhaps Carlebach was simply the messenger sent to uncover a truth, a beauty in this world that already existed but had remained well-hidden. Perhaps we should continue to enjoy his music, and stories, and leave his name and legacy to rot. Perhaps, on the other hand, since it was the popularity affording him by his art that gave him the power to abuse with impunity, it was inappropriate to benefit from the tools he used to abuse people. Perhaps the truth was somewhere in the middle; perhaps a baby could be salvaged from that putrid bathwater. I ended the article with a question, a plea for feedback from my readers.
After talking to all the women who came forward to me, I made the personal decision to no longer listen to his music, or in any way benefit from it.There was also intense backlash. Natan Ophir, Carlebach’s biographer, attacked several of the women who came out with their stories on my post. Lots of other commenters on my post reacted viscerally to the fact that I’d given the allegations any credence. I was accused of spreading lashon hara, (gossip) told I would burn in hell, and otherwise harassed by (formerly fellow) Carlebach fans incensed by my willingness to counter what to them could only be lies.
In November 2016, I wrote another post following up on the first one. In it I mentioned the women who’d come forward to me in the intervening two years, and responded to some of the arguments I’d gotten in response to my first article, chief among which were accusations of lashon hara, and outrage that I would dare compare Carlebach to Cosby in examining whether or not we can separate art from its artist. The response to the second article was very similar to the first. More women came forward, and more Carlebach fans unleashed hate and anger on me and the women who came forward.
In the year since, my second post would resurface every few weeks somewhere and spark a heated discussion about the allegations, whether or not we should believe them, and what we should do about them.
The Jewish community is not yet willing to contend with the idea that such a fundamentally integral cultural, religious, and spiritual touchstone as Carlebach was an abuser.
And then #MeToo happened. Carlebach is now front and center in the discussion of how we handle allegations of sexual harassment and assault in the Jewish community. Over the years, there has been increased awareness of the allegations against Carlebach, and congregations and individuals are increasingly deciding not to host events in his name, or allow his music to be used liturgically. And there has been increased conversation around the #MeToo movement and how it relates to Carlebach and how we treat him and his music.
Yet somehow when it comes to contending with powerful abusers, abusers in whom the community is invested, no number of accusers is enough to be credible. No source is trustworthy enough to be accepted. And even if you finally get them to concede the fact that Carlebach abused women, many of whom were underage, they’ll just assume that he did teshuva, and is therefore not to be held responsible for his crimes. There are two stories floating around regarding his supposed teshuva:If one thing is clear from all these conversations it’s this: The Jewish community is not yet willing to contend with the idea that such a fundamentally integral cultural, religious, and spiritual touchstone as Carlebach was an abuser, and that his music and its ubiquity represents, to many, a priority on the part of the community of personal expedience over justice. To quote a friend of mine, “Shlomo Carlebach’s sweet melodies take on a totally serrated edge, because they seem to mock my abuse. ‘Shlomo’s perverse legacy is welcome, but I am not,’ sings the niggun.” As a survivor himself of childhood sexual abuse, my friend suffers every time he hears Carlebach’s music, because to him the fact that we still find it acceptable means that the community cares more about its cultural icons than it does about the safety and health of its members.
- According to the Lilith article, Carlebach was confronted in 1980 by Sara Shendelman about his conduct with some women. His response, after initially denying the claims, was “Oy, this needs a fixing.”
- According to an apocryphal story no one seems able to trace, he was confronted by a rabbi, whose name changes depending on who’s telling the story, about his behavior with women, at which point he broke down crying, and did teshuva on the spot.
Neither of these stories in any way constitutes teshuva. Neither story indicates that he followed the laws of teshuva for crimes against your fellow person, which require apology, restitution to, and appeasement of the victim, none of which is evident in either story, nor is there any record, anecdotal or otherwise, of him having attempted to do this. Yet for some reason people, when confronted with the allegations against Carlebach, are satisfied with just assuming teshuva was done, and accepting that as sufficient character rehabilitation.
Then there are the people who acknowledge the possibility that Carlebach was, in fact, an abuser of underage women, and nevertheless think that his music should remain an acceptable, and welcome part of our liturgy. They’ll argue that much of our entertainment was created by people who either committed or enabled abuse, and that since it’s impossible and unreasonable to purge our culture and society of all such examples, we shouldn’t start with someone as important to us as Carlebach.
Change will not start on its own… We will lose cultural touchstones along the way.
Why not? To me this attitude serves as the clearest illustration of how abuse and its enabling have become so entrenched in our culture and society, the idea that the problem is so big, so ubiquitous, so fully integrated into our society and its cultural history, that we’d be fools to even try and uproot it. Change will not start on its own. It will not happen without sacrifice. We will lose cultural touchstones along the way. Instead of complaining about having to leave them in the trash-heap of history, we should instead begin to see it as a necessary step in ensuring that we create a society of upstanders, not bystanders, of people who give abuse no quarter, and refuse to benefit from any of its fruits, regardless of how uncomfortable the loss makes us feel.
I understand the loss. I felt it keenly after I decided to give up Carlebach’s music, and stories. I’d catch myself humming Boie B’shalom, and make myself stop. I’d turn on the Jewish radio station on Friday and hear Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbos, and my heart would break as I forced myself to change the station, because that music, that man, had meant everything to me. I may have had to let him go, but I’ve never let go of the ideals of a Judaism of love and inclusion, because I believe that truth is truth regardless of its source. I commit myself to a loving and inclusive Judaism full-throatedly, and wholeheartedly, but I will never again sing a single one of that sexual abuser’s songs.
Ed’s Note: On Tuesday, Neshama Carlebach, Carlebach’s daughter, responded with her first public comments on the issue. In an emotional and frank op-ed titled “My Sisters, I Hear You” for the Times Of Israel, she wrote about her father, the victims and being molested as a child. You can read it here.
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