Polyamory In The Pulpit (Part 1): Where Substance Meets Form

I have spent the last 6 months working on a piece entitled, “Polyamory in the Pulpit: A Warning.” The lengthy draft has already been re-organized several times, and yet, it is still not ready for public viewing. The work has become multiple essays, each exploring a different component of the issue. What has prompted all of this writing from me? Deep concerns that the spiritual bypass is alive and well in liberal Jewish communities, and that increasing social acceptance of polyamory will (and already has) complicated and politicized rabbinic sexual abuse cases.

An offshoot of this project was a stream of consciousness entitled “Where Substance Meets Form.” The idea here is that unbridled loving-kindness and unbounded sexuality are not the way, lest we become like Marc Gafni.

Where Substance Meets Form

Substance — the kavanah, the ruach; the flow of energy
Form — the precise application of the rational law; the boundaries that give shape to energy

My abuser seemed to have this ideal of sexuality with no boundaries. He spoke with excitement over the idea of having glass dildos on display in his bedroom. He owned sex furniture. He enjoyed sex clubs, swinging, and nudity. He wanted to post ads on Craigslist to get random strangers to sleep with me. He pulled up pornography on his phone in a restaurant lobby and put it in my face. Sexuality was everywhere, especially his. Yet, he was also a [prominent, pulpit] rabbi.

We live in a world of form, of physical and emotional realities — not of unbridled sexual energy with unlimited potential that ought to be met. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. Just because you can get away with something, does not mean it is harmless. There is an absolute moral reality, but not all rabbis, Jews, or people in general believe that. The reality is that if we place our sexual appetites over acknowledgement of physical reality, and let it be formless, unlimited, unbounded, then we do great spiritual and physical harm to ourselves and others. There must be boundaries to our sexuality. Cultivating it (boundaries) can be (or is)  spiritual practice. Yet, it seems that what passes for “spiritual practice” in popular culture these days is this unbounded sexual energy. “Free love.”

Along with the unbounded sexuality, I see excess “niceness.” Majority of rabbis and Jewish laity that I have spoken with are excessively forgiving of sexual predators in the rabbinate. They are enablers. They make excuses for pulpit hoppers with multiple forced resignations. They say that they don’t know the full story and have no right to judge — selectively suspending their otherwise healthy intellects. They make negative assumptions about the victim/complainant and focus their healing prayers, thoughts, and energies onto the “poor rabbi.” They do not require a test of teshuvah. “Free forgiveness.”

Sometimes we try to bargain with ourselves, kidding ourselves into believing that we are cultivating sexual boundaries and “holiness” because we are not doing things worse than what we are actually doing. We say to ourselves, “well, nobody seems to be getting hurt, and I am getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases, and I try to get to know the people whose bodies I am using for sex, so what is the problem?” or worse, we fool ourselves into thinking that we are “loving” a person by using them, and thus into thinking that we are not using them at all when we are actually viewing them as disposable recreational devices. What’s even worse is when we lie to somebody about loving them in order to use them as disposable recreational devices, leading them to believe that they are loved in a way that they are not. This level of irresponsibility is reprehensible.

What if we stopped kidding ourselves and started getting serious? Telling it like it is? “Hi, my name is X and I want to use you for purely physical sex.” We think that this too is alright because at least it is “honest.” If the other person agrees, we feel that we have somehow escaped The Matrix, the longstanding religious and social structures that tell us that this is not ideal and that we ought to not feel good about ourselves for doing this. When lightning does not appear to strike us for one sin, we start to think that maybe the whole religion is a hoax. There begins the erosion of our faith, one “victimless” sin at a time. Like a sweater unraveling, we may not notice at first, but if we keep pulling the thread, eventually there will be no sweater.

The will to do good. What about the will to do good? Why so often does the yetzer hara win out?

Perhaps instead of becoming defensive or attempting to rationalize it, we ought to let that shame in. We ought to hold ourselves accountable for our failings. Why has my rabbi not admitted to his serious errors with real remorse and repentance? Why did he sin again as soon as he was moved to another pulpit? He expressed a will to do good in words and in grand political and charitable gestures, but his yetzer hara won out in most of his private dealings that I was present for.

Who instills in us the will to do good, to choose it over evil, and to uphold those boundaries around sexuality? Our parents. It starts in the home. He who has not deeply and thoroughly examined his family of origin and its influences upon him is a lost man indeed.

Immediately prior to the abuse, I was a “substance over form” spiritual seeker. I was someone who did not put adequate attention onto form. I had turned away from halakhah for a variety of reasons, principally a lack of supportive environment and a sense of unbelongingness — even in communities that practiced it. This left me vulnerable and unprotected from darker forces, such as sexual predation in the guise of “spirituality.” Now I understand.

Yet I never turned away from halakhah completely, even during my most unbounded of times. For instance, I never stopped praying before meals. I kept a vegan diet for my entire adult life and through most of my adolescence, selecting kosher certified packaged items majority of the time, and washing my produce with great care according to the OU guide. Even during the abuse, I kept up these behaviors. I also did well at lighting shabbos candles, not working on shabbat, not driving, not cooking, not lighting a flame, keeping kosher for Pesach every year of my adult life, keeping up with even the lesser known holidays, and many other things. I never lost or let go of that will to do good. And I think that is ultimately what saved me from becoming so assimilated into the culture of my abuser that I would stay any longer than I needed to to learn what I needed to learn from the experience. Through this experience, I re-discovered the importance of form.

What is freedom? What passes for “freedom” to so many is this notion of unboundedness, of the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want, with no consequences. That is not freedom; that is hedonism. Freedom is our ability to choose our actions with full knowledge of their consequences, and paying the price for our actions with full awareness that it was a price that was chosen.

Ethics committees do not keep rabbis from being “free.” Ethics codes give rabbis a choice and the ability to exercise free will with every action that they take.

Further themes to be explored in this series, in no particular order:

(1) Are pulpit rabbis entitled to sexual liberties? What boundaries are to be placed on their private lives, if any?

(2) The professionalization of religion and trend towards treating the rabbinate like a secular political job divorced from conscience and married to Narcissism. “Rabbi as CEO.”

(3) The idealization of clergy in American life and how this relates to victim-blaming in Jewish spaces, with particular attention to its implications for polyamory in the rabbinate.

(4) The inherent marginalization of “discreet” partnerships and “the closet.” The lasting destruction and damage that this can cause.

(5) The implications of explicitly permitting polyamory in liberal branches of Judaism.

(6) What Jewish law and Torah have to say about polygamy, and perhaps about polyamory.

(7) Teaching ethics committees to distinguish between polyamory and “polyamory” as a cover for abuse.

About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from a sexually exploitative relationship with a pulpit rabbi. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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