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Don’t burn my house down

It's time for religious Jews to tell leaders who violate the moral demands of Torah to get out of the way

Near the beginning of the movie “Little Man Tate”, the eponymous child prodigy breaks down when confronted with the concept of nuclear war. Some things are so colossal that they make our common problems pale in comparison. Notwithstanding that realization, our personal issues are still just that – ours.  So despite the horrors of the war in Syria, the tragedy of the earthquakes in Nepal, or even the destruction caused by the flood in Houston, I am wracked by severe sadness at the wave upon wave of scandal in the rabbinic community.  My reaction is both personal and communal. Personal, because I am a rabbi by profession and communal because these events stand to wreak havoc on the entire Jewish community.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who is a Catholic Priest. My friend remarked that when he was first ordained and began wearing a priest’s collar, he felt proud. That everywhere he went, or so he felt, people saw him as a safe oasis and warm shoulder. But in the wake of the scandals, he began to feel as if suddenly he was suspect. That people were no longer looking at him kindly but rather accusingly asking themselves what crime he had committed. His cherished collar had become a scarlet letter.

I wandered from the Conservative Movement in which I was raised looking for something more pure and consistent – a finer grasp of Torah and Halacha or as one of my teachers, the giant, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l once remarked, a grand view of eternity. Like many of my friends I achieved ordination and engaged in education to help others searching for a similar vision. Yet lately, I feel as if the barrage of scandals casts a dark cloud over our work. To be clear, like in every profession, in every branch of Judaism inappropriate behaviors by professionals have been made public. But it hurts most when it is close to home. I realize that, in the words of King Solomon, “there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and does not sin.” (Kohelet 7:20) But our leaders need to do better.

When the likes of retired 76er, Charles Barkley bemoans, “I’m not a role model…just because I can dunk doesn’t mean I should raise your kids” we understand. Professional athletes may excel at sports but looking to them to be representatives of anything more is unfair. They trained to be athletes not ethicists. One can say the same for other professions. In reading John Gibbin’s The Scientists, I was struck by the moral ineptitude and lack of fidelity shown by many of the greatest modern scientific and technological minds.  But in reality, no matter how many mistresses or lovers this or that scientist takes or how poorly he or she treats the others around him or her, the scientist’s work will stand or fall based on specific scientific judgements; not so those of religious leadership.

It may be true that too often we look for angels. Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) beautifully captures this notion in a letter I have often turned to for solace. He writes to a former student, “terrible is the sickness that when we discuss the… the perfection of our giants [religious leaders] we relate to the final conclusions of their greatness. We speak of their perfections while skipping over all the internal struggles of their souls…who knows how many internal wars, battles, stumblings, falls…[they] encountered?” (Pachad Yitzchak Letters and Writings #128.) And while Rav Hutner is surely correct, nonetheless, the deluge of failed spiritual leadership takes its toll.

Recalling the famous rabbinic saying “who is wise, he who learns from every person,” (Avot 4:1) some might point to Rabbi Meir’s relationship with Elisha ben Abuyah. Although Elisha collapsed theologically and religiously, Rabbi Meir, his ever stalwart student, never ceased learning from him. Rabbi Meir famously ate Elisha’s tainted fruit and threw away the rind. (BT Chagiga 15b.) Can we not be generous and realize that, indeed, rabbis are only people and hence have both good and bad qualities? If Rabbi Meir can learn from a notorious heretic, can we not forgive the foibles and missteps or our rabbis? While the gates of repentance are open for all, we are not all Rabbi Meirs and the fallen leaders are certainly not Elishas.

Others will point to the failings of even King David. Even though some sages claim, “he who says that David sinned is in error” (BT Shabbat 56a) many will acknowledge that even the saintly king seems to be chastised by both the prophet Natan as well as other voices in the Talmud.  King David, however, was seemingly punished severely and fell upon his knees to acknowledge his sin and beg forgiveness.  His grandeur, beyond being the anointed of God, was his ability to do teshuva. When the prophet proclaims, “You acted in secret, but I will make this happen in the sight of all of Israel…” David replies, “I stand guilty before the Lord!”  While it seems that some of our leaders are reticent to even acknowledge their mistakes.  They are neither repentant Kind Davids nor crestfallen Elishas.

The crises of leadership as of late demands that we say loud and clear: while God waits for everyone, if you are not prepared to uphold the religious, moral, and ethical demands of Torah, then get out of the way. Our communities and our families deserve better. The vast majority of rabbis and teachers are good people striving to live lives of Torah and Chessed. But the bad apples are really bad and it is time to say that if you plan on being the Charles Barkley of Torah, then retire, quit, become something other than a spiritual leader. This is true for the pulpit, for the school or youth program, as well as the rabbinate in Israel.  It is time for our community to have zero tolerance for sexual impropriety of even the mildest forms, of misogyny, racism, ignorance, financial impropriety, and all forms of intolerance. If your books aren’t clean then clear out.

Rav Hayyim of Volozhin spells this out in the clearest of terms. Quoting the dictum of Reish Lakish that Torah is compared to various types of grain, he writes, “fear of Heaven is the storehouse for the wisdom of the holy Torah…if one does not prepare the storehouse of fear of Heaven first, then all the grain of Torah [collected] will be as if strewn on the ground to be trampled.” Further quoting the Midrash he states, “one finds a person who learns Midrash, and Halacha, and Aggada, however, if he lacks fear of sin, he has nothing.” (Nefesh HaHayyim  Gate 4 Chapter 4.)

There are too many tragedies in the world. A quick glance at the news of the day can be devastating to us just as it is to that little boy in the movie. And as human beings we need to work to repair whatever we can whenever we can. For those of us who are members of the Jewish religious community, we can start at home. It is time to shout from the rooftops, if you are not worthy of the Crown of Torah, then please, learn as much as you want, but don’t take the mantle of leadership. We don’t need you to burn our house down.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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