I have a number of points to make, and I apologize for their length. But I don’t want to oversimplify, although I realize that this way, not only everyone will find things to agree with but also plenty to (vehemently) disagree with. If you just want to read what you think, don’t read on.
Accusations of sexual misconduct (AOSM) against Reb Shlomo (RS) have come into the public sphere for the first time only many years after his death. Some said “What!” and some said “Finally!” Since then, the accusations have become well-known to the general public. The alleged victims are now grandmothers (or of granny’s age) and the controversy about his legacy has all but fizzled out. The recent emergence of the #metoo movement only has added fuel to the fire.
The articles I saw are here, here, here, here, here, here*, here and here, including the comments under them. I’m not saying that you should read or believe any of it (I recommend the sixth*, but note that it reports RS admitting AOSM to a large meeting while in truth it was rather said in a private meeting, if at all). Maybe, first read my critique below.
I never met Reb Shlomo. I was a beginning Ba’al Teshuva and I was told by my rabbi that he was “Off the Derech,” so I avoided him. That’s how terrible slander is – may G-d forgive him!
Only after 18 years of being religious, I discovered a Shlomo minyan (Maale Adumim) through no effort of my own, and I loved it, the music, the happiness, men with their arms around each other, singing, taking time to pray. Reb Shlomo then already passed away many years earlier.
What I want to do is look at the issues as a fan of all power to women and a fan of RS. Is it possible to live with both these two passions or has one to be thrown under the bus, and if so: which? The Jewish answer at first glance seems to be: RS, because we are more concerned with the interests of the living than with the dead. Could there be an alternative?
I will give many comments on what some wrote against RS, most of them disagreeing with them, at least partially. But I’m very grateful for their writing, because without it, I had no way to formulate my truth.
To quote a wise one: I don’t know if this is true, but if it is, it is terrible!
And this: If it was true, would he not feel terribly broken about it now?
Much of the first-hand AOSM ring true to me. And people who try to intimidate victims seem bullies to me. That should count for something.
RS fans could say: Leave it alone, let the people who write against RS do whatever they want. But I think it’s better to give them tools to reflect on this, and arguments against bystanders who just enjoy trashing RS.
Some have pleaded for judging RS favorably, for the simple reason that he always taught to give people the benefit of the doubt, but that seems wrong. That would be like letting a thief off the hook because he wasn’t possessive. Of course he wasn’t; lots of what he had, in fact he stole.
I’m always a bit troubled when RS is called and only known as the singing or dancing or hugging rabbi. To me, his Torah lectures are unbelievably deep. People who after the AOSM can’t take his melodies or honoring him anymore, should try to forgo his teachings – if they can.
Sexual abuse is so painful because sex is for uniting people and give them a safe independent place in this world: with me you are safe – go explore your power. Molestation is so painful because it denies you a safe independent place in this world: you and your power do not exist.
I make a distinction between (alleged) victims and bystanders. Do the latter have the same amount of business being so furious? Or comes their anger from (occluded) molestation that they underwent in their early lives or from things that happened to their loved ones?
I believe that early childhood sexual abuse is endemic in the West and that would explain why most people are so un-calm about this. And that would also compel us to not stop at blaming the big, famous abusers, but to investigate too what is going on in the standard Western family.
(Childhood molestation being common doesn’t mean that we should tolerate it as unfortunately normal. We should continue to prosecute and prevent it. We should fight it, and eradicate it. But we could also realize that there are no innate monsters. They were all victims too.)
(Frankly, I don’t care so much anymore if people can’t believe this. If you want to dispute that, show me one traditionally raised person who was not molested as a baby, and I’ll show with simple persistent therapy that s/he was. Could anyone nowadays still believe Freud that over-sexed clients only speak in “metaphors” when they describe having been sexually abused as babies? Even Freud knew he was hiding the truth.)
Or, is their anger fueled by a wish to bring down all heroes, because they believe or hope that we are all on a very similar (low) level (see below)?
For the rest, I categorized my issues into four stand-alone points, followed by my conclusion.
- Greatness Some people have suggested that RS was not confronted on AOSM because as a prominent rabbi he was considered infallible and as a rebbe he was seen as a complete saint. Not so true. He insisted on being called Shlomo. I’m convinced that he didn’t lower himself – that he really felt just one of the chevre. But there is more to bear in mind.
Truth is that RS was heavily criticized by most of the Orthodox world for decades, so much so that Israel’s Chief Rabbi Rav Lau publicly asked forgiveness from RS at his funeral!
