Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Orthodox Religious Leaders & Sex Scandals

Yet another sexual scandal involving a religious figure has hit the media. I think it's important to consider how to respond when such events occur. What should we say to our children, our students and all others who feel bewildered and betrayed upon reading these allegations? 

I think we should begin by quoting from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's remarks in his lecture on "The Duties of the King," at the RCA Midwinter Conference, January 18, 1971. These remarks appear in Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2. 
Who will win the battle in America between Orthodoxy and the dissident groups, such as the Conservative and the Reform? There is no prophet who can foresee the outcome. In my opinion, the battle will be won by the party who understands two things. 
Number one, it will be the one that excels not only in piety but in morality. The Orthodox rabbi will be accepted by the whole Jewish community only when he shows the entire community that he not only wears a yarmulka but is a moral person, head and shoulders above the Reform and Conservative rabbis. The Orthodox rabbi must show that he is not a publicity hound; that he is not a lover of money. I do not say that money is bad, but there is a difference between earning a dollar and loving a dollar. The Orthodox rabbi must show that he is more sincere, more committed, and more consistent with himself than the Conservative and Reform rabbis. That is what will decide the battle: higher morality, superior morality. 
And I want to tell you, the American Jew is very intelligent. He is intelligent, discriminating, and understanding. I have great faith in the American Jew. 
Number two, the outcome of the battle will be decided by the intellectual achievements of the rabbi. For instance, the Orthodox rabbi should be head and shoulders above the Conservative and Reform rabbis as far as knowledge is concerned. I mean knowledge in the widest sense of the word. The Orthodox rabbi should attain a profound understanding of Judaism. He should reach out for new horizons in his intellectual understanding of Judaism. Such achievements will make him the winner. 
Morality and intellectuality, Torah knowledge in the widest sense of the word, will ultimately decide the outcome of the battle. In reality, the battle has not yet been won; we do not know the outcome.  
-Pages 58-59
It is essential that our rabbis and leaders behave in a manner which demonstrates not only their intellectual breadth but their moral superiority. Two very different articles have come out in the past week about the same community. One is about a Conservative rabbi who has publicly confessed that he identifies as gay, and that as much as he loves his wife, he finds himself in a situation where he will be divorcing her in order to live authentically. This may not be a decision with which Orthodox individuals agree, but there is no question that one can respect the honesty involved in this statement. At the same time, an article has appeared alleging that an Orthodox rabbi installed a camera in the women's mikvah in order to watch women take showers prior to dipping in the ritual bath. While one may be able to empathize with and understand the thrill behind this sexual urge, it is a violation of the women's privacy and totally undermines the mitzva of mikvah. 

Of course, at the moment these are merely allegations and have not been proven. We do not know for sure that this rabbi is in fact the one responsible for installing this camera in the mikvah. We also do not know why it was installed (this may be far-fetched, but, for example, there could have been a complaint regarding some sort of sexual abuse or molestation where the camera was installed as a safety measure and the footage was not actually viewed). At the moment, all that we hear is what has been alleged, and it is important to keep an open mind rather than paint someone as a scoundrel when we do not know the facts.

But let us say the worst happens, and it turns out that the rabbi is indeed guilty. How are we to respond then?

I think at that point it is important to acknowledge two things, both of which appear in our Jewish tradition.

1) Sexual urges are incredibly intense. Incredible Jewish leaders have succumbed to them over and over again, whether it is King David with Batsheva or R' Meir and R' Akiva pursuing the Satan disguised as an extremely attractive woman (Kiddushin 81a). These people were not lightweights. These people were scholars, kings, leaders of their generation! And yet they fell prey to sexual urges. As the Gemara reiterates in Chulin 11b, Nidah 30b and Kesubos 13b, "There is no guardian against sexual sins." In the original language, this is written as " אין אפוטרופוס לעריות." 

2) There is an idea that the greater the capacity an individual has to do good, so too do they have a capacity to do evil. Many of us lead regular lives. We strive to be the best husbands, wives, mothers and fathers that we can be. We impact the people who are in our lives, which is certainly a noble endeavor- but that is all. We do not impact the entire community; we do not write books or give lectures which revolutionize Jewish thought or consolidate ideas within Jewish tradition. We do not dedicate all our time to trying to help converts in the process of conversion. We are not huge players in the scheme of things.

Those people who are huge players find that just as they have the power and capacity to do great good, so too can they commit great harm. This is an idea we have in our secular tradition as well. Consider individuals such as Darth Vader or Voldemort. Darth Vader was originally Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one who was to bring balance to the force. Yet he was the one who turned to the Dark Side and wreaked evil upon the people...because when someone with the capacity for great good chooses to use his capacity incorrectly, the harm he can cause is far greater. The same applies to Voldemort- a brilliant, precocious individual who had the ability to become a Dumbledore-like figure or to become the darkest wizard that ever was.

