#MeToo at the Synagogue: Why Some Observant Israelis Are Walking Out of Friday Night Service

Growing awareness of claims that 'singing rabbi' Shlomo Carlebach sexually assaulted women has sparked a backlash against his musical legacy

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Carlebach acolytes visiting his grave in Jerusalem.
Carlebach acolytes visiting his grave in Jerusalem.Credit: Rafi Kotz
Shai Silber
Shai Silber
Shai Silber
Shai Silber

The melodies he composed have captivated worshippers for years. Perhaps because of the joy that characterizes most of them, the thirst in synagogues for new and original tunes, or because of the distinctive path of the “singing rabbi,” who did not always follow the commandments to the letter and preferred feelings instead.

The start of the controversy surrounding him recalled the struggle between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, which almost led to a split in Judaism 200 years ago, because the former group believed that the worship of God is expressed through clinging to righteousness and upholding the precepts through joy, whereas the approach of the latter held that faith is manifested through rigorous Torah study.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was actually born into the world of the scholarly Lithuanian yeshivas, and despite his success in that world, he left it as an adult. But his activity was also frowned on in the Chabad sect, which he joined at first – to the point where Carlebach (1925-1994) almost founded a Hasidic sect of his own. His way, which focused on lessons that carried an emotional moral message, accompanied by music and with the acceptance of every person as such, easily gathered momentum in the Woodstock years. At the same time, though, there was increasingly acute criticism of what was liable to lead people to abandon Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.Credit: JOHN SOTOMAYOR / NYT

However, this wasn’t the reason that Jonathan Howard, 28, a Jerusalemite who does research in the field of Jewish studies at Tel Aviv University, decided to boycott Carlebach's liturgical melodies. It became a situation in which, for him, prayer is blasphemy and leaving the synagogue is the precept, even the sanctification of God’s name.

Howard had heard of rumors about Carlebach’s improper behavior toward women for years, but when he learned about the rabbi’s assaults on underage girls, he felt that a red line had been crossed. “His public profile,” Howard explains in an interview with Haaretz, “served as an engine to harm people. I don’t feel right about using his music. Even if he used it for sacred ends, it is not something with which it’s possible to sanctify the name of God. Even if the atmosphere in the 1960s was different, doing harm to minors is absolutely beyond the pale, it’s sanctification of the Holy Name by the filthiest means.”

The result is that on Friday evening, for example, Howard will either leave the synagogue and return after Kabbalat Shabbat – the ceremony ushering in the Sabbath – or, if he is serving as the cantor, he will choose the melodies himself. The problem is that there is hardly any liberal Orthodox Ashkenazi minyan (prayer quorum of at least 10 adults) that doesn’t use Carlebach’s melodies. Of late, the first possibility is causing Howard such mental anguish that he prefers to join minyans that he or his friends organize, or he arrives late for the service. He says he and his wife Lior Shapira usually worship with the egalitarian Orthodox Shabbat Baboker minyan.

Musicality is not the only reason that synagogues opt for Carlebach’s melodies. “He has almost holy status, both in terms of his public activity and also regarding the number of people he attracted to religion,” says Howard. “People react by saying, ‘It’s inconceivable, no way, he’s a total saint,’ like they do when they year about other rabbis who are caught doing similar acts. There is also the idea that ‘niggun is not susceptible to ritual impurity’ – in other words, we can accept someone’s artistry even if we object to things he did.”

In this sense, Howard compares the attitude many still maintain toward Carlebach to that of rock fans who ignore a performer’s sexual violence, and wonders how much of a difference there actually is between lovers of different types of music. Still, admiring singers in performance or through listening to their music is not the same as introducing their melodies into prayers.

Howard believes that it’s legitimate to distinguish between the creative artist and his creation, although he himself does not make that distinction. For him, walking out of the prayer service is a passive protest, and he doesn’t intend that it be a provocative act: When he leaves, he keeps a low profile. After Kabbalat Shabbat, which generally includes Psalms that have been set to music and often Carlebach melodies, he returns to his place, and even if not everyone is pleased with what he has done no one protests vehemently.

When Howard and Lior, 26, were married not long ago, they embarked on that they call a “musicological investigation,” to come up with melodies that had not been composed by Carlebach. That’s easier said than done, since nearly everything that’s related to “sasson vesimha” – joy and happiness – has some sort of connection to the late rabbi’s music.

