Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor and the academic director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University. He holds a JD from NYU, rabbinic ordination from YU, is a leading judge for the prestigious Beit Din of America, and has authored more than 100 important articles and other books. He is known as a very significant scholar in the Centrist Orthodox community. Yet all of his credibility has now been called into question.
It was revealed by the Jewish Channel that Rabbi Broyde used various aliases to praise his own work and to gain access to a rabbinic listserve under false pretenses. The IRF leadership have responded responsibly.
There is much to analyze about the Jewish approach to identity deception and the various Jewish laws and values around how we should use the Internet responsibility. We must take these issues very seriously and perhaps consider mandating psychoanalysis and therapy for those who have embraced false personas for personal gain and to harm others. Embracing a false identity for decades violates the Jewish prohibition of geneivat da’at (deception) and may be a sign of serious pathology.
Tragically, there is no shortage of scandals and wrongs coming out of the Orthodox community. The actions vary greatly, but the types of response are very typical. Generally, after scandals in the Orthodox community, the leaders deny the wrong, fight against it, or hide. Even worse, they often claim that what they did wasn’t really wrong or that the accusers are anti-Semitic and that they themselves are the real victim. It is so troubling when scholars and leaders will not retract their inappropriate statements, express remorse, or ask the community for forgiveness. It deepens the pain and harm on the community.
Initially, Rabbi Broyde’s response denied responsibility. Then his public statements on Hirhurim offered an apology but remained defensive. With evidence piled up against him, I was very pained and troubled witnessing what seemed to be another Orthodox leader (a significant scholar in this case) caught in a scandal denying responsibility once again. He did not express a deep sense of remorse or acknowledgment that it was truly wrong and harmful to the community and the community’s reputation nor was there a request to be reaccepted back into the camp. We, of course, never know the full story and so must be very cautious in coming to conclusions.
I reached out to Rav Broyde. He has shared with me a response (and permission to share it) that I think is important for consideration moving forward.
Thank you for reaching out to me. The truth is that you are correct—I should have asked at the end of my statement posted on hirhurim for forgiveness from the community.
That was a mistake on my part—yet another one, it appears. I am hoping and praying that our community will give me a chance to continue in some of the productive roles that I have had. I hope that there is still a capacity to forgive me for my mistakes. Thank you for pointing that out to me.
I recognize that this was a terrible ethical mistake and I have to accept all responsibility for it and ask for mechilah from everyone whom I hurt in this.
A foundation of what we do as rabbis is build trust and I do understand that the trust has been broken, but I ask again for mechila and the opportunity to rebuild that trust.
Of course, I have learned from this and would never ever do anything like this again. Speaking about my own internal teshuva process is very hard for me but I am deeply reflective in some ways about my life and in my teshuva process; I hope that everyone understands that.
I do care deeply about the Jewish people and Jewish law and ethics and I really hope and pray that I can still have can have the honor to serve.
Sincerely and with Friendship, Michael J. Broyde
The values of Centrist Orthodoxy have once again become internationally suspect and Rabbi Broyde’s character has been called into question as it should be. A terrible error of judgment was made. But it’s how we respond and take responsibility for our mistakes that reveals our true character and commitment.
When one does wrong, one must follow the halachic path to offer public sincere regret, stop the harmful actions, confess and ask for forgiveness, and make a deep commitment to never do the behavior again. It requires humility to do this but it can rebuild trust.
We must have the wisdom to know when to protest against these scandals and hold those leaders accountable who have done wrongs and not taken accountability. But we must also have the wisdom to know when we must learn from a wrong but move on once the wrong doer has apologized to those harmed and to the community, expressed true remorse and demonstrated a commitment to change. The Rabbis teach (Pirke Avot 5:11) that we should strive to be pious and be easily appeased. Come Rosh Hashanah, we know that we are accountable to have asked for forgiveness and also for giving it where asked.
We must strike the right balance between din (judgment) and rachamiim (compassion) in our world. The Midrash teaches that G-d created and destroyed many worlds that were built upon the foundation of din, and then G-d finally created this world built upon rachamim (Rashi to Genesis 1:1). Our world can’t exist on pure judgment, rather, as fallible beings we rely upon the grace, empathy, and kindness of G-d and man.
Some have called for his removal from the Beit Din of America and to be censured at the RCA. There is an interesting debate between Rebbe Meir and Rav Yehudah as to whether one after going to the ir hamiklat (city of refuge) for not having been careful enough should return to their position of power or not (Makkot 13a). In this case of unintentional killing, Rebbe Meir says he should return to his original position of authority and Rebbe Yehudah says he should not. Rashi (Makkot 13a) understands Rebbe Meir’s position that the wrong doer returns to his position of authority. It seems to me the issue is whether or not the individual did public teshuva for a public wrong. If he did, we must be a compassionate community that is gentle with our leaders (R’ Meir). If he did not express public remorse and a commitment to change, we should rigorously show the world that that behavior does not represent the Torah or the values of our Orthodox community (R’ Yehudah). Moral influence is inevitably lost in either case but perhaps formal authority need not be if one does public teshuvah.The specific case of “the city of refuge” is very different from ours but the values are applicable. Those deciding on how Rabbi Broyde will remain in formal authority wil need to assess if the teshuva is sincere or not after a period for reflection (miklat).
Further there has been a dangerous move in much of American criminal justice ideology today toward just desserts (that the purpose of punishment is to give another what they deserve regardless of whether or not it pragmatically helps society and all parties involved). I believe that we must often take a consequential justice approach (as opposed to the retributive justice approach) and ensure the greatest good comes out of our approach to wrong-doing. In the course of this deception, I’m sure many have been hurt and it will be upon Rav Broyde to repair those wrongs. But as a community, we must also reflect on this situation to ensure that going forward, we raise our standards in the community.
Rav Broyde will have his personal teshuva to do as we all do. That is between him and those harmed and between him and G-d. This occurrence should be viewed as an opportunity to take a cheshbon hanefesh (self-accounting) of how we all can become more honest and forthright in all we do. We all have room for growth. Had Rabbi Broyde tried to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, our responsibility would be to demand more. We do not condone this behavior in our community and religious deception is a toxic force that must be condemned. But Rabbi Broyde has issued a full apology to the community. We must try to move on, and work on ourselves and community to strive for a higher level. Certainly there will be consequences in Rabbi Broyde’s career but we also must allow for a process of teshuva to occur and not destroy the Rabbi’s career. I am not suggesting that the community should automatically trust him and accept his apology. There must be caution but we also must be sure to show compassion. We must also create systemic change in how various Jewish ideological camps relate to one another which has become far too political and mean spirited, and also to take serious steps against how religious Jews use the Internet to cause harm.
There is much to reflect on and much work to do. We will heal from yet another internal crisis and may we all merit to walk in the path of justice and compassion emulating G-d.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”