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.