Scandals in the rabbinate

Scandals in the rabbinate

In the wake of the recent, highly publicized mikvah scandal, I wonder what possesses men and women who have dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Judaism and its values to abandon those values.

Often enough this occurs in the domain of sexual wrongdoing, but there also are recorded instances of such ethical offenses as the misuse of discretionary funds for personal or family needs, and criminal activities including the embezzlement of synagogue or Jewish organizational assets. The parties involved often have sterling records of service to the Jewish community and are well-respected as clergy in their denominations and then suddenly all hell breaks loose regarding a discovered transgression that is not a mere peccadillo. Why does this happen?

My explanation for these falls from grace makes no reference to psychological pathology, which indeed may play some role, but about which I have no expertise. Rather, I speak as someone who spent the better part of a lifetime training men and women for religious service to the Jewish people. For the most part, the men and women I taught have shown themselves to be exemplars of Jewish values. They are people of faith, they take Jewish learning and observance seriously, and they hold themselves to high moral standards and encourage others to do the same.

Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends. Some of the students I taught who went on to careers in the rabbinate were involved in what to me, their congregants, and their communities were shocking breaches of trust and morals, and often were outright crimes. These were outcomes I would never have expected from the apparently committed and upright people who sat in my classes. As I see it, the answer to some extent lies in the nature of the rabbinate and of rabbinic training.

One of the significant roles a rabbi plays is counselor. Even if the counsel is about a matter of Jewish law or observance and not directly about a congregant’s personal problems, often enough the rabbi becomes aware of confidential aspects of a congregant’s life. This often provides him or her with access to that person’s weaknesses. For example, what if it a mourner shares how he or she is still seriously grieving beyond the period of mourning for a spouse, and asks the rabbi what help the Jewish tradition offers for dealing with this. Where should the line between appropriate empathy and a more dangerous form of consolation be drawn? How well will a rabbi handle that situation? Will he or she appropriately outsource this counseling situation to a grief counselor? And then there is the bigger question: What would hold the rabbi back from doing so?

I would suggest a flaw in rabbinic training is at fault on several fronts. On one hand, rabbis are not taught to know themselves well enough as part of their training. On the other, they are often referred to as future klei kodesh, holy vessels, by the seminary’s literature, their teachers, and their advisers. This is an explosive combination. Not to really know yourself means to be unclear about the boundaries of your abilities. Then to see yourself as a “holy vessel,” into which the authority of the tradition – or even of God – has been poured suggests that you can handle anything and everything.

No one is insusceptible to temptation, and temptation easily can be justified, especially by someone who is convinced that he or she is a “holy vessel.” Only self-knowledge has a chance of leading to self-restraint, and though even then things can go awry, self-awareness improves the odds.

The other force that can act negatively on rabbis, especially talented ones, is the respect and even adulation they receive from their constituencies. Sometimes this is based on the place of power the rabbi has cultivated within the larger community, or his or her intellectual achievements, charisma, or perceived piety. None of these may be counterfeit at the outset, and the rabbi may apply all these talents to the good and welfare of the Jewish and general communities. Unfortunately, his or her career have – to the rabbi’s detriment in cases of immense moral failure on his or her part – provided the rabbi with a cover for inappropriate behavior. I would be completely remiss if I blamed the community for that bad behavior. It is, after all, rabbis’ responsibility to get help when their moral compass is in danger of failing to point out the right direction. Nevertheless, it is a difficult thing for a rabbi to live a life filled with adoring adherents without becoming sure that no one would ever suspect or imagine him or her of being capaple of self-compromise. It is no wonder, then, that it is frequently the most beloved and most respected men and women in the rabbinate who get caught in these traps. But hubris is not an excuse for criminal or immoral behavior, and here again it is only an ability to do thorough heshbon ha-nefesh, soul-searching and self-evaluation, that stands a chance of preventing rabbinic scandal and deserved retribution for it.

It is my hope that rabbinic seminaries will take greater note of these events, which often enough tarnish their reputations along with that of the fallen rabbis. If they do, perhaps they will exert more of an effort to train their students to recognize the moral pitfalls that can become disasters for them and undermine their service to God and their communities. Further, in the wake of this most recent scandal and previous ones, seminaries should consider post-semichah spiritual and psychological education and guidance, which might act as a helpful preventative for their current ordainees.

There is no reason for seminaries to be naïve, and to believe that simply teaching halachah or Jewish ethics and theology will help their ordainees face the real-life, morally dangerous situations that may arise in their careers. Therefore, if a seminary cannot provide significant programs that promote personal insight, there is every reason for them to issue clear statements defining sexual harassment, what constitutes questionable practices related to community funds that must be avoided, and how a counseling session best can be prevented from becoming a source for nasty accusations. Further, seminaries should see themselves as responsible for helping their students learn the art of “engaged distance” – that is, how to show empathy while being conscious of the negative possibility of getting overly involved in situations beyond their expertise, the situations that ultimately can get out of control.

Obviously there is no panacea for moral failure in the rabbinate, just as there is none for other professions and callings. But if our training institutions for rabbinic service can help reduce by any percentage rabbinic victimization of those whom rabbis are supposed to serve, that would be progress, and a great prevention of desecration of God’s name and defamation of Judaism. Further, if we can save some of the best of our rabbis from destroying themselves, that too would be an immense blessing for them, and for those of us who turn to them for their wisdom and support.