Sex, Power and Our Rabbis

Readers Respond to "Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's Shadow Side" by Sarah Blustain, LILITH, Spring 1998

Three years after the death of Shlomo Carlebach, LILITH began hearing women’s allegations of inappropriate sexual advances made to girls as young as 12, and inappropriate middle-of-the-night sexually charged phone calls to adult women Carlebach hardly knew. As LILITH was preparing a report on these accusations, we received pleas—and a few threats—attempting to stop publication.

Missing from the reasoned and often poignant signed opinions below is the rage of anonymous negative responses sent via e-mail or posted on an AOL bulletin board even after the Spring issue appeared in print. These hostile reactions were not to the women in the article itself, but to the very notion that Shlomo Carlebach could have transgressed: “Whether the allegations are true or not is not the issue, the issue is the defemation [sic] of the name of a great man.” “Nothing Rabbi Carlebach may or may not have done isn’t anywhere near as disgusting as accusing someone who is no longer here to defend himself.” “Lilith magazine is an open and notorious radical feminist lesbian oriented rag. They consider consensual sex between male and female to be abuse. . .” “Why pick on one Rabbi? Far less great Rabbis have had affairs with women. . . . The man had powers beyond this world— so watch out. I hope you get yours for this unnecessary injustice.”

Missing also from the letters that appear below is the verbal shrug with which some in the Jewish community greeted the article: “Of course. Everybody knew this was going on,” as if universal acknowledgment were any substitute for taking action against abuses.

“Yes, It Did Happen”

What a fluke it was that I happened to read the article in Lilith about Shlomo Carlebach’s “shadow side.” I have never read this publication before; in fact, I do not read any Jewish publications, and I do not belong to any Jewish organizations. How long has it been? Thirty years?

A year or two ago, I mentioned Shlomo Carlebach to a friend. I don’t remember exactly why I brought it up. I told her about the late-night phone calls with Shlomo when I was sixteen. She listened. What’s more, she took what I said to heart, and remembered. Then, just a few weeks ago, this friend (a librarian who reads everything) noticed an article from the Forward [newspaper], a short article that discussed Sarah Blustain’s piece in Lilith. She sent the article to me. I wolfed it down as if I had been alone on a desert island without a word from anyone.

My first reaction: YES. It did really happen. It was real. My next reaction: Yes. Of course it must have happened to other women. Why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t I do anything?

After reading this article in Lilith, I discovered that I was not alone. You must understand that when I was a girl, like most others, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock being ignorance; the hard place being submission. I was raised in a family structure based on the old ethics: a child was to be quiet, obedient, to speak when spoken to, to say “yes” always, without questions. And I was good, very good. When the question is raised, why did I wait so long to speak up, I feel compelled to explain. The short answer is that I was afraid, so I kept quiet. Quiet breeds a kind of superficial calm, and then it becomes a habit, like walking with a slight limp that you hardly notice after a while.

Not only is the life of a young person caught between a rock and a hard place, it is also obscured by the fog of vulnerability mixed with new unnamed sensations of longing, alienation, and self-doubt. What easy prey I was. I did not know the terms of power, sexuality and abuse. My notions of love were linked to fairy tales of lost maidens being rescued by princely powerful men.

I had no words for how I felt in that phone booth in the hallway of our dormitory, late at night, so late that even the most outrageous of students had gone to sleep long before. There I was, trying to hold the receiver to my ear because I was shaking so badly I could not keep the phone still. I was verbally undressed, item by item, and by his questions asked to reveal those items and tell him what was underneath. I was taken to a remote island and told to describe our embrace. If he had been breathing heavily, I would not have known it, so taken up was I with shaking. If I had recognized his heavy breathing, I would not have known what it meant. If I had even known what it meant I would not have had the courage to confront a great rabbi. What could a young girl do who was so overcome with shaking, and who was I, after all, to speak?

Finally, after many phone calls, I was able to hang up on him. I escaped. Over the course of the last 30 years, the distance between Shlomo and me has grown so enormous that in between lie whole regions of faith, trust and intimacy.

