No grounds for new claims against the singing rabbi

No grounds for new claims against the singing rabbi


norman lebrecht

January 03, 2018

Several women have accused Shlomo Carlebach, known as the Singing Rabbi, of what the Israeli media describe as sexual abuse. The rabbi, who made it his mission to return wayward youngsters to Orthodoxy, is said to have touched and kissed his accuser as teenagers. I am quite sure he did.

Carlebach’s methods were, at the very least, unorthodox. They did not, in my view, constitute abuse.

Let me testify.

I knew Carlebach in the late 1960s when I was a student in Israel. He used to hang out with us on campus and I found him slightly creepy. He was 20-25 years older than us, unmarried and with no visible means of support or fixed accommodation. He spoke in a strong German accent and wore a tie, for heaven’s sake. But he toted a guitar and wrote truly inspirational melodies that quickly entered the Orthodox liturgy.

He was free with his hands and lips. He gave hugs and kisses. My liberated friends and I felt sorry for him that he probably couldn’t get laid due to his religious observance while the rest of us – this is the late 60s, remember – were having all the sex in the world.

And that was it. No suggestion, then or now, that he did anything more.

He was the gentlest of men. He never forced himself anyone as far as I could tell. Some of my female friends quite liked him, others kept their distance.

He did not, in any sense, abuse his authority as a rabbi – simply, because he had none. He was a wandering minstrel who was preaching a gospel, take it or leave it.

Nothing I remember of him comes under the category of abuse.  Hugging and kissing were not sexual offences at the time. The leading complaint against him is that he violated the Orthodox rule that men and women should not touch outside marriage. He certainly crossed that line, but he is not the only rabbi to have done so, then or since.

Now, however, he is caught up in a wave of #metoo outrage, so much so that his daughter, Neshama, has felt obliged to apologise for his alleged misdemeanours.

In the absence of any allegation that he forced himself sexually on an unwilling person, I am not prepared to regard Carlebach as an abuser of women. I have campaigned for half my life against sexual exploitation in the classical music industry, so I do not take any abuse claim lightly. Ever.

But I think lines have got blurred here. The complaints against Carlebach are not that he was a sexual aggressor, but that he failed to maintain Orthodox proprieties.

Which he did. Proudly, and so effectively that many owe him their adult sanity within the Jewish faith.

Carlebach was not Harvey Weinstein. I shall continue to sing his songs.


  • Lori says:

    Thank you for writing your testimony, Norman. I also knew him, and never detected anything untoward. Neither did any of the women I knew at the time. I believe today’s wrath against him is largely due to one confused woman’s complaint gone damagingly viral. Anybody in the music world knows what it’s like to encounter a predator,…. Carlebach wasn’t one.

  • Marc says:

    The allegations agains Carelbach go far back, and include much more than hugging and kissing, as documented here: Sexual abuse and harassment of women are often invisible to men, but named women say it happened.

    • Dr. Natan Ophir says:

      Marc, I interviewed all the women whose names were mentioned in the 1998 Lilith article that you cited. And indeed, it was found that the hugs described by the journalist were dramatically exaggerated. If you are interested, I’ll be happy to send you the results of my interviews and you will be able to see why, unfortunately, people like yourself have been misled by this article.

  • Tom says:

    I gave Shlomo guitar lessons sometime in the early 60’s. He lived in the synagogue on 79th Street between Broadway and West End in Manhattan. He talked me down from $8 to $6 a lesson – still good money then. His main interest was expanding his relatively basic guitar style which was limited to Am, Dm and Em. We worked on adding C and G and a few plucking styles. I’m not sure he ever took to that route or if he needed it. A lovely fellow.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you, Tom. His technique was limited. He relied, if I remember rightly, on six chords at most. It hardly mattered. His music was fresh and sincere.

  • steven holloway says:

    I find it baffling that a man should think that his personal recollection of someone from the late ’60s can have any relevance re the statements of eight women that that someone sexually abused them. A similar reminiscence, mutatis mutandis, was posted about the harpist now accused of a sexual crime in 1984. A forensic psychiatrist in turn posted a very, very true riposte to that particular defence. To think that how anyone presents to another is revealing of what may take place in other circumstances just will not pass muster in any terms, psychological, psychiatric and legal above all.

  • S. D. says:

    His songs are ultimately insipid, vapid in their basing on popular folk music, and non-traditional harmonies, harmonizing, which has made them actually quite destructive to Jewish musical tradition, though creating a new one. The fervor with which his tunes get sung becomes embarrassing, as if he created a cult, which perhaps he did. Naomi Shemer was much more important than he, as a songwriter.

  • Miriam Drori - House of love & Prayer, Tzfat says:

    I knew reb shlomo as a young kid and teenager.
    Even slept in his house, because my parents werent shomer shabbes, and that was my only way to get some shabbes.
    Needeless to say he never toiched me or any of the other women i knew than.
    What he fid do, is fill my life with feeling of purposfulness, holiness, spirituality, sence of being loved and apreciated.
    Something, non of the rabbis or other teachers did for me or many others who needed it and couldnt find someone to give them that kind of pure love.
    I wish one each person on earth can love at least ten people the way he did for thousands.
    And if he did misconduct with a few women, it cant take away from all the good he did for the rest.