I have been guilty of silence. And silence is the medium of repentance.
There was a man named Shlomo Carlebach who, in the decades of the 1960s through his death in 1994, was a charismatic “singing rabbi” whose melodies remain incredibly popular and influential today across the Jewish spectrum.
He is also alleged to have committed sexual assault, including against minors, often within the context of his “musical outreach”. I find these accusations overwhelmingly credible. (This is not a criminal court proceeding, it is a personal decision about how I will relate to his music, so questions of what legal standard to use are irrelevant.)
There are several reasons to abandon the use of Carlebach’s melodies in light of this assessment. First, some of his victims are still in our communities, and how can we subject them to hearing these melodies which will bring back horrific memories? Second, other victims of sexual assault are in our communities, and by using his melodies we signal to them that we’ll forgive such behavior if the alternative is giving up something that makes us feel good.
Even if that were not this case, how can we use these melodies in our relationship with God? This goes beyond the usual “tainted genius” question. By all accounts, Carlebach traded on his cult of personality, driven by these melodies, to gain access to his victims, to compel their silence, to create a community of enablers. These melodies are weapons that were used to destroy innocent lives; they defile.
For example, many (most?) children today are taught the blessing before the Shema to Carlebach’s melody to “Veha-er Eineinu.” That’s how I learned it; that’s how my kids learned it. And now I wonder how many of Carlebach’s child victims were made vulnerable to him because of that melody.
I chose a while ago to personally stop using his melodies. I will not use them when I lead services. I will not sing along when they are used by others. But I have not spoken about this, and in my silence I have failed others who are harmed by our communities’ continued use of these melodies.
So I have some work to do. My siddur, which includes musical cues, sometimes cites melodies which I now know come from his pen. I must identify these and mark them. (Not eliminate them, because others should be aware of their source.) A few years back, I contributed typesetting to a musical siddur for “Todah v’Zimrah” which makes extensive use of Carlebach’s melodies; I don’t know how to undo that.
One of the challenges is that Jews tend to re-use melodies. So, for example, one melody that I grew up with as the beginning of the Musaf Kedushah turns out to actually be a Carlebach melody for part of Lecha Dodi. Tracking down all the places where his melodies are used will be difficult.
To manage this, I plan to maintain a list with three categories: Melodies which were written by Carlebach, melodies which I can trace to another composer, and melodies which are suspicious. For now, I’m avoiding not only the first category but also the third, especially when the melody has Carlebach’s style.
Just before Yom Kippur we recite the Kol Nidre, in which we enumerate various categories of vows and ask preemptively to nullify any vows which we will be unable to uphold. My intent to abjure any Carlebach melody is akin to a cherem, a vow to abstain from certain things. I know that, for the reasons given above, some will undoubtedly slip through because I don’t know that they are his, but I will rely on Kol Nidre for those.
Another difficulty with this act of conscience is that “not singing along” is not a noticeable action. I doubt any of my fellow congregants have noticed when I am silent and when I am singing. I wonder if there is some sort of physical gesture that those who are abstaining can use to create opportunities to explain.
Carlebach’s melodies are ubiquitous. It would take a concentrated, conscious effort for other composers to displace them and for congregations to pursue that. That is our generation’s challenge.
There is a time to sing, and a time to be silent. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak.