Orthodoxy, Abuse & Redemption: A Critique from the Heart

For those searching for a spiritual practice rooted in historical significance, Orthodox Judaism is tremendously compelling. To be observant is to engage in a system of spirit, community and truly inspired values.

Still, despite the richness of our tradition, too often we turn a blind eye when our leaders fail us – and themselves. Whether it’s a case of broken trust in a cherished rabbi who crosses the line into morally reprehensible behavior, a financial crime that brings shame to our communities, a cover up in all its varieties, or abuse of our most vulnerable at the hands of our most powerful, we must not be complicit by looking the other way.

We have survived as a people, as a religion, for thousands of years, many of which were oppressive, violent, and disturbingly uncertain. We can survive the brutal honesty required to take a stand against the many kinds of predators in our midst.

If we have faith, then we must have faith that we can do better.

The Value of Disappointment:

It has been thirty years since I’ve learned about observant Judaism, and like it or not, the disappointments mount. Believe me, I’ve seen greatness; inspired teachers, generous souls, lovely families. As a child psychiatrist, I’ve had the honor of participating in ground-breaking groups like NEFESH and TAHEL, organizations devoted to bringing cutting-edge mental health services to their communities.

There is goodness among us.

Yet, disappointment is a drag on faith, and the only way is through it – and not around it.

I’ve known of too many religious leaders who’ve bullied children, seen people honored at dinners right before legal proceedings, witnessed blatant nepotism, serious financial misconduct and much more. It is all so disheartening.

Worst of all are the sexual transgressions and their cover-ups.

This essay is a love letter of sorts – a call to overcome disappointment.

“You can’t judge Judaism from Jews.”

It sounds strange, but we’ve all heard this refrain before: “You can’t judge Judaism from the behavior of Jews.” I just don’t get it. For instance, I shouldn’t judge Toyota by the quality of my Camry?

I do. In fact that’s the only way I judge Toyota.

Every Camry I’ve owned has proved to be a solid purchase; a reflection of the competence of Toyota – as a manufacturer. Their brand evidenced by the quality of their product. You don’t keep manufacturing broken cars and selling them to the public, and then ask not be judged by the broken product that you are trying to pass off as something that is totally in proper working order, right? So in some real way, the state of Judaism today is to be judged by the behavior of Jews. Back to the useful, but less than perfect Toyota analogy; have we’ve become too protective of our brand – our leaders, our schools, our shuls or our good reputation – and not with the product itself?

If something is broken, ignoring or worrying about criticism, will never fix it.

Idealization and Religion:

A brand may be based on quality, but for many, religious life depends on idealization. We idealize our ancestors, we idealize our leaders and we idealize our faith. If one looks carefully, there’s an element idealization in Orthodox practice (other religions do this too) that segues to the related issue of religion by proxy. Since my ancestors or Rabbis have greatness, and since I’m a follower, I too am chosen as it were – by proxy.

Idealization and greatness by proxy speaks poorly in the contemporary age of the individual and it may not even be good Torah. Our leaders might consider a more wholesome model, or we will continue to be buffeted by disappointment after disappointment as our leaders and co-religionists show their clay feet. Ironically, owning our true humanity, and scraping the powerful urge to protect the brand, may actually be closer to our most basic ideals.

Why? Because, we are all human, including our leadership, and our ancestors, no matter how inspired their lives turned out to be. The humanity of our leaders is well documented in the Tanakh. Our greatest leader, Moshe was flawed – a man of speech who stutters. As much as Rebecca is a source of matronly wisdom and power, she conspired with Jacob to make Isaac believe that he was giving his favored son Esau a blessing when it was in fact a disguised Jacob who approached his father for the blessing. David may have been a fine king with Messianic lineage, but he took Bathsheba, the wife of one of his men, slept with her and then put her husband on the frontlines to die in battle when Bathsheba became pregnant.

And there is more, much more. In the Talmud, the House of Hillel and Shammai argued, sometimes to the point of violence. Our beloved commentators argued and disagreed vehemently throughout the ages, from Rashi to Ramban, to Rambam to Hirsch. Our leaders have never been without flaws, and while we may debate their failings – and if the ends justify the means – the fact remains that Judaism is a history filled with real humanity.