Jonathan Howard and Lior Shapira, at home in Jerusalem. “Even if Carlebach used music for sacred ends,” says Howard, “it’s not something with which it’s possible to sanctify God’s name.” Credit: Emil Salman

Shapira says she feels a “kvetch in the stomach” when her husband leaves the service, and she doesn’t leave with him. She makes do with trying to persuade others not to sing Carlebach songs. As she sees it, this does not mean she is more forgiving – possibly even the opposite.

“The music is wonderful, but why are minors the red line? Where does the line run? As a woman, I am unfortunately completely used [to such behavior], and I have zero expectations of men who hold key positions in the religious establishment, when it comes to their attitude toward women. If I were to boycott every man in a key post whose opinions about women I don’t like, or whose remarks about women I don’t like – I would not be religiously observant,” Shapira explains.

There is hardly any liberal Orthodox Ashkenazi minyan (prayer quorum of at least 10 adults) that doesn’t use Carlebach’s melodies.

Though her views may seem extreme, there are some people who don’t stop with rabbis or others from the present generation. “In every generation, many of the great creative artists would not pass the contemporary test of sexual harassment,” says Dvir Haddad, 22, from Ramat Gan, who is working on his master’s in Hebrew Bible studies at Bar-Ilan University. “I am convinced that not a few of the Jewish sages of antiquity and not a few of the great poskim” – legal scholars who decide on issues of halakha (traditional Jewish law) – “were very problematic individuals in regard to their attitude toward the women around them or toward younger people, and I don’t know whether because of that we should stop studying or singing their works.”

Haddad experiences this tension in his lessons at Bar-Ilan, and notes that if he were to forgo Carlebach he’d have to forgo also the Bible and the Talmud. But if he doesn’t forgo him, “then it’s akin to ‘the occupation corrupts’ and to allowing evil to reside within me, because that work was created by a soul that in my eyes is accursed.”

In the meantime, Haddad has found a compromise: For the past year he’s been praying in a Sephardi synagogue where Carlebach is not sung. In other minyans, he either leaves or doesn’t sing the relevant portions of the liturgy, and also refuses to study matters relating to wedlock and relationships between couples as expounded by Carlebach.

Haddad: “I once attended a lesson by Rabbi [Yaakov] Medan about the Book of Genesis, and he said that we must not look to that book to learn how to be a good family, because that’s not present there. The same can be said of Carlebach. All the romanticism that he tries to create, and the connection between the male and female who are beloved of one another, is not something I would care to learn from a person who comported himself as he did. If we learn from him about charity, I am ambivalent but try to extract the good with a heavy heart.”

Haddad’s awareness of Carlebach developed early on. As a group leader in the national-religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, he led an activity about Carlebach in the hope that those in the group would also express opposition.

Dylan and darkness

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach started out as a student at a famous Lithuanian – that is, non-Hasidic – yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey (which later became one of the world’s largest yeshivas), and went on to receive his ordination at the ultra-Orthodox Rav Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn, in 1954. Though he distinguished himself in his studies, Carlebach did not find what he was looking for in the Lithuanian world and was drawn into the world of Lubavitch Chabad. There, he was tapped by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to serve as an emissary for the movement, spreading the word on college campuses. However, he left Chabad in the wake of disagreements with the Rebbe. The background to the falling-out between the two was saliently feminist: Carlebach wanted to have women attend his lessons and allowed them to sing. The Lubavitcher Rebbe dissociated himself from such acts, ruling that they were contrary to the halakha.

Carlebach began playing the guitar as an adult, and soon started composing melodies for texts based on biblical verses. He had a style all his own and became known as the “singing rabbi” and sometimes the “dancing rabbi,” for his habit of jumping up and down during his performances; he was also known for hobnobbing with other musicians of the period, including Bob Dylan. Carlebach founded the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, a learning center that was open to all and gained him publicity for his openness and avant-garde approach.

Rabbi Carlebach would embrace his victim for a long time, and what began as an innocent hug continued until he achieved sexual release.

