Monday, February 05, 2018

Time to End Carlebach Minyanim

Shlomo Carlebach and his daughter, Neshama
My father hated Shlomo Carlebach’s music. He couldn’t stand it when Sheluchei Tzibur (Chazanim) used his tunes. As a lifelong Chazan, he believed that for the most part classic Chazanus was the format that should be used. I believe that many classically trained Chazanim feel that way.

Unfortunately the very institution of Chazanus of the type my father believed in has been in decline in Orthodox Shuls for quite some time. It is found far more often in Conservative Shuls. What is, however, found in Orthodox Shuls more than any other type of music are the Carlebach tunes my father so disliked.

Carlebach’s body of work is so huge and so pervasive, it’s almost impossible to know whether a commonly used tune is actually his. Some of it so standard – it is as if it were written centuries ago specifically for that prayer. So much of his music has become traditional in Shuls throughout the year.

I too like many of Carlebach’s compositions and on occasion have used some of them myself as a Shaliach Tzibur. And yet I have heard that a there is a movement in some circles to ban his music. I know one person that has  stated publicly that he walks out of the Shul whenever he hears it. That is because of revelations a few years ago about Carlebach’s sexual abuse of some of his female fans.

Carelebach was a complicated and troubled soul. A man who brought joy and inspiration to so many Jews - and even some non Jews - also brought pain and lifelong suffering to others of them. Recently even more such revelations have come out.

The abuse allegations were not common knowledge during most of Carlebach’s career. What was known however was that he was a hugger. He used to hug his fans tightly all the time. Including women.  Behavior that  is not in accord with the religious standards of the Orthodoxy he was part of. This was widely known. Many religious Jews questioned whether it was even permissible to use the music of a man like that in prayer. Does God value prayers using the music composed by a man guilty of such behavior?

In a famous Responsum  that many believe was directed at Carlebach (Igros Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 1:96) R’ Moshe Feinstein said that it was permissible for a Shaliach Tzibur to use music composed by someone with an objectionable reputation in prayer because music has no intrinsic holiness.

I have to wonder if R’ Moshe would have said the same thing had he known what we know now. My guess is that he would have said the same thing. Besides at this point, it would be almost impossible to change the widespread use of his music. Especially in light of the fact that so much of it is used without the realization that he composed it.

I had always wondered how his daughter, Neshama Carlebach dealt with all of this. To say that she adored her father is an understatement. She has devoted her musical career to him - recording her own versions of his songs.

In the past Neshama had spoken about him in glowing terms. I wondered, did she simply deny that any of those allegations were true? I don’t think it would be unusual for a loving daughter who never saw her father behave that way to simply say it isn’t true. It CAN’T be true! But as we have all learned by now, women that say they were sexually abused rarely make these things up. Especially when there is more than one accuser.

Well, now we know.  A few weeks ago in a Times of Israel article, Neshama Carelbach published her views. And basically bared her soul.  She is in fact a survivor herself.  A trusted friend of her father’s who was a frequent visitor to her childhood home came into her bedroom and molested her when she was 9 years old!

Neshama is not in denial and never was. She understands that her father hurt people – and has known it for quite some time. But she refuses to define her father by his flaws, major though they had been. Here is how she put it: 
Sometime in the late 70s, my father was involved in an intervention staged by women who were hurt by him. He came, even knowing the content of the conversation that was to happen. And when they told him that his actions and behavior had hurt them, he cried and said, “Oy this needs such a fixing.” I do believe that the actions, advocacy work and the way he raised his daughters in the last years of his life showed remarkable listening and personal accountability.
I accept the fullness of who my father was, flaws and all. I am angry with him. And I refuse to see his faults as the totality of who he was. 
Having known about the hurt her father caused back in the late 70s, it is somewhat puzzling why Neshama never talked about this and only spoke of him in the most glowing of terms… until now. 

Perhaps it is because she never knew the extent of his behavior. Perhaps it is because we are in the moment of #MeToo. Perhaps she just saw the good he did overwhelming all the bad. Or all of the above. I don’t know. But she now understands the need to deal with it and come to terms with it. The ‘shifting tide’ (as she puts it) has made her re-think it all.

I don’t know how all of this will end up. Human beings are complicated and flawed. Some more than others. If there is a lesson to be learned from the national catharsis about sex abuse we have been going through, it is that people in positions of power often use it to feed their flaws. Even talented highly contributing members of society. Of which Carlebach was surely one.

The question is whether those contributions should now be discarded… and in Carlebach’s case whether that is even possible anymore. I don’t think it is.

Perhaps there is one thing we can do. We can eliminate Carlebach Minyanim. These are Minyanim that have sprung up all over the world that are dedicated to Carlelbach and his music. They feature prayer services where his music is used almost exclusively by Chazanim. Including dancing to it. Carlebach is worshipped as an icon at places like these.

I never thought those Shuls were appropriate even before I knew about his abuse of women. Knowing what I know now, I believe it is more appropriate than ever to eliminate them all. It is the right thing to do.