How to Argue About Carlebach and His Legacy

The ongoing conversation about the legacy of Shlomo Carlebach is important in its own right, and also a valuable opportunity for our community to model how to conduct such conversations. I have my own opinions, which will be evident throughout this article. But my primary purpose is to parse the controversy in a way that will deepen our understanding of each side and of such conversations generally.

Here’s my thesis in a nutshell. We need to distinguish, within the things that we know or think to be true, between what we think others can rightly doubt, what they ought to accept as true, and what they can be held accountable for not accepting as true.

Let me illustrate this in the specific case of Shlomo Carlebach.

We’ll start from the music.  Was Carlebach an important composer?

One Carlebach song, “Lulei Toratkha”, was an important and positive part of my life emotionally for years. I sang it often privately, and I used it for kedushah when I was shaliach tzibbur for Shacharit on Shabbat. It has been hard for me to give it up, and not infrequently I catch myself humming it.

On the other hand, “Carlebach nusach” generally leaves me cold, I wish that the tune used for Veshamru Friday night would go back to Mimekomekha where it belongs, and I will be very happy to never hear Ki Va Moed again in my life. I am aware that he wrote a few other songs that are in my community’s consciousness, but don’t matter to me. It is very possible that other songs I care about are his compositions.

So what do I know?  I know that Carlebach’s music can be really important to people. It seems reasonable that the effect is deeper the more songs one is affected by.  I also know that it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to see his musical contributions as mostly harmless or annoying.

People arguing from within these different experiences have a hard time communicating about the question of whether his music should be banned from the communal liturgy, because they have such radically different estimations of what is being sacrificed. They’re entitled to disagree about that, but they can be held accountable for doubting the experiences of their counterparts.

Reading the Lilith article when it came out, while I found it credible, did not drive me to stop singing the tunes I liked. I had never thought he was a tzaddik – yeshivot condemned his public violation of the prohibitions against intergender touch long before the issues of consent emerged – and I don’t usually vet the morality of composers of songs I like. But I stopped using Carlebach’s niggunim (those I knew were his) when a woman in my shul told me that he had harassed her, and that she found it traumatic to hear them used that way. As I began paying attention, I discovered that other women I knew had stories of varying degrees of unwanted sexual advances (none of them at the level of rape), and that at least one colleague knew that he was very sexually available when he played college campuses.

So what do I know? I know that he had many victims. I know that there is a real-if-hard-to-quantify risk at many Orthodox synagogues that women will be present who experienced him as an assailant. I know that he did not separate his music and his sexuality into hermetically sealed chambers.

But here’s the thing. I don’t know this in a way that I can prove to others. I have no formal witness statements, and I don’t remember exactly who told me what. I didn’t cross-examine anyone. What convinced me beyond a reasonable doubt was the matter-of-fact way in which these stories came out when you mentioned his name in conversation, with no agenda.  None of these experiences are shareable, or conveyable – everything depends on how much you trust my integrity, my memory and my judgement.  People whose social and professional circles don’t intersect with women who met Carlebach directly are entitled to question whether I have it right.

We might hold people accountable for not doing my research, and coming up with my answers. But I’m not convinced that would be justified. To begin with, they might not hear the same stories. Victims are fully justified in not trusting people who will feel hurt by their stories and are predisposed not to believe them.  In addition, I sympathize with people who are leery of giving credence to posthumous accusations and mass whispering; it’s just that in this case, I know that those people are wrong. I think they should realize that they’re wrong. But I’m not sure they’re morally accountable for not realizing that they’re wrong.

So on each level – the value of the music, and the prevalence of the transgressions – different experiences can legitimately lead to different conclusions, sometimes in mutually reinforcing ways.

An anonymous article on Hevria however suggested compellingly that we have a collective obligation to change the atmosphere so that victims feel much more comfortable coming forward. Moreover, it is unacceptable to assume that the powerful testimonies of assault and victimizing which have been made public are somehow misleading, or to dismiss the issue as minor if those were the only victims.

Let’s turn to Carlebach’s Torah.  Here my experience is almost exclusively negative – most of what I’ve heard and read seems fluffy to me, and the substance often seems to encourage risktaking in well, risky ways. Carlebach often seems to me the embodiment of what Misnagdim claim Chassidus would be if the Vilna Gaon’s strident opposition hadn’t forced it to become more cautious.

