Thoughts on the “Carlebach Controversy”: Blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

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Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) revolutionized religious Jewish music during the course of his lifetime. His songs have had—and continue to have-- unique impact on synagogues, with many sponsoring “Carlebach Shabbat” services on a regular basis. His music touches a deep chord in many hearts, and has brought thousands of souls closer to God and to Judaism.

Several years after his death, a number of women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against them perpetrated by Rabbi Carlebach. And in the ensuing years, other women have added their accusations against him. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, yet others have raised their voices about alleged improprieties committed by Rabbi Carlebach.

Rabbi Carlebach is not alive, and is therefore unable to address the various charges against him. But the cloud over his reputation persists.

Some have called for the discontinuation of “Carlebach Shabbat” services, since they tend to glorify a man who is accused of sexual misconduct. Some have called on the community at large to draw on other sources for religious Jewish music, and to curtail or eliminate singing melodies composed by R. Carlebach.

Should the music of Rabbi Carlebach—or any other composer—be banned because of alleged or real private moral failings? Or should the music stand on its own merits, regardless of the personal life of the musician? When we sing a “Carlebach” nigun, do we thereby validate his questionable behavior and give honor to one who is accused of serious moral lapses? Or are we simply singing a beautiful, heartfelt religious song that touches us deeply and brings us closer to God?

Strong arguments can be made on both sides of this issue. But let’s take a longer range view of this dilemma—going back to the Bible itself.

The most frequently mentioned name in Tanakh is that of David. He looms large in our tradition, so much so that the messiah himself will emerge from the Davidic line. Tanakh is quite candid in pointing out David’s moral failings: he took another man’s wife and arranged for the killing of her husband. These are terrible blots on his reputation, and he himself admitted his sinfulness. Yet, in spite of these egregious misdeeds, the Psalms of David are part of the Bible, and many are included in our liturgy. We read these Psalms because they are spiritually powerful and elevating. Even though the composer of many of our most beloved Psalms could be accused of adultery and murder, we compartmentalize: David’s personal shortcomings are one thing; his poetic compositions are something else. Yes, we can justify this by saying that David sincerely repented for his sins. But how can we know whether or not others—including Rabbi Carlebach—also sincerely repented?

David’s son, Solomon, is venerated in our tradition as the wisest of men. Yet, Solomon took one thousand wives, many of whom were not Jewish by birth. How likely could it have been for Solomon to treat each of these 1000 wives with the loving attention of a kind husband? A great many of these wives were taken for political expedience, or for the king’s personal pleasure. He allowed at least some of them to practice idolatry, and he may have done so himself.  Surely, Solomon’s personal life was not impeccable from a religious point of view.

In spite of Solomon’s moral shortcomings, three of his books are included in Tanakh. Shir haShirim is chanted in many Sephardic synagogues on Friday nights. Koheleth is chanted in many Ashkenazic synagogues on Succoth.

I haven’t heard anyone claim that the personal shortcomings in the moral lives of David and Solomon should lead us to drop their books from Tanakh or from our synagogue services.

Apparently, our ancient sages understood that the religious value of the books of David and Solomon would be of incalculable benefit to future generations. Our sages did not deny or ignore the foibles of David and Solomon, but they did not allow these personal foibles to eclipse the magnificent religious works these men composed.

Throughout history, and including our own time, many great musicians have composed music that has provided inspiration, elevation and joy. When we listen to or perform their music, we are engrossed in the music itself; we are not concerned with the personal lives of the composers.  If we could only listen to or perform music composed by sinless individuals, our musical experience would be vastly impoverished and our spiritual lives would be diminished.

When it comes to the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, we ought to focus on the music…and not on the personal life of the composer. R. Carlebach had an amazing God-given gift. He could take a verse from the Bible or prayer book and bring it to life with a haunting melody; he could compose songs that touched the hearts and souls of many thousands of Jews.

For those women who feel that they were maltreated by R. Carlebach, it would be difficult (impossible?) for them to separate between the musician and his music. It would be painful for them to attend a “Carlebach Shabbat” or to hear soulful Carlebach melodies—when they personally feel such antipathy to him. These women, and their families and synagogues, should not be subjected to Carlebach music—since the music carries painful memories about the composer.

But for the wider Jewish community that has little or no personal connection with R. Carlebach, the music should stand on its own merit. To banish his music from our homes and synagogues would be a self-inflicted wound. It would deprive us and future generations of a powerful source of religious inspiration.