By: Doniel Weinreich  | 

Why We Must Acknowledge Carlebach’s Sexual Abuses

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach has been accused of sexually assaulting and harassing numerous teenage girls and women, yet somehow I remained unaware of this until I was 18 years old. Through all the elementary school music classes, the yeshiva stories and the Friday night minyanim, no one had managed to mention this, despite the allegations being public since 1998. I only found out about them from a post on an internet forum five years ago. The comments on that post indicated I was not alone in my ignorance; many people who went through establishment Modern Orthodox institutions were ignorant. Perhaps you are unaware as well. It’s probably not your fault. After all, Orthodox institutions continue to celebrate the man without acknowledging his abuses. And it’s time we stopped.

The first public allegations appeared in Lilith magazine over 20 years ago. The article in question documented several cases occurring over several decades where Carlebach harassed women and molested minors. In one particularly graphic account, he dry-humped a teenage girl in camp until achieving orgasm. In another, he groped a 12-year-old’s breast while whispering his famous greeting of “holy maidele.” Carlebach was also known to make unsolicited phone calls to women in the middle of the night asking what they were wearing or professing his love for them, and many reported hearing about this at the time. As with many predators, it was an “open secret” among those who knew him.

The allegations did not end with the Lilith article, and there has been a renewed focus on them in the past couple of years. On many articles and blog posts concerning the issue, you can find comments by women who also claim to have been harassed or assaulted by Carlebach. In real life, one does not have to go far to find a second-hand account about their friend’s relative or teacher who also had such an experience. The whispers have become a roar, so loud that even Carlebach’s daughter cannot deny it.

And yet little has changed practically in our community. You can find many posts from rabbis on Facebook about the issue, but I know of few institutions that have adjusted accordingly. We certainly haven’t at YU. Carlebach’s name graces our Shabbos schedule each week (twice this week), and last week a student and Rosh Yeshiva hosted a YU-sanctioned farbrengen for his yahrzeit. Needless to say, among the many stories told at the farbrengen, none made mention of his sexual assaults.

Many are inspired by Reb Shlomo in different ways. His music is the most prominent part of his legacy, but among those who consider themselves close followers of his, it’s usually subordinate to his personality and the stories about him. People are inspired by the acts of profound, selfless love and kindness Reb Shlomo performed during his life. They are moved that despite intense opposition, a child prodigy left the ivory yeshiva to inspire the masses on the street.

No doubt, in a vacuum, it is very inspirational to hear of a man’s unhesitant embraces of the criminal and deformed, of a man who found himself in poverty because he unquestioningly gave money he couldn’t afford to those in need. I personally know rabbis who treat everyone with extreme unconditional love and engage in interpersonal endeavors I can only aspire to — all because they were directly inspired by Reb Shlomo’s example. One such rabbi would host dozens of homeless people every Shabbos and would spend holidays in third world countries with supposed lost tribes.

Why then must we talk about the abuse? Can we not let the man’s reputation stand? He’s already dead. What purpose does acknowledging it serve now? The most immediate and obvious answer to this question is that sensitivity to his victims warrants it. Abuse doesn’t just occur in the moment — it has lasting traumatic effects, which we ought not trigger.

But acknowledgement is not just a matter of justice or sensitivity; acknowledging Carlebach’s abuses is also practically effective. It may be too late to stop Carlebach, but in order to stop future predators we need to recognize past abuse and understand the factors and dynamics that contribute to it going unaddressed.

Inroads have recently been made on this front in the Modern Orthodox community. Two years ago, a special issue devoted to the issue of sexual abuse was published in Tradition, the Rabbinical Council of America’s journal of Orthodox Jewish thought. In one of the articles in that issue, Shira Berkovits, the founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, thoroughly detailed these factors, many of which are relevant to the case of Carlebach.