Much of the criticism was just slander from fear, baseless rumors, and above all: jealousy that he had shown some leadership useful to the generation where most rabbis did not. If there is truth to the AOSM, then it’s still understandable that his followers became defensive because there were so many baseless accusations, that he took people away from Orthodoxy, that he himself was not Orthodox anymore, etc. No one deified him, and in particularly not RS himself. People loved him, but that is not the same as worshiping, adoration. There was and is a lot of gratefulness from the people whose lives he saved (see below).
The most popular Orthodox criticism of RS was that he – besides men -also hugged women. That was sometimes exaggerated as if he had sex with all the women he hugged. There were rumors for decades that he was a “ladies-man” – without any claim of abuse. Are these AOSM just (empty} exaggerations of those opinions or stand-alone accusations?
It would be infuriating if allegedly brave women who come forward with AOSM against RS were abused by RS fans, but even if that happens, that still does not prove that RS must have been an abuser. Still, I never met any Carlebach groupie who “hated” people who accuse RS of abuse. So, I’ve a hard time believing that there are those – my problem. I did find one person online who “defends RS” by insulting anyone accusing him. He takes the low road, attacks the messenger, rather than the message. I can’t consider this anonymous person a Carlebachnik as s/he’s angry, judgmental, anti-Feminist, anti-Leftwing, anti-Reform, anti-Crazy.
Advocates of the allegedly abused women don’t all seem to adhere very strictly to the truth. Many also sound irritated about RS as a Jewish leader and teacher. That still doesn’t prove there was no abuse. Jewish Law obligates not to fully believe all of it anyway (see below), so that’s fine.
There’s something troublesome about cultures that promote looking for perfect heroes. The whole gossip industry is based on a rollercoaster ride between boundless adoration and bitter condemnation. There is a fine line between honoring people and putting them on a pedestal.
Some have suggested that even more than RS was at fault (how much can we help ourselves?), his community failed him for not confronting him early enough, seeing to it that he took therapy and stuck with it. I think that we could say to those who love RS: if there is any truth in the AOSM, we should have stopped him faster – we deeply apologize.
Many times, RS says in a story something like “You see this beautiful girl and you ask her to marry you.” I’m not aware of anyone ever objecting. Although many men seem to think like that, and many women feel it as a compliment when they are acknowledged for their looks, many others find such a thing offensive, no less. Judaism teaches us that beauty is important (also in the man), but women (nowadays?) surely often first need to be seen as smart and important. I think that RS treated women generally respectfully, but that’s not what we hear in those remarks.
We should marry for character and agreement between our norms and plans in life. Beauty is still important but then as confirmation and embellishment of our plan to marry – not just as the engine. We could counter-argue that Reb Shlomo, like Kohelet (“All is vain”), just tried to engage his public, or that what he really meant was inner beauty, but different from Kohelet, he did not come back and clarify that. No one did.
This is a cultural thing too. In the Netherlands saying to a woman “O, you look so beautiful” is considered harassment. And a man “courteously” holding the door for a woman is seen as male-chauvinism, implying: you must be weak, let me help you! In a 1975 Amsterdam musical, the only (female) rebellious feminist Angel sings: “Ladies first, regrettably means, even in Heaven, the Lord is boss.” There is something to that.
Accusers of RS often say things about him that are true for many other normal people or many other “great” people, but not necessarily for him. (Sir Jimmy Savile too was exposed after death but that was such a different story as he was a narcissist and psychopath.) Many leaders are leaders because they are powerful and being powerful can also go the wrong way. However, RS was not at all a bully, not a powerholic, not someone who pushed people aside to get into the spotlight.
Surely, RS was a flawed person of flesh and blood. “This world is a hospital. If anyone claims to be perfect, you better write your last will because tomorrow you’ll be dead, because everyone comes here to heal.” Yet, I’m repulsed when people simply project on him what they feel like themselves or what others seem about, without acknowledging his greatness. He was not above nature and not above the law, but amazing he was – as we see when we try to learn his texts.
One example. When RS just had passed away, his (former) wife asked for a hug from one of her friends. She hugged her, but was then told: “No, not like that – a Shlomo hug, holding me.” Many of us when we hug someone, we want to “get” half of the hug. How many just give a selfless hug without trying to take one at the same time? Opponents portrayed RS as a dirty man taking hugs all the time; they cannot imagine a life of giving. I once saw the Lubavitcher Rebbe – I know that it exists.
Many are uncomfortable to acknowledge greatness in others, because for them it doesn’t say “you could be great too.” They hear it as “and you are a nothing.” For them, everyone has to be cut down to the common level. Moses, Abraham, Sarah and Miriam were all just people like us. That’s very safe because then their examples can’t compel us.