Some might ask, why bring up such a small, relatively benign incident? There was no gun held to my head. There were no bruises on my legs or arms. What’s to show? Why make all this noise about a few indiscretions?

Here is what shows. Since those late-night phone calls from Shlomo, I have had shaking fits, particularly when approaching any situation of intimacy.

In reference to the one who said about Lilith’s article, “Whatever negative there is to say there [are] a million positives you could choose,” I am forced to respond to this numeric equation. First of all, what is one? What is a million? I am one person, who, but for a fluke of coincidences, would have stayed hidden in silence. It begs the question: how many more might there be?

Then, to stay with the numbers a little longer, I will say that I am, perhaps, not one. Consider that I carry an illness with me. This illness can be infectious. My daughter, who is now a teenager, asks questions about Judaism. I see her yearnings toward spirituality and understanding. She would like to see what it’s like to belong to a synagogue. She will have to find her own way there. I cannot go near a place of worship without feeling the tension build. My teeth clamp shut.

I have three children. How far does the infection spread if the illness is not addressed? These children will have children. They will interact with others. So how many is that all together?

Abigail Grafton said, in the beginning of the article, “He was the first person to ordain women, to take down the mechitza, and I think he thought all boundaries were off.” I, however, suspect that he recognized the boundary and knew all too well that he crossed it wrongly. I understand the silence he kept, which was not unlike my own. If I do not address this terrible thing I do, if I do not speak of it, the shame will lessen. I can imagine how he paid his dues. His humility and generosity must have been paid out with a fair measure of guilt. His compassion for the lost must have been tied to his own wandering soul. I do not sully his name. Those who seek to withhold the truth about him sully his name by raising it too high above the circle of accountability.

Neila Carlebach is quoted in the Forward article, saying, “Jewish law absolutely forbids negative talk about someone who’s left the world, especially someone who was a rebbe.” I am sorry, but the Jewish law has no jurisdiction over me; I’ve slipped out of the circle in that place where the laws were already broken.

Nowadays I take my spiritual leadership from the compassionate stranger, the tranquility of a tree in bloom, the artless beauty of my children as they fling themselves into life without fear. I have never written a letter to an editor before. I am not one to complain. Let me emphasize again that I have no agenda, no wish to cause harm, only to add my name to the list. Consider how many historical precedents there are: the deification of those in power, the lack of accountability that encourages the abuses of power, the cover-ups, the fear. We know the routine; we should be sick to death of it by now. There are some aspects to faith that defy reasoning, whose progress is anything but linear or clear. Consider that this letter of testimony and my own quietly real name at the end of it, is a small gesture towards that faith.

by Anita Feng
Issaquah, WA

Blackening All That Is Good

There is no dark or shadow side to Reb Shlomo Carlebach. The only dark side is the sitra acha, the other side, whose designs and fabrications are meant to blacken and tear down all that is good in a person.

During the time that I knew Reb Shlomo, I once asked him about hugging women in public. He told me that there is a love that is pure and holy that we sometimes feel when we meet and hug someone who we have not seen in a long time. One may experience this love when your child or someone you love has just escaped unhurt from a major accident, and your heart is filled with thankfulness to HaShem.

I am sure that Reb Shlomo’s embracing all Jews, together with his melodious outflow of niggunim, has brought many lost souls back to Judaism. If the saving of just one life is akin to saving a world, then Reb Shlomo in his lifetime has saved an untold galaxy.

He did warn me never to be closeted alone with a woman. If one finds oneself alone in a room with someone of the opposite sex, brother [or sister] get out as fast as you can. This is the halakha, which one must be careful to observe at all times, over and above any appearance of immodesty in public.