There is a story brought down in the Gemara in Sukkah 52a which epitomizes this point. (Translation is from the Soncino edition.)
Abaye explained, [The evil inclination is] Against scholars more than against anyone; as was the case when Abaye heard a certain man saying to a woman, ‘Let us arise betimes and go on our way’. ‘I will’, said Abaye, ‘follow them in order to keep them away from [sexual] transgression’ and he followed them for three parasangs across the meadows. When they parted company he heard them say, ‘Our company is pleasant, the way is long’. ‘If it were I’, said Abaye, ‘I could not have restrained myself’, and so went and leaned in deep anguish against a doorpost, when a certain old man came up to him and taught him: The greater the man, the greater his Evil Inclination.
A contemporary of mine noted that Dumbledore says something similar: "I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being- forgive me- rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger."

If the rabbi truly is guilty, then there are a host of appropriate responses. It is appropriate for our community to feel let down, betrayed, violated and saddened. It is appropriate for us to feel sorrow that the mitzva of mikvah may be impacted and undermined because women may feel like it has been impacted by sleaziness and prurience. It is appropriate for us to feel compassion and indignation on behalf of the victims. And it is appropriate for us to feel sympathy and heartbreak for the members of his family who are impacted by his actions.

At the same time, the rabbi has done many extraordinary things for the Orthodox Jewish community, and I am not sure it makes sense to pasul all of them simply because he may have fallen in one area. As R' Meir did for Elisha ben Avuyah, it may be appropriate to discard the peel and retain the fruit.

Most important of all, it is not for us to claim that we would have behaved better in his situation. We have no idea what we would do. We have very likely never been faced with his challenge, his evil inclination or been in a position where we wield that much authority. In Sanhedrin 102b, R' Ashi referred to King Menashe as his "friend." Menashe came to him in a dream and demonstrated that his knowledge of Torah was far superior to that of R' Ashi. "In that case," asked R' Ashi, "how could you have worshipped idols?" "If you had lived in my day," retorted King Menashe, "you would have lifted up the hem of your robe to run after idol worship!"

In our current lives and in our current situations, most of us do not engage in the form of sexual sin the rabbi is alleged to have committed. But that is exactly the point. We are who we are- and for most of us, that means we are simple members of the community, not towering figures or leaders. The temptations that come with being a towering figure or leader are not ones with which we are familiar and not ones we can adequately judge. This is in no way meant to excuse such behaviors- as Rabbi Soloveitchik clearly stated, Orthodoxy can only thrive when it demonstrates a higher morality than that of its contemporaneous denominations. But it does mean we should be careful in the way we speak about and judge individuals who are alleged to have behaved this way.


Anonymous said...

Guess who wrote the following in 2001?

"Contemporary Jewish organizations do Kiruv (outreach) work with individuals who violate many commandments. We must do the same with those whose failures are sexual areas. This is particularly true because of the all-pervasive nature of sexual desire and because of the constant encounter with sexual imagery that pervades our society."

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're trying to do here, but no. Just no.
You are right in saying we must be careful how we speak about alleged offenders, as they have not yet been given their day in court, and we are not judge and jury.
However, there is a clear line when it comes to sexual offenses(these crimes are not actually sexual, but rather are assaults on the physical and emotional well-being of others).
99% of us, even in a person of power's position, would not have even seen the opportunity for a sexual crime or thought to be tempted by it. Offenders aren't offenders because they are helpless to the temptation in front of them. For them, there are pre-existing issues. Let's not muck up the matter.

Chana said...

Anon 11:32,

Definitely hear and respect your opinion. Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say "these crimes are not actually sexual, but rather are assaults on the physical and emotional well-being of others"?

I may be misunderstanding, but isn't the point of voyeurism to achieve sexual gratification through looking at the sexual stimulus (in this case, if true, the unclad woman in the shower)?

Anonymous said...

Sure, Chana.
Sex must always include consent and choice. When you use the words "sex" or "sexual," and talk about people's various sexual desires as they relate to the temptations around them, you are conflating these crimes with an activity that is done by choice and with the consent of both parties. They are classified as "sex crimes" so that we will understand the nature of the crime and the danger the criminal poses.

Rape, for example, is about power, not sex. In this kind of case, voyeurism is a compulsion linked with OCD and has been treated with the same treatments, and voyeurs are more likely to become violent than others. While the offender may experience what he feels is sexual gratification, it is important that we, as bloggers, don't paint these crimes as sexual to our readers.

Otherwise, we will end up with a general public who say "well, this crime wasn't as bad as the violent rape" and then attempt to make decisions about how they will interact with an offender based on the level of the crime that was committed. To the victim, it feels like a violent assault, with or without the bruising.

Shlomo said...

Anon 11:02,

In context, that means that we should welcome homosexuals into our community even though very often their personal behavior is incompatible with our standards.

I fail to see any relevance to the current news.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I was taught that Judaism (and Hashem) judged people in positions of power more strictly than the common folk.

Reuven simply moved Billah's couch, but it was treated as though he had slept with her. The things Moshe Rabbenu did that caused him to be denied entry to Eretz Yisrael would not have been a big deal if done by an ordinary person. Chazal say that David Hamelech did not sin at all, but that what he did do was judged as harshly as if he actually had committed adultery and murder.