While we’ve been created in the divine image, of dirt we are made and to dirt we will return. To whitewash our failings is to miss the opportunity to do better, be better, and to raise ourselves in the same way we raise even the most mundane actions through blessings and giving thanks to Hashem, whether we are eating an apple, or leaving the restroom. We are all in this boat together, along with the most cherished leaders and figures of our tradition.

Let’s stop idealizing, and protecting our image. Rather, let’s take a stab at something better – perhaps something closer to what our tradition is all about. The model for the future is a brother and sisterhood of sorts, where each of us is trying to get closer to Hashem, and we are in it together, as dirt-bound creatures of vanity, competitiveness, greed, lust, anger, and pride. That is the mix we have to work with – that we all have to work with.

When the Toyota Factory is Broken:

We all (myself included) fall short of our ideals. It’s fine as long as we accept what is really going on and work from there. I often tell my patients that human beings tend to believe that they’re better than they are, and then get defensive when they naturally fall short. You cannot improve from this psychological position. Yet, if you accept that you start out much less than you might like to be, you have an opportunity to improve without the need to defend, hide or deny.

Here’s a small story that sheds a light on our need to improve, followed by suggestions on how we might improve this special industry called Observant Judaism.

My Curse:

Recently, I was in Brooklyn visiting David, an old friend, and a rabbi that walks the walk. I am proud to know him. As we greet I make a mistake. Perhaps it’s laziness, or the fact that I work with so many teens, the truth is that even in this late stage of life, I sometimes curse more freely than I should. It’s a bad habit.

“David, I’m so …effing glad to see you!”

“Mark, you don’t have to curse.”

And he’s right. I take it in, thinking after all how ridiculous it is for a 60 year old man to use offensive language.

“Yup… you’ve got a point.”

It then occurs to me…

David, you must have so many voices in your head that tell you what you can and cannot do – and others as well.”

I smile.

Now, you can accuse me of turning the tables on my friend; and I stand convicted. But I’m telling you that I did it with love and a sense of fun. David was engaged.

“Look Mark, you can express yourself without cursing; you know that.”

And then it pours out.

“David, I have no trouble with being corrected for cursing or that our religion is involved with making small moments better. The problem I have is our failure in the big moments.”

The Big Stuff Counts:

What I really want to say to David is how saddened I’ve become with an Orthodox Judaism that falls so short of what it claims to be. I share a disappointment, and there are many for me to choose from; poor David.

“David, look at Rabbi Norman Lamm. He led his university for over 30 years, and grew it nicely. He gave so many lectures, appeared at so many honorary dinners, and helped a lot of people but he did a terrible thing. He let a pedophile out on the street without being apprehended. If he had been the CEO of IBM or even the President of Yale, I might let him off the hook as a guy who just was protecting his brand.”

“But, he was the leader of Modern Orthodoxy. I can’t stand it.”

Back Story: Rabbi Norman Lamm was the esteemed President of Yeshiva University and developed Modern Orthodoxy quite successfully. To be fair, I can imagine that Lamm bungled reporting a sexual predator in his school because at the time, people weren’t as aware of pedophilia, but then every year that passed by in the 80s and 90s when he could’ve reported it, was a year when some new child was at risk.

He was likely worried about his brand.

I have known victims like this, and it’s not a happy story. The problem with Orthodoxy is that we whitewash these things and slip them under the rug. The days of saccharine reassurances must end.

Norman Lamm was a good man who did a terrible thing.

“As a doctor, when we have a death in the hospital, we often do a Post Mortem Grand Rounds to analyze what went wrong. You guys need to do Grand Rounds on Norman Lamm’s decision making, so that you don’t repeat it. And then there’s the story of Rabbi Freundel in Washington DC, who violated the sanctity of the Mikva. This betrayal was nothing short of abuse. Sounds like a sexual addiction to me. Who supervises our rabbis? Do you guys have any idea how empowered you are and how ill equipped you are in dealing with that power?”

I go on, my upset mounting.

“The frum world will close ranks, blame Freundel for having a problem and move on. Sexual addictions are not uncommon in the world today. To paint him as different, or somehow an anomaly, is to miss the painful lessons that we need to learn. People are flawed, and the power of leadership has its own ways of bringing it out. David, Orthodox rabbis need real supervision given the pressures and temptations of the job.”

