The Conspiracy

In the shadow of the “Soul Doctor”

There’s something fundamentally Jewish about celebrating the lives of our great teachers. The challenge is in how we celebrate, whether with somber intention or with a sense of fun. JTA highlights an example of this debate in the musical “Soul Doctor,” which explores the life and times of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, known across movement lines as a musician and spiritual leader who sought to reinvigorate Jews’ religious practice.

Lisa Klug writes:

Some of Carlebach’s followers aren’t so pleased with the candor.

“Reb Shlomo was a soul on fire who was a rebbe to thousands,” says Shy Yellin, president of the Carlebach Shul on New York City’s Upper West Side. “He was a tzaddik rooted in the love of God and His Torah and whose purpose, like other great rebbes, was to connect us to ‘Hashem yisborech’ in the deepest way. Because he was human, with all the challenges one faces, Shlomo could relate to his flock and we to him. If he made any mistakes, they were long ago expiated. He was beloved by all.”

During his lifetime and perhaps even more since his death in 1994, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — known widely as Reb Shlomo or simply Shlomo — is credited with reinvigorating Jewish life with uplifting song and spiritual teachings. His fascinating trajectory is the basis of a Broadway-bound show, “Soul Doctor: The Journey of a Rock Star Rabbi,” the first new Jewish hit musical in decades.

The article emphasizes the conflict as an example of the diverse range of Jews impacted by Carlebach — from the orthodox to the progressive. More interesting than this conflict, however, is the absence of another aspect of Carlebach’s legacy: a series of abuse allegations published following his death in 1994. Published in Lilith Magazine, “A Paradoxical Legacy: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side,” by Sarah Blustain, reported the following:

Among the many people Lilith spoke with, nearly all had heard stories of Rabbi Carlebach’s sexual indiscretions during his more than four-decade rabbinic career. Spiritual leaders, psychotherapists and others report numerous incidents, from playful propositions to actual sexual contact. Most of the allegations include middle-of-the-night, sexually charged phone calls and unwanted attention or propositions. Others, which have been slower to emerge, relate to sexual molestation.

The Lilith article goes on to describe one such incident with a young woman described as “Rachel” (not her real name), during a camp:

When he asked her to show him around the camp, Rachel says she felt “what an honor [it was] to be alone with this great man.” They walked and talked of philosophy and Israel, of stars and poems, and she remembers being “just enchanted.” He asked her for a hug, and when she agreed, “he wouldn’t let go. I thought the hug was over and I tried to squirm out of it. He started to rub and rock against me.” So unsuspecting was she, she says, “that at first I thought, ‘was this some sort of davening?'” She says she tried to push him away, while he “was dry humping me. Until he came.” And though she does not recall the words that he spoke, she remembers his communicating to her that it was something special in her that had caused this to happen. “It felt cheap, but he had said thank you.” The next day, he didn’t even acknowledge her presence.

While these allegations (originally published in 1998) were controversial upon their publication, they have not stopped Carlebach’s music from being used in camps, shuls and other contexts in the years since. “Soul Doctor” is another example of that continued popularity. And while it may be true that the Orthodox critics’ debate over the musical’s propriety is a form of controversy, it seems the real shadow over Carlebach’s legacy will be these unanswered allegations, made after his death.

Does that render “Soul Doctor” a moot point, or a bad idea? Hardly; quite the opposite, in fact. “Soul Doctor” may preserve the aspects of Carlebach’s life best-loved and most in need of emulation. Whether these above allegations are or are not true, the musical is a separate matter, meant to be enjoyed independent of the man himself. As the New York Times writes:

Even putting aside the show’s failure to explore some of the more controversial criticisms of the singer, such as the report released after his death in Lilith Magazine that accused him of sexual harassment and abuse, this remains a gentle, sanitized portrait. It comes alive, however, when Mr. Anderson bursts into song. That’s when “Soul Doctor” stops treading carefully and begins to stomp.

Understandably so, there will be those uncomfortable with this conclusion. We can allow the positive work of Carlebach’s life to remain foremost in our minds as we approach the musical. Or we can be changed by these accusations and never feel entirely okay with a celebration of his life. There’s no one right answer. Such is the challenge when faced with the truth our icons may be flawed, perhaps to disgusting, tragic effect. And the ambiguity of this makes it all the more challenging to resolve for ourselves.

How does “Soul Doctor” make you feel? Share in the comments. Please be respectful and sensitive.

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