I am sure that if any incident did arise that was in any way indiscreet, Reb Shlomo immediately would have done teshuvah and would have made amends to anyone he may have embarrassed, either publicly or privately.

by Irwin Frank
Far Rockaway, NY

Due Respect

I write to join the many others who must be protesting the article about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I protest, not because he was perfect, but because he is dead, and therefore deserves the respect that all the dead do. It is disrespectful to his memory to print such an article now that he is gone. No one who is serious claims that he was perfect, but that is not the issue. To tear down the name of someone who cannot defend himself if innocent or do teshuvah if he is guilty is contrary to Jewish ethics. Surely, if these women were hurt or traumatized, they had ample opportunity to sue or to confront or to do whatever they needed to do over the years before he died. Even then, there must be better ways to heal than by putting the stories into a public magazine. Lilith should have used better judgment.

by Rabbi Jack Riemer
Boca Raton, FL

Flawed Human

What to do with wonderful spiritual teachings from a person who has been accused of committing acts of sexual misconduct? The lessons of this piece reflect the divergent sides of too many leaders: highly spiritual yet predatory sexual perpetrators. Just as the child in Solomon’s court could not be split to live, the reality of a human being cannot be split. The strengths and weaknesses need to be studied in unison to experience the real meaning of being human: flawed and struggling, not perfect and godlike.

All too often, when there are allegations of sexual misconduct, defenders surround the named perpetrators with unquestioning support so as not to feel their own sense of betrayal, acknowledge their own personal foibles, or more deeply explore the teachings as given. Detractors/critics attack the named person by throwing out all of the virtues/gifts/lessons given because these teachings are now seen as tainted/fraudulent.

Teachers can be gifted spiritual leaders, capable of deeply appreciating Jewish wisdom and essence, and able to share insight in powerfully meaningful ways. Those leaders can also be fearfully abusive, incapable of following their own spiritual connections and thereby turning to feed their ego needs by hurting others at almost any cost.

In light of the allegations, perhaps the greatest lesson Carlebach can teach is the need to honestly see and learn from the whole person. We owe it to ourselves and our leaders to speak out when we see, hear, or experience a betrayal. We are commanded to not stand by the blood of our neighbors. We have a duty to rebuke and help our leaders maintain appropriate boundaries.

by Jan Singer
Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer
Los Angeles, CA

[Jan Singer is a psychotherapist who works with people who have been sexually exploited by therapists or clergy. Arthur Gross Schaefer teaches legal and business ethics. Both have worked within the Reform movement to address rabbinic sexual misconduct.]

Confronting Abuse

Had it not been for this piece—so different from the other praise-filled eulogies for Rabbi Carlebach that inundated the Jewish press—I would have never been aware that members of the Jewish renewal community and others were engaging in a painful and belated, yet utterly necessary, process of truth-telling and catharsis.

When I came to New York a few years ago, shortly before Rabbi Carlebach’s death, I immediately began to hear stories of his “womanizing.” I met a number of Carlebach devotees and ex-devotees who had witnessed or experienced his unacceptable behavior, and I was appalled at what I perceived to be general tolerance of it among many people with whom I spoke on the Upper West Side. “Shlomo just can’t help it,” I was told.

It is bad enough when someone without Rabbi Carlebach’s fame and stature harasses or physically abuses women under the cloak of silence. Needless to say, our community’s inability to openly confront Rabbi Carlebach’s problem while he was alive and attend to the psychological, emotional, and spiritual scars of his victims is more troubling still. What does this reveal about the moral courage of our community? Are we afraid to demand standards of sexual decency from our leaders?

Sexual harassment and abuse must be addressed judicially in Jewish classrooms if we are ever to empower our community to deal with these problems effectively. My article, “Sexual Harassment and Jewish Education” (Tikkun, January/February ’94) suggests a practical approach, grounded in Jewish texts, for grappling with a dilemma that is larger than the larger-than-life Rabbi Carlebach.

by Carmela Ingwer
Forest Hills, NY

Sex, Spirit and Abuse

Re: Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s comments on unethical sexual behavior by rabbis and teachers: If Kabbalah can lead to such a skewed view of the reality as you presented, then I want no part of its enlightenment.

Sexual violence (including dry-humping of young teens) is not, cannot, be understood as an aspect of the holy power of chesed [loving-kindness]. Sexual violence is an evil. If the stories told in Lilith are true, then Carlebach was a rasha. Elevating one woman’s (or man’s) soul will never be an excuse for murdering another.

