Approaching Elul: Owning my role in my teacher’s breach

If we only see things in black and white then we can also lose possibilities for our own teshuvah- repentance- coming home, and for making amends with our past, owning up to situations in which our actions were hurtful to others and ourselves. One of the most painful lessons of my life is that sometimes light and dark are mixed. As humans we like to categorise things clearly but sometimes the messiness of our experience defies such neat categories.

My first teacher, the person with whom I started observing more mitzvot and engaging in my ongoing love with Torah, taught me this big lesson. Every weekday morning at 6:30am we learned Bible with Rashi commentary. At the height of our studies we learnt until 3pm in the afternoon, Bible Portion of the Week followed by Talmud, Mishnah Berurah, and Hassidic teachings of Mei Hashiloach, Noam Elimelech and Esh Kodesh. I was so blessed to have this space of learning. It was as if God’s love was revealing itself to me through the pages of what I was learning. This love was made additional apparent because of the incredible circle of creative, open, expressive souls who sat with me.

At the same time as this spiritual opening, I also became aware of the exclusion and denial of the feminine whose pain I felt in the intimacy of my own body. The learning and community opened me, nourished me and extended my horizons beyond anything I knew. In addition, my relationship with my teacher was so precious for me. It was the basis of an outpouring of my own love and devotion that I didn’t even know was possible. I was alive, awake and touched me to my core. The spiritual hunger that I didn’t even know I had, was finally being met and fed.

At the same time- my teacher who was also married with young children- was having inappropriate interactions and relationships with other women in the community- some that involved innuendo and others that involved a range of physical expression and abuse, severely breaching the trust that had been placed in the rabbinic relationship.

In taking responsibility for my own role- and in doing my own teshuvah- I don’t in any way mean to excuse or apologize for the breaches in trust and acts of abuse of my teacher. But a few, less often shared, observations strike me.

The first thing I want to say is that despite the problematic behavior of my teacher, because the whole experience was also my entrée into Torah and a Torah lifestyle, I can’t negate the whole experience. And that is where I have come to learn the very hard lesson of being able to hold the light alongside the dark- with either one not cancelling the other out but working out a way to hold this tension inside myself. I also need to be compassionate about myself for coming into Torah in such a twisted way. It evokes some shame to think that my entry wasn’t more clean and clear morally.

The other significant spiritual learning for me in this situation has been to understand that if I only demonize the teacher, and don’t look at why I was vulnerable to be drawn into such a situation then I am actually missing the core learning for me from this situation. I fear that I will be misunderstood. So I want to underline that my core learning about this situation does not in any way take away responsibility and culpability from a person who commits acts of abuse and breaches of trust. However, at the same time I can walk away with a sense of empowerment about having learnt something about myself at the same time. If we don’t take some learning and responsibility for our own particular role as adults in the dynamic then it is hard for us to shift out of the victim position and also to try to learn the lessons that will help make us less vulnerable in future relationships.

One of the explanations of areivut- or being guarantors for one another- that Midrash Tanhuma gives is saying that God says “Even though I have appointed leaders, all of you are equally responsible before Me”. I take this to be very potent. It is in no way about blaming victims for their own abuse, God forbid. Noone is allowed to use anything of what I am saying to blame themselves for their own suffering and for someone else’s abusive behavior.

Rather, only where relevant to the individual involved, I see it as an invitation to look at a situation that involves two adults, and explore the dynamics that led to a particularly abusive situation. Obviously there are some situations in which what I am saying does not make sense.

There are certain behaviors that are acceptable for whatever reason in particular environments, and certain behaviors that people with firmer boundaries would not tolerate. People who abuse power rely on the silence and fear of other people who enable the abusive behavior to continue. There are certain hurts and patterns that we may carry that mean that we are at risk of enabling problematic behavior.

And whenever another story breaks about another rabbi who has abused his power in one way or another, I get worried about the sole demonization of that rabbi and what I perceive as the lack of accountability about the structures that enable the abusive behavior to continue, sometimes over many years and after complaints have been filed to the “responsible” bodies. In abusive situations surrounding infrastructures- shule committees, schools boards- can enable abuse even when it is not overt and even when they don’t agree. It could be that they don’t act firmly enough to express and follow through consequences about things they already know are happening.

Part of accepting the mixture of the dark and light for me personally, is about owning my own complicity in the situation. What was it about this dynamic that brought me in and kept me there? There are many different levels of answering this complex question. One of the answers that I have come to identify with is that I was so desperate to be seen and recognized for who I was- in the most fullest sense possible- and that I was feeding on the teacher’s love of me and projection of light on to me. I felt like he saw me. He saw me as I had never been seen before and it was like I was blinded by that because of my own frozen need to be seen and loved as I was.

Another point of vulnerability for me was that I have a pattern of taking too much responsibility in any given situation. So whereas in a teacher student relationship, the student may have rogue feelings, the teacher can hopefully be depended on to be a container, not take the feelings personally and work out his or her feelings. But in this situation, it was as if the dynamics were reversed. He was the teacher, and he was telling me his feelings for me, and I had to sit there and be the vessel and not take them on. He said “I want to kiss you” and I just sat there and heard him and let it pass. And looked at him in a compassionate way.

With hindsight and the boundaries I have now, I may have risked the relationship and said that that behavior was not acceptable for me and that I needed him to find another outlet to process the feelings he was having. However I thought that I was responsible to be able to hold what was shared with me and especially to react in a loving way. Because of my own shame that I was sitting with, I thought that I needed to do anything not to shame or blame him for the struggles he was having. Now when I reflect on this I see that I went way too far out in trying to protect someone from the consequences of his own actions, to my own detriment.

Rather than cancel out my emotional reactions and try to overcome them, I now know how to use them as the basis for setting boundaries in my relationship with others. It was as if I was demonstrating a kind of hubris, thinking that it was my role somehow to be all loving, all embracing, all receiving person. In the end, I learn that this approach actually ends up in self-obliteration, but also in creating a sense of the abandonment to the other because it is too permissive. I am not giving he or she something strong enough to push against because I am prepared to give up so much of myself under the mistaken assumption that that is what I owe another. (See Jessica Benjamin in “Bonds of Love”).

As a recently ordained member of the clergy, I am committed to honesty and clarity around my own vulnerabilities, making sure I have close confidantes as colleagues and friends, and returning and refusing their own power or authority that others project on to me.

We humans have different degrees of confusion around intimacy and closeness. We come in too close, we hang out too far back. There is much teshuvah to be done in this area, not the least in our most treasured intimate relationships. Traditional Jewish laws of “yihud” that basically prevent men and women from being alone in privacy (despite their heterosexual exclusivity) can go some way in mitigating against boundary violations. But we need to do the work from the inside too. Can we have the courage to pursue closeness and try to reclaim the purity of closeness in a human context? We can only take such risks if we do so at the same time of developing our self-esteem and capacity to communicate our boundaries and limits around what is acceptable and desirable for us. In this communication, everyone learns. We also need to be able to sit with our own feelings of desire without needing to fill the hole of longing with anything- or anything but God. That teacher taught me about the God-shaped hole in all of us.

About the Author
Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Rabba Dr Melanie Landau has 20 years of experience in guiding individuals and groups in transformative processes.and cultivating the sacred. She is committed to the creativity and vitality of a living breathing expansive Torah. She has specialisations in deep listening, conflict transformation, embodied awareness and thriving with complex trauma in particular transforming relational wounds and addictive patterns. She can be reached on:
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