One of these factors is cognitive dissonance. Berkovits explains how predators are often charismatic and respected leaders, and how many actively foster that sort of image in order to deflect allegations. When faced with those allegations, supporters often try to dismiss them by talking about the fantastic reputation the alleged perpetrator has. But perpetrators nearly always have a great reputation. This tactic also tends to also go hand-in-hand with accusations of lashon hara, conveniently ignoring the fact that the prohibition is inoperative when it comes to preventing harm. But if you have an a priori belief in the perpetrator’s innocence, any allegation — no matter how serious or substantive — is merely tarnishing their reputation. 

These dynamics can be clearly seen in other cases of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. When Gary Rosenblatt publicly exposed the then Director of Regions of NCSY — and now convicted child molester — Baruch Lanner in 2000, he was met with many of the same responses. One letter to the Jewish Week mentioned the thousands of Jewish souls Lanner had brought back to Judaism and criticized Rosenblatt for “defaming” him. Others invoked lashon hara or accused the publication of having an anti-Orthodox agenda.

One can look even closer to home, at the lawsuit YU is currently facing. The lawsuit details how despite molesting numerous boys over three decades, MTA principal Rabbi George Finkelstein was highly regarded and held up as a role model in YU promotional materials. He was honored as Educator of the Year and was given a prestigious Heritage Award upon his departure. The lawsuit also alleges that when continuing to bring up the incidents, the primary plaintiff was told by then Senior Vice President Israel Miller that proceeding would not be good for Yeshiva, in an attempt to guilt and intimidate him into silence.

In both of these cases, there were numerous instances in which superiors were made aware of the abuses and chose to do nothing. They either did not believe that the abuses happened, or determined that it was expedient to ignore them. Because of this, the predators went on to abuse many more victims over the course of decades. The dynamics that lead to denial and silence about Carlebach are the same as those that enable active predators.

These connections aren’t novel. The author of the original Lilith piece also wrote a letter to the Jewish Week in which she linked them, remarking:

In our reporting in Lilith magazine on decades of alleged sexual misconduct by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the same pattern emerged as in the Lanner case: widespread rumors, accusations and a complete refusal on the part of communities around the world to protect youth and women against a charismatic leader. In the deluge of requests pleading with us not to print the story two years ago, callers reminded us of all the good Rabbi Carlebach did, as if somehow his stature would lessen the pain he was accused of causing. On the contrary, his greatness may have worsened the pain. Their power and charisma make it that much more difficult — and that much more important — to bring such allegations to light.

Some critics want to take extreme measures. Some want to stop singing Carlebach tunes altogether. I’m not convinced this is desirable, and even if it is, I’m skeptical of its practicality given how entrenched the tunes have become in our liturgy. I might choose not to attend a Carlebach Kabbalas Shabbos, but nearly every Friday night minyan I’ve been to still uses his tune for V’Shameru. Others claim that niggunim (tunes) cannot be mekabel tumah (susceptible to impurity), and in an attempt to preserve the good without the bad, propose we keep the music but erase the figure. I fear many of the advocates of this approach don’t understand that those inspired by Reb Shlomo are inspired far more by the example he set than by the music he played. His music is only a small part of his positive legacy.

How then do we practically respond to the fact that Reb Shlomo was a sexual predator? At the bare minimum, we must acknowledge it. Children cannot grow up in our community on Carlebach stories and minyanim in ignorance of his darker side. There can be no place for unadulterated celebration. If one attended the farbrengen last week, they would have been met with stories about how Carlebach was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Avraham Avinu and Dovid HaMelekh and how he possessed ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration). This obviously cannot be tolerated. If we must tell stories about Reb Shlomo’s mind-bending acts of love and kindness, we cannot let the rest of the story go unsaid. Minyanim ought not be named for a predator. When we must mention him, we must also mention his abuses.

We cannot let the enabling silence be perpetuated. If we cannot recognize Carlebach as a predator, how will we identify the future Lanners and Finkelsteins? If we do not believe his victims, how will future victims trust us?

We need to foster the sort of environment where no figure — no matter how charismatic or respected — is untouchable and where victims need not fear coming forward. If we do not, abuse will continue to flourish in the future. In order to prevent this, we need to acknowledge Carlebach’s past abuses now.

Photo caption: The grave of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons