Before I begin my sermon, I want to offer a content warning. I will be speaking tonight about the challenges that communities face in addressing sexual misconduct. There is no explicit detail, but if a discussion of this topic is in any way upsetting or triggering, I encourage you to do what’s best to take care of yourself. The sermons will be posted on the CKS website after Yom Kippur, if you’re interested in what I said.
There’s something indescribable about transitioning into the role of rabbi of a community for the first time. During my time in rabbinical school, I served several communities in a variety of roles, including as the part-time rabbi of a congregation. Although I’ve often received positive feedback on my work, it’s been wonderful to find my place in the community, and to be so warmly embraced. It lifts me up. It helps me feel confident stepping into the role as your rabbi.
And, yet, the role requires a humility as well. I am human, and I will, from time to time, err – I’ll bring in a new melody that is too advanced for folks to learn; my voice will crack while leading Shalom Aleichem; I’ll give advice that isn’t appropriate for the situation. Some of these scenarios can be handled with a laugh. Others require more in-depth teshuvah.
While it can be embarrassing to have to ask for forgiveness, it is necessary for growth, and I ask that you continue to offer me constructive feedback. I am your rabbi – I am here in service to you, and if I’m doing something which negatively impacts your spiritual experience, I need to know about it, and I need to be thinking about how to make it better.
Of course, I know that I’m never going to be able to please everybody. And being treated with respect is always nice. Respect is good. But if there’s one thing that I’d ask, it’s that you do your best not to view me as somehow more holy than you – or see my perspective as more important than your own. If I have earned your respect, treat me with respect. But if you feel that you owe me respect by virtue of my title, or the authority that goes alongside it, I want you to strive to remember that I am a human, leading a service for humans, which was compiled by humans, singing melodies composed by humans.
We don’t always intend to put people up on a pedestal. But when people are masters of their craft – when they do their job well, we have a tendency to look at their great skill with awe. We view them as more than human. We write graffiti saying, “Clapton is God.” We bow down to “Queen Bey.” We call our heroes “living legends.” We hold them as exemplars – examples of absolute perfection.
We’re all guilty of this in some way or another. Just this past week, after finishing listening to his autobiography in the car, I said, out loud, “thank you, God, for letting me live in the same moment of human history as Bruce Springsteen.”
But treating people in positions of power and authority as flawless is incredibly unhealthy for our society. One need only look at the tremendous abuses of power which have been brought to light very recently – from the widespread abuse at the hands of priests and nuns, and the Church’s subsequent coverup, to the “open secrets” about Hollywood power players.
While many of us know Lord Acton’s famous line, that “absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” few have read the surrounding words. In a letter to an Anglican bishop, the English historian wrote:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
We are drawn to people with charisma. We find them relatable. They seem to be able to speak to us directly. They seem to have the power to make social change. We idealize them. We idolize them. And when they are humans who have abused their power and influence, too often we have protected them. Bill Cosby was protected for years because of what he represented – how powerful he was as a symbol – a figurehead for racial equality.
Sadly, the Jewish community is not immune to these kinds of abuses. There are far too many stories of rabbis taking advantage of their positions of authority, their standing as moral exemplars, to use other people as objects for their own pleasure and satisfaction. And there are far too many stories of communities protecting their rabbi from appropriate punishment, and excusing away the abuse. In these places, respect is replaced by a cult of personality.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was a Lubavitcher rabbi who got caught up in the spirit of the 60s. He became well-known as a charismatic folksinger, revered composer, and beloved spiritual leader. If you’ve been in any Jewish space in the past fifty years – from Orthodox to Humanist – you’ve sung Carlebach’s tunes. On Rosh Hashanah, we sang his “L’ma’an Achai.” Tomorrow, we’ll sing his “Esa Einai” and “Return Again.”
During his lifetime, Carlebach supported women’s leadership in Jewish spaces – supporting the first incarnation of Women of the Wall and privately ordaining the first Orthodox woman as a rabbi. After his death, stories began to emerge about his taking advantage of his reputation to touch women in unwanted, inappropriate ways. An article was published in Lilith magazine in 1998 detailing many accusations.
Some defend Carlebach, arguing that it’s not fair to publish claims about a person when they’re no longer alive to respond. Others said that these allegations should be considered minor when compared to his actions to raise up women. Others point out that our tradition is filled with flawed people.
In the wake of the #metoo movement, the Jewish community has returned to the conversation about Carlebach. Should Jewish communities continue to revere him as a composer? Should we still be singing his melodies in sacred spaces? Some say that Carlebach was simply the vessel for these melodies, and that they are, in truth, divinely given. Others are wrestling with the question, and in public.
In January, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the senior rabbi at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, wrote in the Forward about her congregation’s decision to take a one-year moratorium on Carlebach melodies. “In the end,” Rabbi Buchdahl wrote, “we felt that our responsibility was education, not erasure.” She wrote that she was influenced by reading an earlier piece in the Forward by Sharon Rose Goldtzvik, whose mother was one of Carlebach’s victims. Goldtzvik wrote, “…despite the fact that his pattern of sexual misconduct has been an open secret for decades, the Jewish community as a whole has reacted with little more than a shrug…for those who survived his abuse, the Jewish community’s response has been devastating: ‘It’s not that we don’t believe you; it’s that we don’t care.’”
Carlebach’s melodies were so revolutionary and powerful at the time that they emerged that they quickly became a kind of standard. Many of us probably grew up with his compositions and thought that they were ancient, miSinai, passed down for generations, rather than products of the mid-20th century.
I am not necessarily advocating for a complete removal of Carlebach melodies (although I can tell you that there came a point last fall where I became uncomfortable with the argument that one can separate the art from the artist, and decided to de-emphasize these tunes in my service leading). I feel a responsibility to view him and his work honestly, and to recognize his songs’ accurate place in our tradition. His melodies are not the only melodies out there, and if we treat them as the default for the sake of simplicity – because it’s easier than learning new tunes – viewing them as “what we already know,” immovable, the centerpiece of our worship – we turn his music into a golden calf.
I want to come back to Bruce Springsteen for a moment. One of the things I appreciate about Bruce is his reluctance to be viewed as an icon. Earlier this summer, I told Kate that one of the things I had to prepare myself for in moving to Central Jersey is the chance that I might run into Bruce, just walking down the street. The stories he tells in his book butt up against each other: being invited to Frank Sinatra’s holiday parties, and bringing his teenaged son to a punk show and sitting with the other parents at the bar. I am also in awe at his honesty, candor and self-reflection.
Honest self-reflection – neither overwhelmingly self-critical or grandiose and egocentric – is incredibly difficult to achieve. And yet, it is an essential responsibility of a leader to develop.
In Numbers 20, Miriam, Moses’ sister dies. Afterwards, the Israelites’ source of water dries up. The people are thirsty, and, as is their wont, they cry out to Moses and Aaron about how it would be better if they had stayed in Egypt, rather than dying in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron speak to God, who instructs them to assemble the Israelites, and order a rock to yield water. Seems simple enough – they’ve done it before. But Moses does not follow the instructions. After assembling the people, he says, “listen, you rebels! Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He then strikes the rock, twice, with his staff. Water pours out, and all of the Israelites and their animals drink.
As a result of this action, God tells Moses and Aaron that they will not enter into the Promised Land.
You can argue that Moses was confused – the last time God instructed him to bring forth water from a rock, he was instructed to strike it with his staff. But that argument requires us to ignore the fact that Moses struck the rock twice, and preceded his action with aggressive words towards the Israelites.
You could argue that the punishment was extreme. You could seek to understand Moses’ action by pointing out that he had just lost his sister. But understanding is not the same as excusing, and while we may be able to justify his actions by his state of mind, it doesn’t change the fact of his action – verbal abuse of his charges, those for whom he is responsible.
Years later, as the Israelites gathered on the banks of the Jordan, Moses reviewed their journey. One verse, in particular, Deuteronomy 4:21, stands out:
וַֽיהוָ֥ה הִתְאַנֶּף־בִּ֖י עַל־דִּבְרֵיכֶ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֤י עָבְרִי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וּלְבִלְתִּי־בֹא֙ אֶל־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָֽה׃
Now the LORD was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land that the LORD your God is assigning you as a heritage.
Moses is a prophet – a person with extraordinary vision and insight. But he can’t look back to that traumatic moment honestly, and admit to his responsibility. To do so would require vulnerability that Moses simply can’t access. He’s in denial. In the end, that is the biggest reminder that Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses, our teacher, the most highly regarded and venerated person in our tradition – is still only human. He can still lose his temper. He can still be unkind to those he is responsible for. And he can still have a selective memory of his past.
By the time the Israelites reach the Promised Land, Aaron is long dead. You might ask, if Moses is the one who struck the rock, why is Aaron also punished?
I believe that Aaron isn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land because he even though he knew that Moses was doing something wrong, for some reason – fear, honor, respect for Moses’s authority – he didn’t speak up. He didn’t stop Moses. While you might argue that this punishment is out of line, I hope that you will agree that we have a responsibility to address wrongdoings – particularly when the people we love are the ones who need to be addressed. We’ll discuss that topic in more detail tomorrow morning.