And those who knew of these matters but kept silent are also guilty. A person who knew of these matters shared in the violence done to every woman and girl who was attacked by Carlebach’s evil. Jeff Roth’s [response] in the article was impressive. He recognized that even his refusal to play along with Shlomo was not enough. Those who knew and did nothing must also seek repentance to return to the truth of God and their true selves.

by Rabbi Robert Levy
Ann Arbor, MI

[The writer is chair of the Mayor’s Task Force for Increasing Safety for Women.]

Heed the Rabbis!

An honest assessment of the Carlebach phenomenon should take into account one additional factor not mentioned in your article. As far back as 35 years ago, Shlomo Carlebach was kept at arm’s distance by the Roshei Yeshiva of the ultra-Orthodox. In his disregard of the traditional boundaries and strictures separating the sexes, the rabbis sensed precisely those predilections that are only now first being exposed. For this they were vilified as being obscurantist and cruelly intolerant. Think of how much damage could have been averted had they been taken seriously at the time!

by Rabbi Heshy Grossman
Jerusalem, Israel

A Call to Action

Thank you for having the courage to break the silence in print about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Author Sarah Blustain and Lilith Magazine deserve the community’s respect and gratitude for prioritizing the need to speak the truth and support the victims and survivors of Rabbi Carlebach’s abusive behavior instead of giving in to community pressure to protect the memory of an idolized leader.

In spite of the excellence of the article, it left me concerned about key issues: the potential misrepresentation of what good practice by other rabbis might be; the pressure to forgive and forget quickly; and the need for Jewish communal responsibility in dealing with issues of sexual misconduct.

Certainly, victims can’t take comfort from the fact that rabbis such as Jeff Roth and Daniel Siegel never translated the underpinnings of Elat Chayyim and ALEPH’s code of ethics into direct action regarding Shlomo Carlebach’s abusive behavior, even though he wasn’t on their staff. It was not good enough that Roth intended to “have a serious discussion about [the] innuendoes” or that Siegel “stopped inviting Shlomo, though I never told him why.”

It is all the more alarming that ALEPH’s primary response to the issues raised in the article is Arthur Waskow’s disturbing treatise that, incredibly, mistakes chesed rather than Carlebach’s unchecked power as the cause of his abusive behavior, and rationalizes Carlebach’s actions as being about “overflowing energy.”

It was also clear from the article that the pressure to forgive and forget is already on. The pressure on Lilith not to print this article points to the Jewish community’s deep denial, fear, and pain regarding issues of sexual and domestic violence, especially when religious leaders are the perpetrators. Women who feel they were hurt by Carlebach need the community’s support, not prescriptive recommendations about forgiveness, right now. They are the ones who should determine the pace of forgiveness.

Freedom from sexual and domestic violence will not come from silencing or discrediting the voices of victims and survivors, but only from building communities of justice that do not ignore, rationalize or excuse these abuses of power. We must educate our religious leaders and communities about these issues, develop cooperative relationships with professionals who can work with victims and abusers, hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes, and engage Jewish community members of all ages in active prevention initiatives. Let the article in Lilith serve as a call to action so that we can transform the Jewish community into a safe and nurturing space, where attitudes and behaviors that contribute to an atmosphere of violence against women are never tolerated.

Randi Donnis
Boston, MA

[The author works with interfaith nonprofit groups dedicated to ending domestic violence through educational and advocacy work with religious communities.]

Warned Not to Speak

I would like to commend Sarah Blustain on the integrity and sensitivity of her article. Shlomo taught his students that one of the most significant responsibilities that we have in life is how we view the other, because the other sees our perception of her/him in our eyes. What was being done to the women and girls who would see their reflection in Shlomo’s lustful eyes? Did they see themselves as comrades, as fellow Jews, or did Shlomo help them see themselves as objects, as “the great temptation.”

