A Statement on Malkhut's Decision to Stop Using the Music of Shlomo Carlebach

Earlier this year, Malkhut, a new progressive Jewish spiritual community in Western Queens, made a decision to stop playing and singing the melodies of Shlomo Carlebach in our community's Shabbat and holiday services, and other spiritual gatherings.

In Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), Malkhut is associated with the feminine aspect of the Divine and can be understood to represent our experience of Being unfolding in every moment. Prayer, singing, chant and meditation are core elements of our community's practice, intended to open our hearts and cultivate awareness of love and compassion as it unfolds from moment to moment in our experience. A number of our core melodies, including the Lecha Dodi (“Come, My Beloved,” a central liturgical piece with which we welcome Shabbat on Friday evenings) we had used since our growing community’s inception in 2016, were composed by Carlebach. Much more of our music was written by composers that either knew him personally, or took great inspiration from him. It could be said that our ecstatic, joyful approach to song and prayer bears his imprint. He is a figure who has loomed large, not just in our history and music, but in our individual experiences of connecting with the Divine.

Shlomo Carlebach was a charismatic rabbi whose music is nearly ubiquitous in American Jewish life, across denominations of Judaism. His music and teachings deeply inspired and awakened generations of Jewish spiritual seekers. He is also reported to have sexually harassed and sexually abused many women and girls over a period of decades, and, unfortunately, there is no indication that he took any significant steps toward making amends for this during his lifetime. While Carlebach's predatory behavior has been an open secret in the Jewish world for decades, the popularization of the “me, too” movement (which originated in 2006 with Tarana Burke, a black activist and community organizer) in the past year has led some Jewish communities to begin to honestly grapple with what it means to continue to play and sing his melodies, in light of the harm he has caused, and the harm encountering his music has continued to cause to his and other survivors of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The question of what to do with this figure who has wielded king-like power and influence, in ways both good and troubling, is a thorny one. We share our experiences in hope that it may benefit others, and in the hope of sparking further dialogue and progress along this path of reckoning and reconciliation. If there is one thing our process has convinced us of, it is of the urgency of this conversation, and its wide-reaching implications for spiritual community.

We tried different ways of approaching this challenging question, and what we ultimately found most helpful as a process was to have intentional, spacious time, in person, for speaking and listening, and to give each person involved in this decision a chance to voice their feelings on this issue and what it brought up for them, and framing the conversation in the context of love and respect for one another and for the complexity of this issue. Our initial attempts at discussing this issue resulted in community members feeling frustrated, upset, and unresolved. Taking a more conscious approach that made space for each of our truths to co-exist in the caring community we have been cultivating allowed us all to arrive, in an organic way, at the shared conclusion that we could not continue to use Carlebach's music.

Although this conclusion was clear and unanimous, it did not come without a sense of loss. Carlebach's melodies have been beloved to many, and certain songs carried personal meaning for some members of our community. We considered a question that others before us have asked: Are Carlebach's spiritual melodies and teachings his own, or was he only the conduit through which they flowed? While we believe either perspective is valid, and while we respect those who continue to connect with his songs and teachings, individually and with others of like mind, we realized that this question could not be the basis for a decision about what we would do as a community that strives to be open to a diversity of spiritual seekers and also to be a safe space in which all feel comfortable to connect, sing, and pray. We have heard and read stories of Jewish survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and those who care about them, who have stopped going to services because it is too uncomfortable, upsetting, or painful for them to hear Carlebach's music. If we know the harm continuing to play and sing Carlebach's music may cause those who attend our services and we continue to do it anyway, we send a message of not caring, and we risk driving people away. Alienating those who have been victimized is simply not aligned with Malkhut's values.

We considered whether to temporarily suspend using Carlebach, as other communities have done, or to make a permanent decision to stop. Once we arrived at our decision to stop, however, we did not see the logic in stopping only temporarily. Putting the late Carlebach in a “time out” and explaining why we did so may serve to bring greater awareness to his unacceptable harassment and abuse of women and girls. Still, his and others' survivors have described feeling “assaulted” by encountering his music in services, and that is unlikely to change simply because an arbitrary period of time has passed, especially when those who were victimized by him and their children are still living and hurting.

For some, this may raise the question of if deciding to stop playing and singing Carlebach melodies mean that we also should excise every problematic Jewish composer from our repertoire of prayer and song. What arose for us in our considering this question is that it is essential for us to be sensitive to these issues and explore them in context, using critique and dialogue, and with the aim of creating healing spaces for our community. Ultimately, the primary consideration for us is not necessarily how virtuous a Jewish figure may be, but how likely it is that his or her work may cause harm to those who encounter it in our community.

We also discussed the dangers of ascribing to a “rock star” system in our community, in which those of great fame, power, reputation, or prolific creativity are given a “pass” for their harmful behavior. We reject the idea that any one rabbi, teacher, or composer of sacred music is so great that our community cannot thrive without him or her. Over the past six months in which we having not been playing or singing Carlebach's melodies, we do not feel we have been missing out. In fact, we have delved more deeply into the rich world of Jewish music outside of Carlebach, including contemporary composers such as Nava Tehila, Joey Weisenberg, Shefa Gold, and others. Beyond that, we have begun to experiment with composing our own melodies, both individually, and together as a singing community. It has been deeply rewarding to share those melodies at our High Holiday services and our Sukkot festivities, and, most recently, to introduce an original Lecha Dodi at our Kabbalat Shabbat service.

We, as a progressive community whose members include those who have been sexually harassed and sexually assaulted, regret that it took the growing public attention to these issues within the past year for us to begin considering these questions in earnest. We are sorry for any difficult feelings this may have engendered within our community or for those who may not have felt comfortable participating in our community for this reason. To be sure, this is not an easy issue, and others we love and respect have approached it in different ways and come to different conclusions. Still, we are at peace with having made a decision consistent with our community's values, and we look forward to continuing to create a community that is a warm and a safe place to connect with the Divine and one another.

Last Friday, at Malkhut Shabbat services in Astoria, we sang two new melodies, created by members of our community, for the first time. Below are live recordings from the debut of these melodies so that you can see how Malkhut has found more space to create new music.

 L'cha Dodi 
Composed by Malkhut Levite*, Shara Feldman, and Malkhut Music Director, Kris Wettstein.

Anu Matzanu
Melody composed by Malkhut Levite, Shara Feldman, based on the text from the Zohar I, 48a. Hebrew and English verses by Kohenet Penina Adelman as published in Siddur HaKohanot: a Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook by Jill Hammer and Taya Shere, p. 48.

*Malkhut's "Levite circle" is a group of volunteer singers and musicians who hold the space for our communal prayer