As I struggle to recapture my faith in the face of painful disappointments, too many to count, I ask the still, small question that haunts me…

“Why should I care about the small stuff when so often you guys miss the big stuff?”

My friend listens calmly. There is greatness in this good man.

David looks down for a moment, and proceeds to tell me that he knows people from his rabbinical training who’ve gone to jail; he sighs with a hint of sadness.

“There are a lot of good people. But, you’ve got a point here.”

Torah Leadership – Psychologically Grounded:

So, here’s my message to leadership.

  1. Psychological Training: Rabbinic training requires intense psychological counseling and psychological training, both! Torah study alone does not necessarily produce healthy leaders. A stronger commitment to psychological training may mitigate some of the risks involved in leadership.
  2. Intention Counts: As a corollary to the first point, Torah will make you a better person, only if it is your intention to utilize Torah for that purpose. It can just as easily produce powerful self-serving attitudes and the vanity of importance.
  3. Hazards of Leadership: The establishment of an institution often corrupts those that run it; there’s nothing new here. No one goes into religious life in order to hurt others, but power can distort behavior, and it’s easy to try to justify one’s actions by hiding behind the shield of religious authority. When an institution’s brand trumps the well-being of an individual Jew, then we know that the factory is in trouble.
  4. Denial Makes Things Worse: The cover-up is always worse than the crime. This was true of Richard Nixon’s Watergate and it’s just it’s true with cases like Rabbi Norman Lamm and others. We must have the courage to do public Post Mortems on rabbinical misbehavior. It’s the only way to normalize the experience of mistakes and move towards improved outcomes, and enable trust. It’s holy work. Develop the institutional guts to embrace criticism while at the same time working to make it right. Let integrity lead the way.
  5. Welcome Supervision: Seek out supervision with an experienced mental health professional who is also familiar with Jewish practice. Effective supervision needs to be confidential in order to give you a safe place to talk about all the ways you WILL BE triggered – no matter how psychologically sound you may feel.
  6. Encourage a Good Review Process: Those in positions of authority are not above being reviewed, and feedback is good for growth. It is as an opportunity to learn more about weak points that may need your attention, and it can be done in a dignified way.
  7. Have Heart: The challenges of leaders today are different than those of yesteryear. Contemporary rabbis and rebbetzins need to be partners first and foremost, and authority figures second. We need leadership that’s not better than us, but more determined to follow the path – and in turn to lead us. Mistakes happen in every journey. Whitewashing may be an artifact of relentless anti-Semitism over the centuries, but we can and must do better. Our clergy, like all of us, are not kings or high priests; they are partners – learned brothers and sisters. Our leadership should feel relieved.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a time and place for idealizing a leader, and some people have earned it. But, greatness in our age is to be measured in each individual’s personal struggle rather than standing at the pulpit or running a school. We are no longer in the age of religion by proxy, but rather that of every man and woman taking steps – with HaShem’s help – to be better tomorrow than they are today.

Our rabbis and rebbetzins can lead us as first among equals. Learn, inspire, lead, but most importantly, keep growing. The people will follow.

With regard to Rabbi Norman Lamm, the tragic foil for this piece, I truly believe that he was a noble leader who made a devastating mistake. May those who have been injured by this great man’s passive disregard for their welfare find healing. It can’t be allowed again.

David, I will try not to curse so easily.

And, let’s also remember that the big stuff counts as well.

Useful Information:

Tahel Conference
Creating Safe Communities: Creating Hope
Crowne Plaza, Jerusalem: November 27th– 29th, 2017

NEFESH Conference
21st Annual NEFESH Conference
Hyatt Regency, Hauppauge, New York: December 21st – 24th, 2017

About the Author
Dr. Mark Banschick is a co-founder of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a partner with StandWithUs. He completed his medical degree at Tel Aviv University, followed by specialty training at Georgetown and New York-Presbyterian Hospitals. He is the author of The Intelligent Divorce book series (yes, an oxymoron) and writes regularly for Psychology Today. Mark practices child, adolescent and adult psychiatry in Katonah, New York. Divorce Website: www.TheIntelligentDivorce.Com ACF Website: www.CampusFairness.org
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