This past winter, in response to a related on-line dialogue between several friends and myself, we received a “warning” about posting our conversation. The writer stated:

“I recommend that you look into Masechet Brachot 19a in the section which begins ‘R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Whoever disparages the memory of a Torah Scholar’ . . . The warning is too dark and heavy for me to even write them. However, this same Gemorah says, ‘If you see a Torah scholar commit a transgression by night, harbor no ill thoughts of him by day for perhaps he repented . . . Do you think that the most one can say is that perhaps he repented? Surely not! Rather, say that SURELY he has repented! . . . But this applies only to personal matters, i.e. to sins of a private nature.’ What Reb Shlomo may have done in the past is wrong and it is our duty to see it as it is. But at the same time, we are equally obligated to ASSUME he had mended his ways before leaving this world, which I personally believe he sincerely did. And even if I didn’t, I have a Torah obligation to judge a Torah scholar favorably, especially when they are dead.”

The disturbing nature of this “warning” is obvious. I commend Lilith for the courage to publish the article.

by Gloria Z. Greenfield
Lexington, MA

In Europe, Too

Thank you for having published that important article about Shlomo Carlebach, who was also in Europe for concerts. I share some of the experiences you described.

by I. Weiss
Berlin, Germany

He Serenaded “the Ladies”

Re: your important piece on Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: He was not with the Women of the Wall at the Kotel in 1989. The ceremony began out of doors and continued in a school, not far from our hotel. He came to serenade “you noble ladies” when we, the International Committee for Women of the Wall, donated a Torah to the woman of Jerusalem from women outside Israel. Shlomo had a dark and shadow side, but he had a joyous, loving side too. We must weigh both; one does not diminish the other.  

by Phyllis Chester
Brooklyn, NY

“Oy, this needs such a fixing”  Shlomo Carlbach, when confronted with accusations of sexual misconduct.

In many respects the article in Lilith shocked and pained many of us who knew Rabbi Carlebach so well, but privately it surprised few of us. This article has rightfully sparked vehement debate among many of those who were inspired by Shlomo’s songs and teachings over the years. Although I understand the anger and resentment of publicly bringing to light these deficiencies after his death, I think that this article has the potential to fix something that Shlomo, for reasons we will never know, could not do.

Let me say that it is likely that some of the women quoted may have been motivated to speak after the publication of Holy Brother, a collection of stories, largely anecdotal and hagiographic, about Shlomo’s life. This book, although enjoyable reading, does little to represent the complexities and contradictions that lie at the root of Shlomo Carlebach. I want to speak of those who have chosen to vilify the women quoted in the article, the author, and Lilith Magazine, instead of taking this opportunity for communal reflection and tikkun.

First, this article was written with tact, respect and journalistic respectability. It was not vindictive, confrontational or one-sided. Second, the emergence of these issues in a pubic forum is, in many ways, an important test for those who consider Shlomo their rebbe. To inherit the teachings of a master is also to inherit their deficiencies and work to resolve and fix that which the master could not fix in his lifetime. Shlomo’s sexual misconduct was a reality, as Shlomo would say, “simple as it is . . .” The brilliance and depth of his teachings were also a reality and remain intact in light of his weaknesses. Yet to ignore or, worse, to deny the weakness is to do injustice to his entire message.

From the Hasidic tradition of mid-19th century Poland, Shlomo learned and transmitted some important teachings of our time. First, that honesty is a way of piety. When he comically referred to himself and others as “holy sinners” he meant it deeply. As human beings we are flawed. The only way to correct our flaws is to confront them head on, not to deflect them. He was openly critical of Hasidic societies’ mistreatment of women, suffering greatly for his honesty yet opening doors toward rectifying this problem. He never excluded himself from the community of “holy sinners.” It is only some of his disciples, who I believe have misunderstood his message, who are trying to make Shlomo a Zaddik, a concept that he did not advocate and was not a central part of his teaching.

In my mind, the most poignant phrase of this article was Shlomo’s response to being confronted with sexual misconduct, “Oy, this needs such a fixing.” Shlomo was not able to do it. Now it is up to his disciples. I firmly believe that a general apology for Shlomo’s actions should be made public, in this forum or any other, by those who consider themselves his disciples. As we study The Ethics of the Fathers from Passover to Shavuot we should be reminded of the rabbinic dictum (loosely translated), “When a person of integrity is not present, strive to be that person.” This is our challenge. I thank Lilith for giving all of us the opportunity for tikkun, Shlomo’s and our own.

by Shaul Magid
New York NY

[The writer is a professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary.]