A society which is more forgiving of mistakes made by the powerful than those made by ordinary people causes corruption among the elites and cynicism and distrust among the common folk.

Chana said...


Your point is well taken. Yet in every scenario you mention, it is *God* who judges that individual (whether it be Chofni/ Pinchas, David, Reuven etc) more harshly via His prophet.

Society has a duty to protect victims and to take all steps necessary to do that. But taking action to prevent further wrongdoing (assuming it is true) is not the same as judging a person and deciding that one is better than them/ can write them off. God or His prophet have that ability; I don't think the rest of us do.

Larry Lennhoff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry Lennhoff said...

BTW I am very proud of the actions of the board of directors of the shul. When credible allegations were made they did not allow the potential impact on the image of the shul to scare them off. They may have consulted a gadol about whether going to the police was correct, but if so either the gadol gave them permission or they did it anyway. When the time came for their test, they contacted the police and let the secular experts do what was right. Based on the information available at this time, I think they passed with flying colors. Kol HaKavod to them!

Anonymous said...

Chana, you wrote "judging a person and deciding that one is better than them/ can write them off. God or His prophet have that ability; I don't think the rest of us do."
A sex offender will commit the crime whether or not they are in a position of power and have opportunity. Explaining away their crime with "who knows what we would do in their powerful position" is as bad as saying "boys will be boys" about date rapists.
I can, with 100% certainty, say that I am better than a sex offender and feel quite comfortable judging them. It is not my role to judge them in court and put them in prison, but once they've been found guilty, I feel alright saying, "That's disgusting and horrible and I hope they serve time."

(Side-note: to be clear, I refer to convicted offenders, not those who are still awaiting legal judgment.)

Anonymous said...

I find this blog post utterly offensive. If he is guilty, it doesn't matter what he has done for the community in other ways. He needs to be punished to the fullest extent of the law and stripped of ALL Rabbinical obligations and duties for the rest of his life.

If a father gives a child incredible love and the best opportunities in life by day but molests that child by night, the love given by day is meaningless. The child will forever be scarred and damaged. It's no different here.

People have also come forward and said he has been investigated for highly inappropriate behavior in the past. If a Rabbi is sleeping with someone other than his wife, yet claiming to have the higher moral ground in public and someone finds out about his transgressions, he should be knocked down and taken off the 'moral authority bench.'

This whole case is despicable and the idea that we need to forgive or not judge because he is a Rabbi who is under tremendous stress makes it worse. The Rabbi is no victim unless he was set up. The women he violated are victims as are his wife and kids.

Shades of Grey said...

Related to the ideas you mentioned in this post, and the notion people keep saying - "Well, doesn't he know about the internet and what's available out there, why do this to people he knows?" a Gemara in Sotah 8a comes to mind.

In discussing the Sotah process in the Beis Hamikdash, which required the tearing of the woman's garment and possibly exposing her chest, (http://halakhah.com/sotah/sotah_8.html) and comparing it to executing a woman with stoning.

There is a concern expressed that the young kohanim will lust after the Sotah if she is found innocent and goes home. Rabba explains that the yetzer hara only causes us to lust after women that have been seen by that particular man, and not someone he has never seen/met before.

If all these allegations are true, it seems to fit Rabba's perspective well - unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Looks like some people didn't actually READ THIS POST. The writer isn't arguing that the rabbi should not lose his rabbinic posts or go to jail. She is saying that the greater a person becomes, the greater his yetzer Hara, and we can therefore not judge a leader who falls (IN OUR HEADS) because we were never in his place.

This may be why David and Solomon are heroes in Judaism, despite their having fallen.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand:
Said Rabbi Yochanan: What is [the meaning of] that which is written, “For the kohen’s lips should safeguard knowledge, and they should seek Torah from his mouth; for he is an angel of the G‑d of Hosts” (Malachi 2:7)? If the rav resembles “an angel of the G‑d of Hosts,” then “they should seek Torah from his mouth”; and, if not, then they should not “seek Torah from his mouth.”

(Chagigah 15b and Mo‘ed Katan 17a)

Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

doesn't add up. many average people do terrible things. most murderers are pretty below average in good inclinations.

ortho leaders are just guys who pretend. kind of like the rest of humanity.

posing is a pose even if the poser believes it. this guy had a problem. it wasn't the worst thing, more embarrassing and pretty fetishistic. no one got hurt. take it easy. he didn't rape anyone. it sucks big time, but if he did this? He's just a sick guy. too bad for his family.


David Staum said...

>"Most important of all, it is not for us to claim that we would have behaved better in his situation. We have no idea what we would do."

I think we can claim that we would do better. Not looking away at the accidental glimpse of an unclothed woman? That's a temptation that we men could not be sure we could overcome if faced with it.

But this was the elaborate and premeditated setting up of cameras, recording, etc. I can say with 100% certainly that I would not have ever done such a thing. And I can't imagine any of the men I know doing anything like that. What RBF did is far beyond simply succumbing to temptation.