A Response to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl on Carlebach

I’ve been thinking about the discussion surrounding this recent piece, and about Carlebach. Just wanted to add a thought/observation:

My abuser, also a rabbi, recorded two albums, and there are songs that have been taken up by congregations as a regular part of their services, apparently. I can tell you right now that at certain stages of my recovery, it would have been triggering/re-traumatizing for me to hear his music anywhere. Since recovery is a nonlinear process, there’s no telling how it might affect me from one day to the next. While I am not helpless and can easily walk out, it would feel like the continuation of a nightmare.

For this reason, I was a little bit alarmed by some of the things that Rabbi Buchdahl said.

Regarding Carlebach, Rabbi Buchdahl states:

“We did a lot of Carlebach, but we stopped for one year, and that will be over [this month].”

A one year moratorium feels like a joke, and a joke that is not very funny at all. It is essentially saying, “Here, we’ll appease you for a year, but beyond that, your experience matters less than our enjoyment of his music. His crimes are not that bad, and his victims’ experiences are less important than our sensory enjoyment.” This is the same mindset of the abuser. Where is the conscience in that?

“I am not punishing Carlebach.”

Why not?

“I don’t want to get rid of the art of Picasso or Wagner. I actually feel like some of the most incredible contributions to the art world came from the most flawed, complicated people. There is a spark of divinity even in the most corrupt soul.” 

First of all: Predators are not merely, “flawed, complicated people” deserving of our sympathies. Some men are very simple. They just take what they want. There’s nothing “complicated” about that. It’s hardly even interesting. Predatory individuals are flawed, boring people. When you romanticize them by calling them “complicated,” you uphold their idealized image in a sick, twisted way. This mindset is why we have naive, young girls writing serial killers in prisons. Perpetrators are romanticized by the media and by a culture that calls them “complicated” and “fascinating.” Please don’t perpetuate this mythology.

I’ve been close to one such person and let me tell you, there is nothing interesting there to behold. Move on! Carlebach is not that exciting. You are attributing more depth to his behavior than there probably was. Move on. We can do better.

Second of all: All art is just another facet, another angle, another lens for portraying some truth, some element of the human experience. Any one artist, any one body of work, any one piece, is not THE truth. Should we burn his music? Of course not. But should we play it in a place of worship, where the audience is somewhat captive? I don’t think so.

Like others have stated, the worst part is that I can *choose* to look at a Picasso or go to see a Woody Allen film. But seriously, you want to bring this (Carlebach’s) stuff into shul and gaslight me into thinking that you listened? Yeah… Okay…

“I felt my responsibility was to hear those victims and say, I hear you.” 

Our responsibility is not merely to hear; it is to listen, and to change, and to grow. But the truth is that most people are lazy and just don’t care. They want to keep listening to the music that they like. They don’t care who those women were or how Carlebach affected them. Quit trying to justify it; quit trying to accommodate your cognitive dissonance using spiritual and other bypasses. Just come out and say it: you don’t care! I’d rather hear that than all this flowery nonsense about “complicated” predators and “not punishing” people.

Hearing without real action (I’m sorry, but a one year moratorium is a facade of an action) is just bystander apathy. What message does it send to people who have been abused, to see the power of perpetrators perpetuated, and in shul of all places? Every time you play that man’s music you are making a choice, and you are choosing to continue to uphold his power — the very real power that he abused.

What about the women? What have you done to lift their voices and to restore their power? Oh I see, you gave them a year off from his music being played in your shul. But what about the 500 years to come?

***

There is, if we are not discerning, a darkness festering there behind the facade of kumbaya-esque Judaism and spirituality. I hope that people begin to see it.

I hope that people become alert, and safe, unlike the me of two years ago. No woman is too mature, too woke, too wealthy, too educated, or too powerful to become a victim of a simple, selfish predator. There’s nothing “complicated” about it. The only question is, how much are we each willing to overlook?

About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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