Separating a Person from their work: What do we do with Carlebach’s music?

*Originally posted in Ha’Am.org

One of the more obscure ‘secrets’ of the Jewish community involves the legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Anyone who has been to a Friday night prayer service has almost certainly sung some of the many tunes composed by Carlebach. Many have heard stories of his unique ability to bring people closer to Judaism by focusing on the unique, spiritual potential of every individual. What is not as well-known about Carlebach, however, is that he allegedly committed an almost unfathomable number of sexual assaults.

In writing this, I want to say — at the outset — that it is not my desire to discuss the finer details surrounding what I believe to be Carlebach’s egregious sins, as a gamut of firsthand accounts can be found on the Internet. Anyone who wishes to read up on this topic can run a quick Google search with the terms “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach sexual assault.” While I would normally include some links, I think that part of the shock comes from finding the plethora of cases of abuse ranging from Yeshivish, Bais Yakov girls to completely unaffiliated Jews, and so I implore you to research this for yourself.

The second thing that must be pointed out by way of introduction is that the fact that Carlebach was a Rabbi who excelled in bringing people closer to Judaism in no way diminishes the abhorrent nature of his actions. There are some people who are of the dangerous mindset that we, on our low spiritual levels, are not able to judge “great Rabbis” and that we must continuously give them the benefit of the doubt. I believe, however, that it is exactly the opposite; it is those in leadership roles or powerful positions that are the representatives of our community and, therefore, must be held to a higher standard than the average person. If Abraham is able to call God out on a moral injustice, I think that it is reasonable to call out a Rabbi who is the target of a wide array of sexual charges.

Once we throw out the apologetics and take for granted that Carlebach was a sexual offender, who used his leadership position to take advantage of unsuspecting victims, we need to ask a very important question:

What do we do with his legacy — specifically his music which has become a staple in the Jewish community? Phrased a bit differently, I think that this is a good case-study of whether or not we can separate a morally deficient person or event from the “objective” work that they produce.

One can reasonably argue that we should attempt to completely erase Carlebach’s music from the Jewish community. While practically this would be almost impossible, it could be thought of as the ideal that we should strive for. However, I don’t think that this position makes complete sense. I think that in many cases, it is helpful and even necessary to separate individuals from their contributions to the world. In an extreme case (my love for extreme cases has been undoubtedly inspired by the Talmud), I want to recall a fascinating debate that has been ongoing for the last 70 years.

One of the many horrors of the Holocaust was the medical and scientific studies that were carried out on prisoners. While the specific details of these experiments are beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that many morally repulsive experiments — a number of which were brought to light during the Nuremberg trials — were implemented. Now, I am by no means an expert on experimental data gathered during the Holocaust; however, I do know that the Nazis carried out numerous horrible and immoral experiments that pushed the human body to its absolute limits. Nazi researchers would conduct studies that would be unthinkable and unreproducible by anyone with even a slight moral conscience.

While most of the data collected by Nazi researchers is simply bad science, fabricated to bolster their claims on genetics, some of their data is pure, objective science. The question that we must face is whether or not we can benefit off of these Nazi medical findings.

One such example appeared in the late 1980’s, when a doctor named Robert Pozos was trying to come up with novel methods to treat patients that were in the late stages of hypothermia. One of the problems that he and other researchers in the field encountered was the dearth of research available on the subject. Although there has been ample research done on animals, their dissimilar physiology made the transfer of practical solutions difficult. The basic consensus of the field at that time was that a person in hypothermic condition needed to be slowly warmed up in incremental stages. While this was the most intuitive solution, and the one garnered from the animal research, it proved to be ineffective in many scenarios.

At this point, Pozos got his hands on old Nazi manuscripts and uncovered data on one of the experiments carried out by researchers. The records told of Jews that would be left out in the snow for various lengths of time until they were straddling between life and death. Then, they would be brought into a room and immediately dunked into a tub of burning hot water. What Pozos discovered from the Nazi data was that this type of treatment would be extremely effective and instrumental in saving lives. The controversy exploded when his findings were rejected from a few medical journals.

In my opinion, it seems unreasonable to refuse to accept or benefit from this data. The reality is that we have this information, which is objectively correct (of course, if someone discredits the validity of the findings, then it would be a different story), and truth is truth, regardless of its roots. In this light, one can recall the words of Maimonides, who writes in his introduction to Shemonah Perakim, “One should accept the truth, from whatever source it proceeds.” By advancing the argument that one is morally allowed, and perhaps even morally obligated, to use the findings from Nazi medical experiments for beneficial purposes, it in no way validates the horrors of both the initial experiments and also the malicious intent of the researchers.

Now, it is clear that the cases of Nazi research and Carlebach’s music are disparate and, perhaps, it is even unfair to judge them by the same underlying principles. However, I think that the general idea and argument work well for both of these cases. Although Carlebach did not produce his music in an unethical manner and he did try to create music that would allow for people to have a deeper spiritual connection, the source — Carlebach himself — was likely ethically depraved. While Carlebach should never be viewed as any sort of role model of leader, the reality is that he produced great music. His music is used during prayers across denominations and countries. There is undoubtedly something beautiful about the fact that I — a person who grew up as an American, Orthodox Jew — can go to a reform service or pray in another country, and there is a good chance the tunes will be nearly identical.

Interestingly enough, this case-study reverses the classic line “hate the sin not the sinner” or “separate the person from their actions.” Generally, that strain of thought is used to advance the argument that people can still make mistakes and we should hate their actions but not their essence; instead, our case study tells us that you can hate the sinner and his sins, but what he produces can be objectively good. We should not, of course, continue to view Carlebach as a spiritual role model or one who embodied true Jewish values, and it is entirely inappropriate when synagogues honor him as such. However, we should be willing to continue to sing his music while not feeling guilty about its producer.

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2 thoughts on “Separating a Person from their work: What do we do with Carlebach’s music?

  1. Brad,Great comment and observation. Thanks.Yeah, I think you get it too. So often we hear just one more thing to do…so now we have to listen to others more.But we need a POWER to do such things, and God always provides it. We can listen because we have inner strength; and we have inner strength because Christ is listening to us all day day. He is saying, “Wow, that’s ine0trsting&#823e;all the things going on in your life.”Thanks

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