But I know people who report that their lives were positively transformed by his Torah. More importantly, I know people who devote their lives to genuinely empathetic and chesed-driven activities and attribute that to his Torah and to his influence. I very much hope that material with the same effects could be found in other sources. But they haven’t found it, and some of them don’t have the independent learning capacity to do so.  And I have to admit that I’ve never made the effort to learn his “high-level” material, and in any case it might be of a genre that simply doesn’t speak to me.

So what do I think? I think it’s hard to argue that everything he did was manipulative, and that it was all a pose. Charismatics who are pure egoists don’t, in my experience, have those effects. (Here I should say that I had only one, very brief, direct encounter with Carlebach, at Shacharit the day after Simchat Torah (I was late; he was later), and it didn’t impress me greatly one way or the other.  The only dvar Torah that I remember having heard directly, on Simchat Torah, was about the important things one can learn on LSD trips. FWIW). But I also don’t feel that excluding his Torah from the public square would be a loss beyond endurance.

With that background, we can approach what I think is the central issue: What should the place of Carlebach’s music and legacy be in our community for those who find it powerful and inspiring? Let’s grant that for those who see them as trivial, there’s no reason to use them in davening etc.  But let’s also grant that the claims of power and inspiration are honest and don’t reflect underlying evil positions.

So the core question is whether his transgressions should cause the genuine good he did to be interred with his bones.

Here I think everyone should start by acknowledging that his actions were always severe moral transgressions; this is not a matter of changing standards.  The victims testify that he engaged in specific behaviors and patterns of behavior that halakhah, Judaism, and the better angels of American nature have always seen as terribly wrong, and as reflective of poor character. What has changed is the expectation that something can be accomplished by speaking out about them. (This is separate from the ways in which he violated Halakhah consensually and publicly).

Within that framework, I have a hypothesis.  If this were some other crime of vio, and/or if there were no movement to beatify Carlebach, we would all understand that the work could be separated from the author, but that there would be little purpose in imposing the work on specific victims. As lehavdil with Wagner and survivors of the Shoah, one would avoid using it at public events so long as there was a likelihood of victims in every audience; then one would use it only at events that really no one had to go to; and then more generally.

What makes this different – and I don’t know how different the case of Carlebach in our community is from the general culture here – is the sense that sexual assault has not been treated with sufficient seriousness, and more particularly that claims of sexual assault have often been brushed aside or suppressed. This is greatly amplified here by the ongoing adulation of Carlebach. And on the other hand, that there has been no consistency – for example, Bill Cosby’s work is taboo, but Harvey Weinstein’s movies continue to be shown, including one award-winning film in which he extorted an on-screen sexual performance from an actress.

For me, the bottom line is that what I know about Carlebach prevents me from using his tunes in shul, and makes me try very hard not to use them in private life.

I try to persuade others to adopt this policy.

I rebuke people who claim to know that what he did wasn’t so bad, or that he had only a few exceptional failures of will, or that he suffered only from an excess of love.  All these arguments are out of bounds for me.

However, if someone argues that they don’t know the extent of his transgressions; or that regardless, the content of his work was genuinely powerful; or that while he often failed to live by his own ideals, he also often did, in very powerful ways – those seem to me inbounds.

But there are checks on the genuineness of such arguments.  If you are complicit in a culture that makes telling the truth about having been assaulted very risky or socially costly; if you insist on singing the songs when someone has asked you to stop, or when you know there is a good chance that there are victims in the crowd; or if you couple the music with uncritical personal testimonials (I think using his name for a minyan violates this) –  you have placed your own argument out of bounds, because you are explicitly denying the value and reality of your interlocutors’ experience.

I suspect there are other hard issues in our community that are best approached with these basic principles:

  • Assume that people you disagree with are  truthfully conveying their own experiences; they should similarly assume that you are truthfully conveying your own experiences.
  • You are not obligated to accept their interpretations of their experiences as objectively true; similarly, they aren’t obligated to accept your interpretations of your experiences as objectively true.
  • Together, form a community which sees it as rude and wrong to behave in ways which gratuitously violate your respective understandings of your own experiences
  • Persuasion is legitimate, but so is failure to be persuaded.
  • Failure to be persuaded is legitimate, but unwillingness to seriously examine the evidence is culpable.
About the Author
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, which brings rigorous traditional scholarship, interdisciplinary openness, and a deeply humanist understanding of halakhah to every aspect of Jewish and public life. CMTL develops present and future Modern Orthodox leaders, male and female, through unique programs of intense Talmud Torah that catalyze intellectual creativity and educational innovation. Rabbi Klapper is a popular lecturer whose work is published and cited in both university and yeshiva contexts.
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