Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Iconic Sinners

A memoir by Philip Fishman about growing up in Williamsburg has just been published. Williamsburg was not always the Chasidic enclave of Satmar that it is now. It was once the primary location for all types of Orthodoxy. It was home to both the Young Israel and the Agudah. And it was home to Yeshiva Torah Voda’ath for many years.

What is noteworthy is a portion of the book (excerpted on at least 2 blogs) that accuses one of the early icons of Agudah of sex abuse – going into quite a bit of detail about the nature of the abuse. He does not identify the abuser by name to spare the family embarrassment.

Some have said that think they know who he was referring to. I am not going to speculate. There is no purpose to that other than casting aspersions on someone posthumously who may have been innocent.

That said I have no reason to doubt Mr. Fishman. Someone was very likely guilty of molesting him as an 11 year old child. Why would someone lie about something like that in a book? On the other hand people do not usually become icons among the Jewish people unless they have earned it. That means that he had actually done a lot for Klal Yisroel. And yet he sexually molested at least one person. Twice! It is therefore a disturbing story.

Mr. Fishman says that because the perpetrator was not in Chinuch he was able to avoid him after those two encounters - and that the abuse has not affected his life.

The question remains. How does one reconcile greatness with evil? Is it possible that one can be a great contributor to society and have a dark side? And how are we to look at such a person? Does abusing someone sexually - even only one or two times to one person - negate all the good he has done?

I believe most victims would say yes, it does. On the other hand I know that some victims would not agree with that statement. I have read accounts of an even bigger icon perpetrating a similar form of molestation. This time on women. I also recall at least one victim valuing the contributions of the person who molested her – almost in a forgiving way. The icon in question is Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

If one is a Carlebach fan one may be tempted to say that they simply do not believe the victim. But there has been more than one victim and they all describe the abuse in similar ways.

Rabbi Carlebach is a musical genius. In my view, his contributions to Jewish music were on the same level as Beethoven’s contributions were to classical music. Or the Beatles to Rock and Roll. He is in class all by himself. In terms of musical achievement - no one can touch him. His musical compositions are so pervasive that many people don’t even realize that popular tunes used in various Teffilos on Shabbos and Yom Tov are actually Carelbach tunes. This includes all segments of Jewry. From the most right wing Charedi to the most left wing modern Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Jews also use his tunes in their synagogues and temples.   Carlebach’s music is even well known outside the world of Jewry.

Some people are so enamoured of him that they have dedicated entire religious prayer services to him. They are called Carlebach Minyanim. On Friday nights Kabbolas Shabbos is sung exclusively to his melodies. There are some people who actually worship him as though he was a Gadol!

There is no doubt that he was charismatic. But in achieving his charisma he violated his Charedi tradition. He was a hugger. He used to hug his fans tighly. Including women.

There are leniencies that have been used to justify that behavior.  There is a debate about the Halacha forbidding a man from touching any woman other than his wife, mother, or daughter (and according to some opinions - a sister). Chasidim forbid ever touching a woman other than those mentioned under any and all circumstances.

There is however a lenient opinion that allows touching any woman it if it is done in a completely platonic way - SheLo B’Derech Chiba. Modern Orthodox Jews and (as I have been told by a reliable source) the German Jewish community (Yekkes) rely on this lenient view. The Yeshiva world does not generally rely on it except when it may result in a Chilul Hashem. 

Shlomo Carlebach’s background is Chasidic. But his tight hugs do not really fall into any of those categories. When he was once asked about this, he said that he was hugging Neshamos – souls not bodies. This behavior did not go unnoticed by Rav Moshe Feinstein. He was asked whether one may utilize the music composed by one such as this. Rav Moshe allowed it although he clearly condemned the kind of behavior displayed by Shlomo Carlebach.

Shlomo Carlebach’s claims about looking beyond the body and only hugging souls was apparently not entirely true. At least not in the case of a few women who allege he molested them during those hugs. Having married relatively late in life - most of those hugs took place while he was a bachelor. Carelbach was a very passionate man. He was passionate about music; he was passionate about Judaism; and he was passionate about his fellow man – both Jew and gentile. Carlebach was not without a sex drive. He must have been passionate about that too. Enough said.

It is a shame that a man of such genius and high achievement; a man with no peers; whose contributions have few parallels in other fields was probably guilty of molesting a few of the women he hugged.

It appears that Carlebach was not alone in this respect. There are other icons who commanded a great amount of respect and admiration for their contributions. Which were many! And yet they were guilty of the same type of behavior on occasion.

What do we do with all of this? Do we reject them and all they did? Do we ban Carlebach’s music? Is that even possible? I don’t think the answer is all that simple.