Off the Derech

Much is always said when good Rabbis go bad. And the pattern is generally the same. At first we are shocked. We try not to talk about it, and then we decide that it is the very issue that we need to talk about. Then we get angry at them for letting us down, get angry at the system in which they function, for letting us down. And then we forget about it. And then we wait a few months for it to happen once more. And then we are shocked all over again.

As a Shavuot theme this past year I was thinking of preparing a fun quiz. On the one side of the page would be a list of the Ten Commandments and on the other a list of local and international Clergy (Rabbinic and otherwise – I thought that the non denominational aspect would add some pizzazz) who might have transgressed them. The object of the game would be to match the transgression with the transgressor. I thought it sounded like a lot of fun, but when I approached my wife with the idea I could see that she was not as enthusiastic as I had perhaps anticipated she would be. It was clear that the concept moved her but not in the positive way that I was hoping for. In fact I would go so far as to say that the look that I received was one that suggested I might as well add my own name to the list of honour.

Whereas the issues that surround these events are complex, the fundamental questions are simple. Should we be holding religious leadership to a higher standard to that we hold ourselves? And I don’t mean that it is acceptable for anyone to place cameras in the girls bathroom or conduct multiple extra marital affairs, but rather to the consequences that follow for the men (and woman) of the cloth. I have often thought that whereas I might forget to daven Mincha from time to time, I am certainly not doing THAT!

In essence the actions need to be divided into criminal and immoral, but presumably all transgress the Torah law that they represent. There are little options with regard to a criminal transgression and anyone knowingly condoning the act becomes party to the criminality. It is on the moral or ethical side where things become a little more grey. People make mistakes. They suggest Shavuot quizzes that might be in poor taste. They wear stripes and spots and they have affairs. And yes I know you can’t put the stripes and spots in the same sentence – it being unforgivable and even suited to the criminal example, but the point remains. What is the transgression that precipitates the end to a career of a Rabbi and precludes him further from representing his flock?

The personal cost of being a Rabbinic leader is immense. The pressures are constant and the disapproval continuous. Wives and families share their loved ones with the community and they are indeed public property. But the choice was made to enter this realm and we need to best manage it.

I have had the privilege of working with a number of young Rabbonim. The one thing that I am certain about, following countless coffees, is that every one of them knows what it is that might trip them up in some years time. Be it financial or sexual, an attraction to the vulnerable, the power over people, or the need to be a Rockstar. They are all smart enough to know what it is. What they seldom know however is how to prevent it. Which is odd, considering the amount that we are precluded from doing, “lest we come to build a raft”.

We know that many of our bright young things are have brilliant minds and exemplary knowledge. What many lack is the wisdom to lead, to guide and to nurture. They lack the experience to know when they are being sucked in to a a situation and when they are on the brink of a life altering transgression. And that education is exactly what communities and leadership should be providing and should insist on. Because bright young things grow older and without the education to deal with the challenges that they will face, they simply grow grow older with little skills.

No Rabbi, young or old, should be freewheeling. Each should have a mentor that he is obliged to see, to confide in and with whom he can share these challenges. There is no guarantee that we can preclude criminality or abuse but the alternative is simply no longer an option.

We live in a society in moral decline. But we also live in an age where secrets are poorly kept, and pretending that they don’t exist is folly. Let’s take a step back, put some measures in place and at least try to keep next years Shavuot list as brief as possible.

About the Author
Howard Feldman is a lawyer, a physical commodity trader by industry and a writer by obsession. He is very active in the Jewish community and passionate about our world.
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