The Power of Jewish Music – Shabbat Shirah 5782

D'var Torah | Exodus

In July 2020 several hundred interested parties joined a Zoom discussion on the dilemma posed to cantors and congregations by the popularity of the music of Reb Shlomo Carlebach and the revelations of his alleged sexual improprieties. While rumors circulated about Carlebach even before his death in 1994, it was only recently and in parallel with the rise of #metoo that the issue of his conduct towards women has become more contentious. Many musical professionals appreciate the popularity of the Carlebach songbook and the inspirational effect of his music yet, at the same time, feel uncomfortable with promoting a person of such a dubious reputation.


Carlebach still has his vocal supporters. Some still refute the charges that have been leveled against him. Others distinguish between valuing the music while deploring the composer. A few congregations imposed a moratorium on singing Carlebachian melodies for a year or two. Other congregations have banned the Carlebach songbook altogether. The issue of what to do has been complicated by the growing number of female cantors who have come forward with their own stories of sexual abuse. It would be hypocritical – not just uncomfortable – for female cantors with a history of victimization to champion a composer with a reputed history of being exploitative of women.


Interesting are the logical analogies that are offered on behalf of those who want to retain Carlebach’s compositions. For instance, Richard Wagner’s music was favored by Nazi sympathizers yet very few, if any, orchestras still refuse to play his works or stage his operas. Outside the realm of music, some contend that if the medical knowledge gained by horrific Nazi medical experiments may be used to save human lives, Carlebach’s melodies may be used to inspire Jewish lives. The source is not as important as the outcome. Suggesting analogies from villains of the Holocaust, however, is probably not the best way to rehabilitate Carlebach.


Perhaps the law regarding charitable dispersions would do better. According to fourteenth century Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (Tur, Yorah De’ah 256), charitable funds should never be entrusted to those who were proven untrustworthy. In other words, do not put thieves in charge of money. The implication is that thieves might be put in charge of other matters. They are excluded only from the areas in which their indiscretions matter most. This would mean that were Reb Shlomo still alive, he should not be entrusted with chaperoning young women. But there would be no restrictions on his music.


All these logical gymnastics come to show how valuable music is to the Jewish people. It is not Carlebach the person that elicits support but the effect of Carlebach’s music that does. Music has the potency to inspire Jews immeasurably. That is why rabbis throughout Jewish history have tried to defend cantors despite their foibles (See Allen, The Cantor: From Mishnah to Modernity for illustrations). February has been designated Jewish Music Month. There is no better time to consider how Jewish music enriches Jewish lives.



Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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