In 1998, some four years after his death, the Jewish women’s magazine Lilith published an article by Sarah Blustain about “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side.” It contained a host of testimonies alleging that the had sexually assaulted women and girls. In some of the cases the same pattern was repeated: Rabbi Carlebach would embrace his victim for a long time, and what began as an innocent hug continued until he achieved sexual release.

According to the article, his spiritual approach sprang up at a time “when social boundaries were being broken” – among other things in the opposition to the separation of men and women in Orthodox Judaism. Today, almost all feminist movements, including those with a religious character, would not readily accept such a suggestion. Indeed, there is a common perception among religious circles that says that it is precisely women’s presence in the public domain that has led to their being harassed.

In one case, an attempt to confront the rabbi with accusations about his behavior was reportedly made at a public gathering, but it was unsuccessful. Carlebach apparently heard about the intention behind the event, and the women who attended relented and declined to back the allegations made by one of those present. It is said in general that the rabbi knew there were complaints about his behavior and also realized that people knew what he had done. Moreover, in private, sources say, Carlebach did not completely deny what was imputed to him and even reportedly admitted, “Oy, this needs such a fixing.” And there were even female members of his own family who say they avoided any contact with him.

There is widespread awareness of Carlebach’s darker side among American Jews, and if anything, the subject has won even greater prominence recently, thanks to the “#metoo” movement.

Shlomo Carlebach performs in 1980.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

For David A.M. Wilensky, the online editor of the San Francisco-based J: The Jewish News of Northern California, the subject is not only close to his heart but also physically proximate: He lives in the city where Carlebach launched his independent activities, and it’s possible that some of the women who were hurt are members of his community.

“The #metoo movement has heightened awareness of the subject, as you can see from the attitude toward Bill Cosby, even though his actions took place years ago, and it has also impacted on synagogues,” Wilensky explains, in a phone interview. “But whereas it’s very easy to avoid Cosby on television, it’s almost impossible to enter an Orthodox or Reform synagogue in the United States without hearing Carlebach’s melodies. And because he composed so many songs, there’s a good chance you’ll hear his music without knowing that he is the creative artist behind it.”

The Facebook group Wilensky and rabbinical student Lauren Tuchman established, “Anything but Carlebach,” has one basic rule: talking about Carlebach or anything to do with him is forbidden within the group. The virtual setting, Wilensky explains, is intended to provide a substitute for the songs. The motivation of the participants is opposition to Carlebach’s acts, revulsion at his songs and a desire to preserve pre-Carlebach cantorial music.

In Israel, however, many of those who worship in the Carlebach style are still unaware of the allegations against him. When Jonathan Howard published a post on the subject on the popular Hebrew-language Facebook page “I Am a Religious Feminist – and I Don’t Have a Sense of Humor, Either,” in which he drew a comparison between the attitude of this public toward popular Israeli singer Eyal Golan, who was accused of sexual improprieties, and the attitude toward Carlebach – he got multiple responses expressing surprise to hear about the rabbi in this context.

'We can accept someone’s artistry even if we object to things he did.'

“The attitude of the religious feminist public is one of very clear solidarity with those who were hurt by Golan,” Howard wrote in the post. “In addition to the struggles not to grant Golan the right to perform, there are also responses of discomfort whenever he’s played on the radio even after his actions were made public, and a lack of desire to see his presence in public On the other hand, public discourse has passed over Carlebach as though there were nothing. He’s still the star in feminist minyans and there is still a whole literature, written and oral, of ‘praises of Carlebach,’ and his moral image is held up as a role model in the spirit of Jewish values concerning love of the Jewish people.”

There were some who supported Howard and wrote that they look only for synagogues where Carlebach’s melodies are not sung, and others who stressed that the rabbi is no longer alive. It was also noted that there’s a tendency to forgive Carlebach, because he is “one of ours,” being Ashkenazi, while it’s easy to get angry at Golan, a Mizrahi, who is “one of theirs” – evidence of what many believe is an unjust double standard.

According to Emuna Klein Barnoy, a religiously observant feminist – who maintains that as long as there are women around who were hurt by Carlebach, his teachings and music should be completely boycotted – the reason for the limited awareness of him is no different than any other attempt to deny the victimization of women and girls by people with power. “There are mechanisms of silencing, and if people don’t find it relevant, it doesn’t especially interest them,” she explains. “For people for whom this is not a sensitive point, Carlebach died long ago and he is not assaulting anyone, so there is no need to preserve awareness in order to safeguard women from him.”