- Slander Judaism very strictly forbids Jews all evil speech about Jews unless for a constructive purpose and without alternatives. It is true, is no excuse. Reporting negativity must be constructive to the world, or else one should not badmouth other Jews. Stop the infighting!
This is not only to protect Jews from being attacked by other Jews all the time, but also to prevent us from being judgmental, arrogant and nasty. When we point a finger at someone else, we often point our thumb up to Heaven and three fingers at ourselves. Our default mode should be being mild, kind and loving. Not loving or tolerating evil, but most of what goes on is not evil. Being watchful mostly for all bad in others is what Wisdom of the Fathers (2:14) calls: one of the evil ways of life.
The rabbis even teach us not to praise someone too much, as we – or our listeners – will be likely to add: But, ….
Yet, serial abusers often protect their destructive behavior by claiming that saying something bad about them would be a sin. The Laws against slander are not to protect villains.
Still, we should not be eager to judge anyone. Being cautious is fine, empathy with self-declared victims is great, but condemnation of a supposed perpetrator is a different story.
The best ones to decide when to evil speech is allowed about abuse are streetwise people who know Jewish Law, not naive do-goodies.
Jews are not allowed to listen to or read slander, nor fully believe it. That doesn’t mean that we should doubt the obvious. Rather, we must search for ways to minimize nonconstructive slander: maybe the report was exaggerated, maybe it was a misunderstanding, maybe there is more to it than was shared here, maybe there is another, more favorably way to understand what happened, etc. One must give the accused the benefit of the doubt but is allowed to take it as a warning and be cautious.
An example: He called me in the middle of the night, heavily breathing. Well, RS called many people in the middle of the night. It’s too easy to deny him human weakness but to rash to suspect him as your average Joe. If he really asked “what are you wearing,” a red line is crossed.
Many of the AOSM against RS that came to us are second-hand, third-hand and fourth-hand. As far as I know, only a few of the alleged victims have ever first-hand written about this, let alone come forward. I don’t blame them but that does not help figuring out what really happened. But: slander not for constructive purpose is also forbidden if it’s true, so for the Jewish slander law it doesn’t matter if it was factual.
Judaism values honesty as almost nothing else, but sensitivity to others is more important (don’t say “you’re so dumb” in the name of Truth) – we are also responsible for the result of the maligning – not just for saying the truth. It also teaches that Jews should not infight for just animosity, hiding behind the pretext “But it’s true.”
In essence, Jewish Law about thinking, reading or hearing disapproval of another Jew is that we should not make up our mind definitely that the person obviously was guilty. We must not judge, unless favorably. Who are we to sit in judgment of anyone? G-d? Are we that important?
Slander is only allowed in order to warn, to teach, and to demand justice, for positive purposes in general, only to people for whom it may be helpful, and without any exaggeration.
Sexual violence quickly makes most people furious, and then it’s harder to separate: suspicion from proof, first- and second-hand recounting, what we hear, from what we experience. The angrier we feel, the more we “know” that this must be true – but not really.
In some circles, AOSM against RS were public knowledge and some people have never heard such rumors. Jewish Law does not allow libel even if “everyone knows it already” because it’s rubbed in again. And “if so many people say so” does not mean that it must be true. And if it is true, that still doesn’t give license to tell everyone for salaciousness.
Someone suggested that shaming RS now sends a clear message to other molesters that you can’t keep it quiet forever, but I don’t think that RS tried to suppress anything or intimidate anyone.
As I mentioned above, abuse in the area of sex is so painful because one is destroyed and isolated exactly where one should be build up and connect. Domestic and clerical abuse also is extra painful because it hurts us where we should be the safest.
Percentage-wise, the number of abusive rabbis is small, but besides that, each one is one too many, and their destructive impact is so much larger than the constructive impact of the decent ones. So it seems a good idea to warn people that not every rabbi privately necessarily is a saint.
A mighty married man who had an affair was once asked why he did it, to which he answered: Because I could. Thankfully, the favorable conditions facilitating silent sexual abuse of young people, including our naivety, also about clergy, are quickly disappearing. This is helped more by the stories of victims than revealing biographies about abusers.
We are not allowed to speak badly about someone who can be expected to have repented already. There’s a report from some 5 years before his death that RS repented in public. All the AOSM are from before that, so it seems that he did mend his ways. Amazingly, RS completely repented in front of dozens of people 3 hours before his demise, and also talked and sang about it warmly and gratefully before he passed away, as is reported here. However, he did not have a chance to secure forgiveness from people whom he may have hurt, so their complaints stand.
Exaggerations should be kept from constructive ill speech, and many abuse victims in general, understandably, may have overstated what happened: from emotion, from anger, a wish for revenge, or from fear that otherwise people would poo-poo it – I don’t blame them! Not to be cool about what happened is a privilege of victims – but only of them.
Jewish law also forbids to ask around who else has dirt on so-and-so. Only for prevention is one allowed to fish. But if the man is 23 years dead, what prevention is there? Can alleged victims not heal without bringing RS down? I never confronted my abusers, except virtually, in therapy. Must one trash RS or is that the goal of some of the accusers?
At least for some, it has been possible to work in therapy through abuse and assault without naming the perpetrator. “Someone in my family …,” “Someone I admired …,” though I don’t want to claim that that should be the norm for everyone. Coming forward about molestation is hard enough that you don’t want to weigh down victims with all kinds of shoulds. We certainly don’t want to blame victims for naming their alleged assailants. Only, I want to suggest that for clearing up the mess, a deceased villain not necessarily must hang. Even for writing proper history, one can say: “In those days, many male stars and leaders, including in the world of music, religion and sport, took advantage of their position of fame to abuse young women as if they were entitled and above the law, leaving their teenage fans and followers confused.”
Speaking ill about the dead is a very grave sin. But teaching the world not to be naive is a very great good. And so is comforting the wounded.
Maybe, the greatest job is not to be naive and still believe in all people. That’s what RS modeled. He saw the good in almost everyone. Stay safe but give visible enemies you meet, a route to escape towards goodness.
- Two Sides Famous is the story of the rabbi who invited an always-quarreling couple to visit him to sort things out. The husband tells him his whole story and rabbis replies: You are completely right. Then the wife tells him her whole story, and the rabbi again says to her: You are completely right. Now the rebbetzin can’t take it any longer and blurts out: First you say that he’s completely right and now you say that she’s completely right – you can’t do that! To which the rabbi calmly responds with: Let me tell you something: you’re completely right too. I hear that like this: Each person has a reason for what they are saying. Each needs acknowledgment for their account. Why would we need to be so eager to judge between their narratives and throw away one of them?
Despite the traditional format of that story, I think that often women see the validity of the opinion of each person better than men. My famous teacher Psychiatry, a life-long closeted homosexual, once asked the class rhetorically: “Is it because of our patriarchal culture, in which father is always right, that people can only accept one truth and not several?”
Another teacher of mine once suggested: Abortion is Murder and not letting women decide for themselves about their pregnancies (including shaming them, shutting them up or devaluing their opinion) is Sexism.
And known, and often quoted by RS, is the idea that if you believe Mystique stories, you are naive and if you don’t, you are an apostate. I believe all of Midrash in the smallest detail and I believe too in the reasoning of History and Science which get better and better with time.
Facing the AOSM against RS is very painful for his followers. And their alleged victims are in pain too. We should not belittle each other’s hurts. When we need to choose though, consideration for and listening to the hurt of his alleged victims takes precedence.
One of my rabbis and friends told me: I learned very young that people are diverse, not uni-vocal. Excellent ones may have terrible sides, terrible ones may have excellent sides. Many preachers divide the world into good and evil people. Many of us so desperately want to belong to the good ones, that we can’t help condemning “the others.” There are only two kinds of people in the world: people who divide mankind into two kinds, and people who don’t. Dualistic cultures often hold that the evil ones must be defeated by the good ones. Judaism generally teaches that evil and good are inside of ourselves, in each of us, and we should make our good sides win, every day. To designate evil in many others might betray something about the speaker’s inability to fight his own demons.
Hitler was not admitted to the art academy because … he could not draw people. (Had they accepted him, history might have gone so very differently.) But I’ve seen his landscapes and paintings of cities, and I like them. This is an extreme example, but it might help clarify the issue.
The rabbis teach that we get punished for whatever bad we did (and did not correct), no matter how much good we did also, and that we get rewarded for whatever good we did, (and did not regret), no matter how much bad we did too.
Survivors of sexual abuse need to hear: I believe you. Generally, they do not need to hear: What a monster. Non-victims: Don’t judge. Our anger does not help victims heal. Just like a smile for a mourner (Heaven forbid) most of the time, might help better than coming close sobbing.
The whole subject of AOSM unpleasant. On top of that, in a new amazing book full of wonderful stories about RS, one author writes about him as if he knows that the AOSM are completely true. I find that offensive. But just dismissing them out of hand I also find distasteful.
Sexual molestation is always terrible and victims should be encouraged to tell their story and shed any guilt feelings. At the same time, accused perpetrators of sexual assault who deny should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven guilty. The first line is about supporting alleged victims. That can be done too when perpetrators cannot be convicted.
