No more broken lives: We must rewrite our rabbinic ethics codes

We must rewrite our rabbinic ethics codes; they are not supposed to protect the rabbis, but the rest of us

As I look at the provisions of all of the rabbinic ethics codes, I feel deeply troubled: about rabbinic privilege, about congregant vulnerability, about broken lives.

Despite all the evidence showing that clergy-congregant relationships are based on a power asymmetry and can cause significant trauma to victims, no rabbinic ethics code outright prohibits them. Given that all the codes talk about the power imbalance between rabbi and congregant, it’s clear that leaders in each denomination have some idea of the risks involved. But no denomination views the consequences as sufficiently serious to merit banning these relationships altogether. Consider the following:

Section IV.2 of the code governing Orthodox rabbis reads: “For an unmarried rabbi, romantic relationships with those with whom he serves as rabbi are subject to power imbalance and should be avoided. This creates challenges for single rabbis, especially in small communities, and careful guidance [sic] the RCA Ethics Committee or of senior colleagues is necessary.” Note the language: should be avoided, not must be avoided. If a rabbi is single and in a small community, the ethics committee or his colleagues are supposed to guide him in somehow making these relationships something other than what they are — an abuse of power.

Section 2 (A) (5) of the code governing Conservative rabbis reads: “A rabbi who is unmarried and is considering entering a dating relationship with a congregant or staff member should be especially sensitive to the delicate nature and possible adverse consequences of such a relationship and should proceed with caution.” Apparently, “possible adverse consequences” — an understatement if there ever was one — are not enough for an outright prohibition.

Section V of the code governing Reform rabbis has the following language regarding sexual conduct: “Any such act or behavior, even if it appears to be consensual, which exploits the vulnerability of another, compromises the moral integrity of the rabbi and is an ethical violation.” Note that this sentence leaves open the possibility that there can be a rabbi-congregant relationship that is not, by its nature, an exploitation of the vulnerability of a congregant.

Section XI.E of the code governing Reconstructionist rabbis reads: “When a rabbi has had a significant pastoral, counseling or teaching relationship with a congregant, a considerable amount of time must pass before the relationship can be allowed to become romantic or sexual because of the power imbalances between rabbis and congregants. Until then, such a relationship is unethical even if welcomed by the congregant.” The word “significant” is open to anyone’s interpretation. The implication that time will change the power imbalance, all evidence to the contrary, is another loophole through which a rabbi can avoid accountability.

As I’ve noted in my previous post about rabbinic ethics codes, the codes governing Renewal rabbis are just as problematic.

The question that begs to be answered is: Why is there no outright prohibition? The answer is not difficult to discern. The underlying assumptions are that rabbis need partners, and that their need for partners supersedes the risks to their congregants.

Which leads me to ask: Is there any reason that a rabbi cannot find a partner outside his congregation? And more to the point: Is there any reason that women should have to pay with broken lives for the needs of their rabbis?

From what I can see, the writers of rabbinic ethics codes appear to be answering both questions with Yes.

The ethics codes are written so that rabbis can have it both ways. On the one hand, when it comes to their professional lives, they want their congregants to give them the power and authority that comes with being clergy. On the other hand, when it comes to their personal lives, they want their congregants to treat them like ordinary human beings.

The entire system of rabbinic authority is set up so that congregants cede a great deal of power to their rabbis. If the relationship between rabbi and congregant were set up on an equal basis, then of course, many of the problems inherent in the power imbalance would be ameliorated, if not solved altogether. But, as I’ve written before, clergy-congregant relationships are not relationships of equals. They are relationships built on a power asymmetry in every respect: spiritually, morally, professionally, emotionally, and socially. If inside their congregations, rabbis want to have power and authority on the one hand, and proceed like they’re just ordinary people looking for partners on the other, then they’re living inside a contradiction that can harm their congregants.

I’m not sure that anyone in any Jewish denomination has reckoned with this contradiction, but it’s past time that someone did. It is stunning that every denomination of Judaism leaves congregants open to exactly the kind of victimization that has happened to me and to so many others. These words from the OHALAH Code of Ethics describe some of the disastrous consequences that can derive from a clergy-congregant relationship:

“Spiritual leaders in small or isolated communities should be especially aware that a problematic relationship may make it difficult for the congregant to stay in the congregation and may result in the congregant’s loss of a significant religious and/or spiritual connection.”

I was shocked when I read these lines, because it was clear that someone knew what could happen to people like me. At first, it seemed to me as though the words were written from a sense of empathy. It seemed to me that the writers cared about the kind of destruction that a rabbi could wreak in the life of a congregant.

But these words constitute empathy without action. Despite the fact that the writers know exactly what can happen to the life of a congregant, they do not prohibit the behavior that causes it.

Empathy without action is no empathy at all. It is just a hollow thing.

OHALAH is far from alone in failing to reckon with this problem. As far as all of the ethics codes are concerned, people like me are just collateral damage.

It saddens me that, in a Jewish context, I should have to say the obvious: The sanctity, the wholeness, and the happiness of my life matters. The sanctity, the wholeness, and the happiness of the lives of all victims matter. We cannot be afterthoughts. We cannot be reduced to the bearers of inconvenient realities. We cannot be collateral damage in the service of the needs of rabbis. We are not the victims of something as vague as “possible adverse consequences.”

Euphemisms do not serve us. Let us speak the truth plainly: Clergy sexual abuse is a destructive force. It destroys the connection of its victims to God, to Judaism, to the Jewish community, and to themselves. It destroys their trust in other human beings. It destroys families. It destroys friendships. It destroys so much of what our communities say they hold sacred but are willing to put at risk.

Please read my story. It is not an easy read. But as you read it, bear in mind that I receive regular responses from women telling me how similar their stories are to my own.

Read it, and then answer these questions: Do you want what happened to me to happen to another person?

Is one precious, broken life not enough?

How many more do there need to be? Two? Three? Ten? A hundred?

My story has been repeated multiple times, in multiple communities. It is enough to break the heart, over and over.

In the final analysis, we must grapple with the question of who the ethics codes are designed to protect. Are they there to protect the needs of rabbis? Or will they, one day, protect the rest of us?

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu, an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. (To learn more about the work of Shema Koleinu, visit their website at Rachel is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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