In 1968, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach visited the Reform Jewish camp where I was a counsellor. One of the great innovators in Jewish music, Rabbi Carlebach’s oeuvre was changing the very nature of how we worship, even how we think of ourselves as worshippers.
Today, there is hardly a synagogue, Jewish school or Jewish camp, whatever its tradition, that does not have embedded within its structure the music of Rabbi Carlebach. Most of us don’t know the composer of the music we sing, myself included, but we instantly recognize Rabbi Carlebach’s work if it is pointed out to us.
That summer 50 years ago, I witnessed behaviour that I did not understand or know how to categorize. Somehow Rabbi Carlebach always seemed to have an easy way of finding himself with young female campers and his hands were rarely at his side. What I witnessed then, and what others witnessed, continued until his death in 1994. He was an artist who created sublime music, but he was not such wonderful human being. But he is by no means the only person whose work inspires respect, but whose life calls for censure.
Over these last few months, we have been overwhelmed by media reports about successful individuals whose personal behaviours are to be condemned, while their artistic or professional achievements are to be praised. It is a long list and many on it are Jewish: Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allan, James Levine, Lorin Stein and Al Franken, to name just a few.
There are, of course, many others accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault who are not “members of the tribe.” But birth, ethnic origin or religion don’t seem to me very important. What strikes me as the essential question in these troubling times is the same question Jews have been asking about the music of Richard Wagner these past 70 years: can the art be separated from the artist?
Some will suggest that the answer is a simple no. The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra does not usually play Wagner. Why? Because he was an arch anti-Semite and his work formed the thematic backdrop to the entire Nazi era. But he was a great composer and some believe his music sublime. This argument has been extended to the work of many others. Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr. Fox was known to despise Israel and Jews. Should his wonderful children’s books be banned from all Jewish homes?
How does one wrestle with these significant moral dilemmas?
In the Talmud, we read the following discussion:
Rabbi Meir Rabba bar Shila said to Elijah: “What is God doing?”
He replied: “He is quoting novel Torah insights of the sages, but not the insights of Rabbi Meir.”
“Why not Rabbi Meir?” Rabba asked.
“Because he learned Torah from Elisha ben Abuya,” said Elijah.
Rava said: “Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate. He ate its fruit and threw out its peel!”
Elijah said: “Now the Almighty blessed be He also quotes the novel Torah insights of Rabbi Meir, and with particular fondness.”
Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya was considered a great scholar who became a heretic for studying Greek philosophy. In this passage, the rabbis are asking: “Is there a way of eating the fruit and throwing out the klipot (seeds)?” This is not an exact parallel, but close enough.
Think about it – among our ancient Jewish heroes, few were pure individuals. Abraham: Avinu, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be Isaac. Maybe we need to eliminate him from the Avot. David: A great king – but would you want him hanging out with your daughter? Maybe we need to stop singing “David Me-lech yis-ra-eil” or chanting the psalms.
The truth is the great ones were (and are) great at some things and not so good at others. Somehow our tradition has woven into its very fabric people whose values and charisma are a legacy, even while their behaviour is unacceptable.
Some synagogues, schools and camps have banned the music of Rabbi Carlebach. Some have determined that they need to take time and study the issue. And some have chosen simply to ignore the complexities that his behaviours and the behaviours of others raise. But before we censure others, let us remember that as Jews, we are good at sticking our heads into the sand when the actions of Israel challenge our normative morality. Unfortunately, being a moral ostrich can lead to moral suffocation.