For as long as I can remember, Carlebach tunes have sparked fire in my soul. It might even be fair to say that those tunes taught me what my soul is and how to find it.
I knew that Carlebach was just a man. I’d heard funny stories growing up about the time that my proper, timely and tone-deaf British grandfather had co-officiated at wedding with Carlebach. As I grew older, I learned about Carlebach’s darker side, but I didn’t give it much thought. It was just another factoid cluttering my brainspace. His music was close, and those stories were far.
Until a few years ago, when I encountered a victim of Carlebach for the first time. She was someone I had known for a few years, and a lover of the arts. I floated the idea by her of bringing Neshama Carlebach to campus for a performance, and she blanched. I had expected enthusiasm– how many times had we had all-male Jewish musical groups on campus? Neshama’s music is amazing! What’s not to like? And then she told me her story. I started reading, and found stories of many others.
Since hearing her story, I have struggled with Carlebach. Recently, as scandals about Cosby have resurfaced, some have tried to compare the two, and ask whether art can be detangled from artist. To me, though, Art and Artist are different from Torah and Rebbe.
Rebbes are, themselves, Torah. When the Talmud tells us about Rabbi Akiva following Rabbi Joshua into the bathroom or Kahana hiding under the bed of Rav, it shows us that our Rebbeim are supposed to live Torah, that our Rebbeim are supposed to be Torah, and that we are supposed to be able to learn just by watching (BT Brachot 62a). Rabbis are and must be role models.
Naturally, we cannot expect our role models to be perfect. Indeed, it is their imperfections that make our role models accessible. But there are limits, and one of those limits is abuse. Rabbis who abuse cannot be our role models, and if they cannot be our role models, they cannot be vessels for the transference of Torah. And so, I will never study or share Carlebach’s Torah.
But the truth is, there’s a lot of Torah out there– and my life will not be long enough to read and study everyone anyways. This is not a tremendous loss. The music, to me, would be. What to do about that?
There is a difference between Torah and music. Putting it simply, the origin of tunes doesn’t seem to matter so much. We sing Maoz Tzur to an old German folk song, and the tune for Hatikvah derives from a piece of 16th century Italian music. It would never occur to me to go ask for halachic advice (or even life-advice) from a composer. We would never cite a Rashi without saying “and Rashi says…” but we nearly always sing tunes, except for Carlebach, without recognizing their composers.
The tunes live on beyond their creators, and they take on the meaning that we give to them with our own iterations. Especially when we sing them in prayerful settings, tunes are not important as musical compositions. They are important as spiritual experiences. We, not the composers, are the curators of our spiritual experiences. A niggun sung in solitude is different from the same niggun sung with a few friends is different from the same niggun sung with strangers or a crowd. A niggun with people who harmonize is different from the same niggun in a room of people chatting. It’s not just the tune, it’s the people, their attention, and their spiritual energy.
It is with this in mind, that I put forward the following suggestions: let’s not have a “Carlebach Tefillah,” but a “Musical Tefillah.” The composer doesn’t matter. And maybe you’ll find a tune by somebody else that you want to introduce. When we sing Carlebach melodies, and someone asks “who was that by?” let’s consider saying something along the lines of: “it’s not important” or a more explicit “someone we don’t talk about.” Keep the art, reject the artist.
Feel free to post feedback or further thoughts in the comments below.