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Angela W. Buchdahl
Parashat Bo

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  January 19, 2018

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We’re moving through the Exodus story of our people and in Parshat Bo, we read about the final 3 plagues. God brought down plague after plague upon the Egyptians, and the Israelites’ passively sat back and watched in awe. But for the final, most terrible plague of the killing of the first-born—God requires something of these slaves. God asks them to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb, saying:
“I will go through Egypt on that night, and I will strike down all the Egyptian first-born. And the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12-13)

Rashi, the famous 12th Century asks why this signaling is necessary—Isn’t God all-Knowing and All-Seeing?  Does God really need blood on a doorpost to know where the Israelites lived? Rashi answers this question by saying that the blood was not a sign for God—but rather a sign for the Israelites themselves.

The slaves needed to mark themselves. To be brave enough to identify as one of the oppressed. Only then could there be hope for liberation. Imagine how risky it must have felt to do so—making their resistance public. The Israelites had been enslaved and abused. How could they trust that if they identified themselves, that this would truly free them?  And what if they marked themselves and nothing happens—and the powerful Egyptians wake up the next day and take note of this rebellion in their midst and punish them?

This is an ancient story of oppression and the yearning for freedom. But it’s also a modern one—playing out in our day. For many generations, the plagues of sexual harassment, violence, degrading comments and assault have oppressed women and men in our society. Frequently, it was the most powerful people in the land who perpetrated this abuse. But too often, when a brave person “marked her doorpost,” came forward and sought her liberation, we passed over her. Or worse, we didn’t believe her. We called her a liar. Or we believed her and still did nothing. For too long, those who were willing to step forward did not find freedom or justice, but indifference and sometimes even ridicule and punishment.

It has been tremendously powerful to see the power of this #metoo moment to liberate. But I cannot help but think about the many ways our Jewish community, have been responsible for allowing this abuse to happen in our own communities for so many years. I know there were times I was complicit by being silent, but I hadn’t thought about the way I might be complicit by what I sang.

The average Jew in the pew is probably unaware of the composers of many of the melodies of our prayers. But there is probably no songwriter more ubiquitous on our cue sheets, than Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He wrote the melodies:  Shiru Ladonai. L’Cha Dodi. Return Again. Am Yisrael Chai. Literally hundreds of songs. And not just at Central Synagogue, but every kind of Jew, from Reform, to Orthodox to secular, sings his music. Carlebach was a larger-than-life charismatic spiritual leader who championed women in Orthodox Jewish leadership and wrote the soundtrack of the Jewish world of the last century.

He is also accused of sexually molesting dozens of women for decades, some as young as 12 years old.

Even in college I had heard talk of his behavior. And twenty years ago, a few years after Carlebach’s death, Lilith magazine published a well-documented report of his history of sexual abuse with testimonies from many women. I read this. Was horrified. And did nothing. I kept singing his music.

I justified it:  Great art often comes from very complicated, flawed people. You can separate the art from the artist. And once created, art has a life of its own. I remember Rabbi Carlebach, whom I saw perform when I was a college student, would always correct the audience if they sang even one note in his melodies incorrectly. He would say, “If it were MY melody, I wouldn’t mind, but this is not how I received it from God.” You may hear that as the statement of an enlightened prophet or an egotistical false-messiah. But I agree with his fundamental point: that he was merely the messenger. A divine gift flowed through Carlebach in his music. So I felt comfortable singing his music for decades, even as I knew his past, because his songs were bigger than him.

But this #metoo moment shook me from my certainty. I recently read an article from a woman whose mother had been molested by Carlebach as a young woman. She shared what it felt like to walk into any synagogue, any Jewish camp and to always hear the music of the man who sexually assaulted her. Carlebach’s misconduct was well known and the indifferent response of the Jewish community communicated:  “It’s not that we don’t believe you. It’s that we don’t care.” She said this inaction fundamentally damaged her trust in Jewish institutions.

Al Cheyt. I too am responsible. She had stepped forward, put blood on her doorpost and I felt we could not pass over her again.

And yet, I still believe that art and the artist can be separated. And that we would impoverish our culture if we banned or silenced all the great art that came from people who behaved badly. So what to do?

This discussion was not just about Carlebach but the larger principle. Our clergy team began this conversation in earnest last month. And we brought it to our Board of Trustees and had a vigorous conversation which did not lead to a consensus, but did surface many important views. I had this conversation with Mishkan, our new intimate Shabbat morning service in December and with our livestreamers who were very engaged. And I also discussed this with Neshama Carlebach, Shlomo Carlebach’s daughter, whose life’s work has been intimately connected with her father’s legacy and who supports this conversation and our efforts to heal some of these wounds.

In the end our senior leadership felt that our responsibility in this moment was education, not erasure. We decided to take a year moratorium on singing any Carlebach melodies at Central Synagogue. And that we would speak and teach about why we are doing so. We hope this communicates to those who have been victimized by Carlebach, that we hear you, and we are not indifferent. In this coming year, we will see what new music emerges in the vacuum that is created with Carlebach gone. And when we bring his melodies back to Central, it will feel different, because our sound will have changed.

In Parshat Bo, God does not liberate us from Egypt until we are ready to step forward and mark ourselves as oppressed. I think of the bravery of those Israelites who put the blood on their doorposts, so that we might find freedom. We each have a role to play, a new song to sing, that can help bring us all closer to that liberation.

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