Emuna Klein Barnoy.Credit: Emil Salman

People who walk out of services when his melodies are sung are still considered weird, Barnoy notes: “It’s very difficult for people to fight against something they get enjoyment from. It’s hard for them to believe that a person they love engaged in sexual assault. People are very fond of his prayers, and many, as adolescents, heard opposition to him because he was considered spiritual. It was thought he was spoiling the young generation. Carlebach was depicted by educators as not being serious, and young people fought to adopt a posture of Hasidism in the face of a rigid conception of scholarship. So, people who fought to see Carlebach as a spiritual model are now finding it difficult to oppose him, and it’s self-evident that in every synagogue in which Carlebach is sung, it’s hard to accept that he was not without blemish, and it’s convenient to ignore what he did.”

‘He was all love’

Many of Carlebach’s admirers are indeed reluctant to accept the allegations against him. Hezkiya Sofer, 33, from Jerusalem, always attends Carlebach-style services and doesn’t understand the whole issue.

'It’s hard for people to believe that a person they love engaged in sexual assault. '

“My focus is on the good and the desirable,” he says, “and what others think is not my affair. I don’t see myself as a critic; let everyone follow his heart. I love Reb Shlomo deeply. He brought a new spirit to Judaism in the last generation. The singing and the melodies are the better known sides, but also the ones that less deep. Shlomo said that a rabbi once told him, ‘Your melodies are very un-Jewish.’ He replied that he’s right and that with his permission he would play for him an ancient melody composed by the Ba’al Shem Tov [18-century founder of Hasidic Judaism]. Reb Shlomo played the rabbi one of his own tunes, and the rabbi said it was ‘heavenly.’ In other words, deep down, even the opponents don’t know.”

Adds Sofer: “He entered the deepest place in the soul of every person, his innermost being. His love for everyone, Jew and non-Jew, was unprecedented. He performed around the world. A person who was all love. He couldn’t hurt a fly, and even when he had nothing, he gave to charity.”

As for those who claim that Rabbi Carlebach hurt more than a fly, Sofer says that if that happened, it should be completely condemned. However, “It’s not fair to describe a situation 20 years after someone dies and he can’t defend himself.” In Sofer’s view, “There were girls he met who were in a terrible psychological condition, and he helped them as much as he could and saved them from the lower depths, and gave them a hug and a kiss. Looking back, when they’re standing on their own two feet thanks to him, they interpret his embrace and kiss negatively.”

One of the admirers of the dancing rabbi is his daughter, Neshama Carlebach, who launched her own musical career immediately after his death, when she was 20.

Carlebach acolytes visiting his grave in Jerusalem. Credit: Rafi Kotz

In a heartrending blog entry the singer published last January on the Times of Israel website, titled, “My sisters, I hear you,” she addressed the charges made against her father and wrote that according to tradition, silence is consent and therefore she cannot remain silent. She wrote that she identifies with the women and the girls who were hurt by her father and says she will always stand with them “until that day when the world commits to healing and wholeness for all, for the countless women who have suffered the evils of sexual harassment and assault.”

Her solidarity with victims of sexual assault is based, in part, on her own experience: When Carlebach was 9 years old, a friend of her father’s, who was also a rabbi, molested her in her bedroom. Since then, she writes, she has “walked through life in fear,” and feels that it’s necessary to support organizations such as #metoo.

Nevertheless, she points out that people are complex beings and that this complexity stood out in her father, “who saw sisters and brothers cut down by the Nazis, who jumped straight from the insular yeshiva world of his childhood into the boundary-less, free-love world of Berkeley in the late ‘60s, who revolutionized Jewish music forever and embraced every human being – was complicated too.”

Rabbi Carlebach was one of the first to support the struggle led by Jerusalem activist Anat Hoffman, who heads the Women of the Wall group, which supports egalitarian access to worship at the Western Wall. He also fought more intensively than perhaps anyone else in the Orthodox rabbinate at the time to allow women to be ordained as rabbis. “That he did not live to see all that would come from these acts of radical love brings me great sadness,” Neshama Carlebach writes, in the same blog post.

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