Thursday, November 01, 2018

Carlebach and Kahane: Counter Cultural Icons?

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (TOI)
I have to disagree with Rabbi Francis Nataf. Not so much in what he said about the value of counterculture to Orthodox Jewry. But about who he choose to represent it.

First let me acknowledge that both Rabbis Meir Kahane and Shlomo Carelbach were indeed counter cultural figures. Let me also acknowledge that they both have made a major impact on the Jewish world. And as Rabbi Nataf also correctly noted they could not be more different from each other. And yet had in common that they inspired a lot of Jewish youth. But their impact was not purely positive. They both had a very dark side that caused a great deal of harm.

A lot of Jews did become better  Jews because of them. Either through the music and folktales of Carlebach - or the pride of being a strong and proud Jew that Kahane inspired..

Carelbach did indeed have the gentle approach of showering love upon all kinds of Jews - and even non Jews. Religious and non religious alike. And as is well known his music has influenced all segments of Jewry, from Reform to Ultra Orthodox. That latter of which has been so pervasively influenced by his music that it is almost impossible not to hear it incorporated into our prayer service on any given Shabbos or Yom Tov. In some cases the Baalei Tefilah (cantors) aren’t even aware they are using a melody that he composed. So embedded is his music in Orthodox culture.

It is also true that Carlebach is responsible for a lot of Jews becoming observant. Jews who might not otherwise have ever encountered anyone from the wide variety of Jewish outreach organizations.

But sadly Carlebach had a dark side. One that sexually abused some of his female fans. Sex abuse cannot be excused or absolved by virtue of how many Jews became observant through his efforts. Or how beautiful and even inspiring his music was. No matter how much of a contribution he made to Judaism, it does not override the damage he did to his victims. Damage that I believe he never personally apologized for. I therefore disagree with the picture painted by Rabbi Nataf of Carlebach as a counter cultural hero of Judaism. Despite the huge impact he has had on virtually all of us, he is not a hero and should not be thought of as one, much less worshiped the way he is in some circles.

Rabbi Meir Kahane (TOI)
Then there is Rabbi Kahane. He was one of the most caring and ehrliche Jews I have ever seen. Like Rabbi Nataf, I too heard him speak in various locations about his mission to protect the vulnerable. It was through his efforts that Jews living in dangerous neighborhood in New York were protected by fellow Jews. Kahane created the Jewish Defense League (JDL). He literally took secular young Jews off the streets and turned them into the Jewish version of the Guardian Angels, a group that helps protect innocent people from being assaulted by gangs. A lot of elderly Jews were spared a great many muggings through their efforts.  Kahane inspired Jewish pride through strength.

But Kahane had a dark side too. One that caused a lot of damage to our image. His JDL was involved in some violent acts on behalf of Russian Jewry. After he made Aliyah he became militantly anti Arab promoting ideas like shipping all Arabs out of Israel on trucks. Ideas that were reminiscent of Hitler’s shipping out Jews on freight trains. Not that this was anywhere near the same thing. But it was still wrong and similar enough to make the comparison. 

His anti Arab rhetoric was so vile, his advocacy of violence so unacceptable that Israel outlawed his political party, ‘Kach’ as racist - forbidding it to run for seats in the Knesset. I will never forget the vehemence with which Rav Ahron Solveitchik condemned him. As did virtually all rabbinic leaders of his era. Unfortunately Rabbi Kahane’s legacy has inspired some terrible violence against innocent Arabs by his philosophical heirs. Like Baruch Goldstein. Or the so called Hilltop Youth.

So like Carlebach his many contributions were over shadowed by the violence that he inspired. Well intended though it might have been. Which makes Rabbi Nataf’s choice of him as an icon of the Jewish counterculture questionable.

Both men are in my view tragic figures that had so much to offer but ultimately failed to reach the  status as iconic Jewish role models they might have otherwise so richly deserved.