May I suggest that for the sake of argument we could believe that both extremes might be true at the same time: That RS may have had a very troubled side that sometimes surfaced and by which he seriously hurt young women, and that he did things so amazingly (composing his music and stories, giving charity, taking young people seriously, teaching Orthodoxy to the far-away and re-inspiring the dully Orthodox, reaching out to Gentiles, healing the Shoah wounds) that he saved many peoples’ lives and may still. One not necessarily cancels out the other. Granted, a RS victim and a RS groupie may have a harder time to combine the two.
Neshama Carlebach calls it: To be angry and to love anyway.
Still harder may be to take it like this: I don’t know if he molested anyone and I don’t know if he saved anyone’s life. Most people see “I don’t know” as a lack of knowledge and intelligence. But not making up one’s mind with certainty might actually be an option for the very smart. I call it holy doubt. Just be careful to whom you confess this. The fake-self-assured may be poorly equipped to deal with that.
“There’s no smoke without fire,” goes the saying, but people’s enemies know that too. That’s why they may use baseless attacks. Don’t be so naive that you believe every sensational accusation; and don’t be so naive that you never believe that big people may make serious mistakes. That in one article 20 people make similar accusations doesn’t mean that it must be true. Maybe the reporter is shady. I’ve seen a case like that.
I find throwing out RS’s music and teachings overkill and waste, but it seems abusive to me to ignore the pain his alleged victims feel when RS is honored or quoted. I found this wise comment: First, we must be much more vocal in our condemnation of SC’s AOSM. Then, and only then, we can embrace the other side of him.
RS was a staunch supporter of women. He would not be happy if we just would dismiss their complaints against him. If nothing is true of it, he may still have had accusers speak; even more so if there were truth to it. We cannot stifle women in the name of RS. It would sadden him greatly.
RS saved my life. I never met him. The new light that he and his students shine on Torah, Jews and Mankind is absolutely reviving me. That doesn’t stop to be true if he had a dark side. And alleged abuse victims deserve all support to speak out. For me, one doesn’t alter the other.
- Type It’s true that every type of abuse hurts for a long time. So let’s not introduce any concept of “minor offense” towards a victim. Still, when judging a perpetrator, rape is not the same as a wolf whistle.
Therefore, not in our approach of his accusers, but yes in how we deal with RS, let’s keep in proportion what he actually did wrong, allegedly.
Also, there is a world of difference between one who proclaimed an evil way of life and one who advocated a saintly life but may have slipped.
Then, there are serial abusers who set their whole life up in order to abuse. They treat everyone as a saint in order to pick out the socially weak ones to abuse, and no one else can believe it. I believe that RS was not like that. He truly was a walking saint to many, not as a cover-up. That he at times may have lost it, if he did, is serious, but still different from someone whose only goal is to abuse and construct a cover.
That being said, I must add that I think there is too much attention to the question what RS allegedly did wrong and too little eye for what effects that had on teenage girls. It’s too easy to claim that “he only did ….” You can only get angry at someone or slap them one time, lasting a second, and scare that person for years. This issue is not if he hugged for his erotic stimulation (that’s between him and his Maker), but if the girl hugged felt uncomfortable, was held beyond her will. But there is more.
AOSM are not the only troubling thing here. It is a problem when a male defender and teacher of Orthodox Judaism hugs women in public, but RS had his arguments for doing so. To his defense it can be said that his Orthodox students did not claim that that was OK to copy. But it didn’t seem to have stopped there. It is a problem for Jewish Law if one secludes himself with a woman who’s not a close relative. It’s a further problem if one touches a woman under such conditions. And all these problems may be caused without even AOSM.
It is an extra problem if that is a student, or someone less powerful. And it is a problem to confuse such a person and make them powerless, even on the phone. It is a problem to not watch out for violating someone’s boundaries. And all these problems may be caused without even AOSM.
In his later years, RS repented in public and there are no AOSM relating to the years after that. Yet, he did not secure forgiveness from every individual he may have hurt earlier, so their complaints stand.
Harping about that there “is” no definite proof yet for any of the allegations does little for RS’s honor and hurts the brave women who come forward with these AOSM, who deserve the benefit of the doubt.
These AOSM do not get RS convicted, as there is no trial, but should also not be dismissed out-of-hand or aggressively confronted. Who are we to silence people who barely dare to talk?
Yet, allies of the alleged victims and reporters and their opponents should tone it down a bit. They are not entitled to the same considerations and mildness as supposed victims.
Stop slashing and trashing Reb Shlomo and give full recognition, support and empathy to aging survivors alleging RS’s earlier sexual misconduct.