Peeping Toms and Murderers?

Most of the discussion of the peeping tom rabbi from Washington came from the Orthodox wing of our community. That is understandable. The allegations relate to a powerful figure in the American Orthodox Jewish community. The direct victims sought Orthodox conversion. Most of the clients of mikvaot are Orthodox women. For them the actions alleged against the Washington rabbi must have a personal repugnance.

Yet, who dares deny a more systemic aspect to this catastrophe, not confined to the Orthodox wing of the community by any means. To cite just one additional extreme example of rabbis behaving badly: a few years ago a senior Reform rabbi from New Jersey shocked us when he hired murderers who killed his wife. His actions were so outrageous that most wrote him off as an insane exception that proves the rule. Some of that denial may be happening among our Orthodox colleagues about the DC peeping tom rabbi. An Orthodox religious official in America suggested that he is no more than an isolated “bad apple.”

Yet, that is unlikely. There are more senior leaders in the Jewish world who exhibit psychopathology. They may fall short of criminal behavior. But abuse of power is a system-wide problem that we are too ready to ascribe to personality quirks and to seek to balance against the good that a powerful person may do despite their mental illness. Our response – “one bad apple” – is a form of denial. Following the public outcry surrounding the Washington peeping tom, it will be sad if we once again miss an opportunity to address the systemic question. How do psychopathological individuals rise to positions of seniority in the Jewish world? If there is redemptive value in examining the actions of pathological Jewish leadership, it is this. We have a chance to ask ourselves what we can learn from our role as the community that invested them with power.

The New Jersey murderer and the DC peeping tom were stars. They led large congregations. They served the community from positions of great power in various organizations. The organizational model that best describes this type of rabbi is that of CEO. A steady stream of thought in our community seeks to run our institutions more as a business with the rabbi as more of a chief executive officer. Some of our colleagues built careers on that model. Much of our non-synagogue organizational life advocates it. There are other models but the CEO structure brought over from the business world seems to have the most influence. It carries a price.

Recent research from Britain suggests that certain professions have greater incidence of psychopathology ( ). Chances rise that a mentally ill person will achieve a senior position. Highest in the list of ten problematic professions was CEO. Clergy were eighth. Combining the CEO model with the tasks of clergy seems to heighten the chances of a psychopath moving “to the top.” But professions such as care aide, nurse, therapist, and teacher have relatively few psychopaths. The difference evidently lies in the way those healthier professions focus on service in ways that deal with feelings. The unhealthy professions offer power and reward those who can divorce themselves from feelings. Which of these represents our goals for our rabbis? For our community leaders?

At its root, partial responsibility for the failures of psychopath-leaders may lie in our failure to clarify what we seek in a rabbi or other Jewish communal leader. Good management skills may have risen to the top of our list, but perhaps without consideration of the costs. The research from Britain suggests that the model of rabbi or other communal leader as CEO is a dangerous one. Here is a question that will not go away when the storm over one peeping tom rabbi dies down. To what extent are these dysfunctional leaders our creations because we venerate their management skills, outward charisma and emotional shallowness. To what degree are we responsible in that we allow ourselves as a community to define what they do as the measure of success? Without a doubt our communities reward great captains of the rabbinate and the Jewish organizational world. A CEO rabbi or executive director can earn four or five times what we pay his/her service delivery colleague. With this incentive, it should not surprise us that some with psychotic tendencies rise to the top.

The Bible commands us: “Before a blind person do not place an obstacle.” Maybe our dysfunctional rabbis in NJ and DC have done us an unintended service. They spur us to think through what characteristics we seek in our rabbis and other communal leaders.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.