Over the past nine months or so, many people have been trying to figure out how to, and whether to, separate sinners from the art they create. People are asking themselves if they should continue to watch Woody Allen movies and Weinstein production movies. Should artwork by artists with problematic histories be removed from museum walls? If yes, until what generation? We can easily point to 20th century artists who “ought to have known better.” But what about the 16th century ones? Should they be held to the same standards? How can I, as a consumer, conscientiously consume art? Should I be concerned about the ethics of the artists? What about the producers? Should I be concerned about all those minor players whose livelihood is dependent upon these problematic big names? Am I part of the problem if I continue to consume this art? Or am I acknowledging that art is more than just the product of one human creator (especially art such as movies, TV, music) and it might have value on its own worth exploring? How should I recognize the victims without unduly punishing all the script writers and makeup artists? They should not lose their livelihood because of the bad actions of the producer or director. They are not bystanders, or complicit, but their connection makes the consumer punishment affect them as well.
In February, this congregation had an open, anonymous discussion through our Sacred Texting worship experiment to discuss many of these issues. The community was very split when it came to the direct question of separating the art from the artist, of whether we, as a community, should use the music of an artist accused. The survey was 55%-45% (based on the number of people that may represent the difference of one person’s opinion). So, what should I, your Cantor, do in choosing music? In many ways it wouldn’t be that difficult to avoid music by some problematic composers. There are almost always alternate versions available, and we as a community have become used to changing melodies. However, sometimes the melody is the “traditional” melody for the Jewish people. Do we not do a disservice to our students to never use that melody, which they might hear around the country? Or does it dishonor the victims to continue using such a melody, enabling its universal power to continue? I don’t have a RIGHT answer for this, but I have made a decision for the short term.
For now, I’d like to live in a space which acknowledges that all humans are flawed. I do not do this to be disrespectful of victims of violence or sexual abuse, but just to acknowledge and pray for my own shortcomings, that our legacy, any of our legacies, may be greater than the worst thing we ever did, even when that worst thing is heinous and sinful. I know that when we consider the legacy of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and our foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, we permit them to be so much more than their worst moments. (Remember Abraham tried to kill his son Isaac and sent his other son Ishmael away to die in the desert at Sarah’s request.)
So when it is appropriate, when it is the correct text, or the correct melody, I will be using the music of Shlomo Carlebach and others whose sins we might not even be aware of. I do not do this to elevate the artists’ status. I do not use their music because they deserve some kavod (respect) which others do not deserve. I will use it, as I will use others’ music, because sometimes it really is the right thing to play for that moment, that lesson, that tradition, or that feeling.
Perhaps one of our consumer failings is that we permit ourselves to believe that by becoming a successful artist, these people had succeeded in deserving more respect, honor, kavod than others. But in reality, like most people, they were human, with good sides and bad, with things to teach us, and things they should have learned from us. We gave them power, and some abused it. I believe that what we should continue to learn is that some art has intrinsic value, and we can do better tempering the power we confer upon people just because they are good at something. Let us not turn our artists into idols. They are not God, and when we worship them like they are, they will disappoint you. Instead, let us raise up art which helps us connect with God, even or perhaps especially when the artist who created it shows the flaws of humanity and the struggles we all go through.
Cantor Joanna Alexander