Sing to Hashem a New Song: The Carlebach Dilemma

By Rafi Cohen

A week after machane is over, Thursday morning, and I receive a WhatsApp from the shul gabbai:

“Hi Rafi, how’s the voice…”

It’s an exciting opportunity to bring some of that amazing ruach all the way back from north Wales to what would otherwise be a set of dry and dusty Shabbat services. (To give credit where it is due, my community is very good on shaking up the davening rota and giving younger people the opportunity to have a go, and really get the shul pumping on a Friday night.)

But this time, and maybe now every time I am asked to daven I will be presented with the following dilemma: the tunes of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

You will not find, anywhere in the world, a single community, from Hasidic to Reform, that has not heard of many of his tunes. No tisch has been sung from beginning to end without at least one of them. No Friday night service has gone by without at least some reference to his nusach. And no simcha has been completed without one of his niggunim.

He is rightly acknowledged as having revolutionised Jewish liturgy, music and ruach in a way perhaps more far reaching throughout the Jewish community that anyone since King David’s psalms.

His tunes have an amazing ability to unify a community, to allow them to raise their voices together in song and praise. Whatever the mood of the moment that you want to capture, Carlebach had something for it. There are Carlebach shuls and Carlebach minyanim. Carlebach concerts and Carlebach tisches.

Educated in strictly orthodox yeshivot in the USA and sent out as one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissaries, Carlebach became, in his lifetime, a controversial figure within orthodoxy. He ordained female rabbis, removed the mechitza in his shul in California, encouraged female singers at his concerts, and was noted for being the only male rabbi present at the first public Torah reading at the Kotel by the Women of the Wall. However these actions are viewed within our halachic framework, he seemed to be a consistent supporter of the empowerment and progression of women within Judaism.

But then there is the ‘Shadow Side’[i]. Even before his death in 1994, and with increasing awareness now in this age of celebrity misconduct, stories began to emerge of unsolicited, inappropriate and even abusive behaviour towards women in the communities, youth camps, and concerts he visited. Potentially emerging from his philosophy of open love of every Jew, his above-mentioned halachic decisions were accompanied by frequent disregard of the laws of yichud and negiah. His regularly stated hope was “to hug every Jew – maybe every person – in the world”, but in the hippie world of 60’s free love, his hugs have been said to have been “a little too long and a little too tight”.

While there are those whose personal stories are so distressing that “Shlomo Carlebach’s sweet melodies take on a totally serrated edge, because they seem to mock [their] abuse”[ii], there are also those who defend Carlebach as a broken mirror[iii], simply reflecting back at the society of the time many of its own issues. And there are those, such as his daughter Neshama[iv], who are struggling with this dual identity; the man who helped to bring so many closer, but who also hurt many along the way.

Our tnua has taken amazing steps in recent years to face up to many forms of abusive and inappropriate behaviour and language. We are learning to be more aware of vulnerable individuals, to be active in our support of minorities, and to be more inclusive. In theory the works of Shlomo Carlebach should have embodied these aims, to make Judaism accessible, enjoyable, communal. Instead they now seem to bear a stain of the opposite.

What are we practically to do? To stand silently by the side and not raise the question is tantamount to support (you only need to read ‘that poem’ which forms part of the pre-camp inclusivity sessions to realise the power of silence). To expunge all use of Carlebach’s work would appear to be the moral thing to do, to prevent the propagation of further harm and to make an active stand.

Is it even possible to distinguish between the man, his flaws, and the impact of his other work? The spirit of a Carlebach service or tisch is still incredibly uplifting for many. Do we cut one of the few thin strands that help bind many of us together?

When any shaliach tzibbur takes to the bimah they must weigh up the feelings of the community they are representing, their familiarity with the words and tunes, the appropriate length that the service should last and other details besides. Do we risk losing the interest and sacrificing the enjoyment of many in our communities? What is the value of our tefillot if we do not? Perhaps we need a new Carlebach for our time to re-write the Friday night tunes. But unless they can come up with something in the next three hours, I don’t really know what to do…


[i] Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side by Sarah Blustain – published in the Lilith Magazine 1998 Spring release. One of the first articles to refer to some of the early recorded cases where victims had come forward with testimony regards Carlebach’s actions. Full article available at

[ii]The Skeletons In Our Closet: It’s time to stop making excuses for Carlebach by Asher Lovey – published on the JOFA blog at Times of Israel 3rd January 2018. A response to the Nechama Carlebach article pushing for an approach to Carlebach’s legacy with no excuses for his actions. Full article available at

[iii] Carlebach’s Broken Mirror by Shaul Magid – published on the Tablet Magazine blog 1st November 2012. A perspective of Carlebach as a man struggling to create a ‘Virtuous Reality’ in a society so disinterested with virtue. Full article available at

[iv] My sisters, I hear you by Nechama Carlebach – published on The Times of Israel 2nd January 2018. Carlebach’s daughter writes of her father’s empowerment of women and her own personal story of abuse as a child. Full article available at


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