Polyamory in the Pulpit (Part 2): “Sex Positivity” and The Halo Effect

As progressive branches of Judaism begin to reconsider rabbinic sexual misconduct definitions in light of the apparent rise of “sex positivism,” polyamory, and other movements, we must not lose our critical thinking skills.

According to recent mainstream news reports, in 2017, 4%-5% of Americans were actively engaged in “polyamory.” Other reports suggest that 1 in 5 of us have attempted such a lifestyle. This makes polyamory more common than veganism and about as widespread as vegetarianism. It is certainly more common than keeping kosher.

This series is for people who are struggling to figure out what to think about cases where the rabbi plays the “two consenting adults” card or the “polyamory” card, and tries to confuse bystanders with “sex positive” rhetoric so they do not see the abuse and sexual violence that are right in front of them. It will also hopefully help people to identify their idealization of the lifestyle and prompt them to think more critically about it.

This endeavor is inspired by multiple cases, most notable and recent of which are the cases of Gafni and BachThese cases have seen similar minimization, by the abusive men themselves, and particularly by the wider community. My aim is to impress upon the reader why such minimization does not hold up in the court of critical thought, and is not conducive to a healthy and safe Jewish community.

The Appeal of “Polyamory”

Polyamory has a progressive, even “spiritual,” appeal. In theory, it is not merely the opening of a relationship to other sexual partners (thus differentiating it from “swinging” or an “open marriage”). No, polyamory implies loving, committed relationships with more than one person at a time. It implies a mastery, an enlightenment of sorts. Mastery of time management, self-awareness, emotional regulation, and empathy, to name a few. Who could be more qualified to lead this lifestyle than an idealized spiritual figure?

Who could be more qualified to lead this lifestyle than an idealized spiritual figure?

The problem is, the idealized version of the spiritual leader (or any person) does not exist in reality. The rabbi is no more enlightened than you or I or any other person. Educated? Sure. Enlightened? No. Yet, we collectively cling to this notion that somehow our congregational leaders (or ourselves) are masters of implementing the ideals that they teach. This couldn’t be further from the truth…

The Halo Effect and “Polyamory”

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that polyamory is for the “spiritually evolved” who are “beyond” jealousy and “beyond” other such “primitive” emotions. It is similarly easy to believe that a man who professes to be “polyamorous” is not merely using a woman for sex, as polyamory cannot possibly [sarcasm] be objectifying — for the suffix “-amory” (love) is employed, after all. This makes it an excellent cover for more sinister motives, and in the hands of a spiritual leader it can be a toxic, paralyzing venom for victims, and an excellent distraction for ethics committees and synagogue board members. It is an easy way for a habitual predator to feign innocence, self-reflection, and vulnerability.

The “health halo,” or “halo effect,” is well known in the world of nutrition and food marketing. “Organic” sugar is still just that — sugar. The health risks of consuming refined sugar remain, regardless of how it was grown and labeled. Sexual risk taking, sexual exploitation, abuse, and other forms of darkness are all darkness no matter how you dress it up. For certain rabbis and Jewish communities, “Polyamory” is the “organic” of sexual misconduct. It is “Sexual Misconduct Lite.” It is the “Fat Free!” of sexual Yetzer Hara.

“Polyamory” is the “organic” of sexual misconduct. It is “Sexual Misconduct Lite.” It is the “Fat Free!” of sexual Yetzer Hara.

Polyamory easily lends itself to such a “halo effect” among its participants and onlookers, especially from the perspective of progressives and spiritual seekers. It’s like communism; people want for it to work, they really do. And people always want to excuse a “beloved rabbi’s” behaviors and blame the victim in order to maintain their “just world hypothesis.” Thus, once the rabbi wields this term, “polyamory,” there are certain audiences who will think, “Aw! Polyamory! He’s so ahead of his time, and open hearted!” or perhaps, “Oh the poor thing — he is going to be so misunderstood by the media and the community who will all judge him for his alternative lifestyle. His spurned lover is out to get him… Poor guy.” Beware that sympathy is an art that sociopaths and narcissists are quite talented at. Further, people in general are not naturally inclined to think critically, and will not think to ask “What are the implications of permitting polyamory in the pulpit? Might this guy be co-opting the term for his own benefit? What does polyamory really entail and was it being practiced correctly in this instance? How do power dynamics play into consent?”

Is This Really “Sex Positive” Judaism?

My abuser was a contributor to a “sex positive” Jewish erotica site, where he ran a Torah commentary series that connected each parshah with romance and eroticism. He completed this series before meeting me, and sent this material to me as part of his grooming and manipulation, relating the portions to his feelings about me, and contributing to the systematic erosion of my boundaries and the co-opting of my spirituality. (He later confessed that his published writing was often the basis of his sexual-romantic persuasion since he could not easily approach women in person.) Chillingly — and I did not make this connection until years later — his pen name on the erotica website was a Hebrew phrase that is used as the basis for permitting early term abortion.

After his Suspension and second forced resignation for sexual misconduct — all public facts at this point — I wrote to this “sex positive” website to alert them that material published on their site by my perpetrator had been used as part of his victimization of me. They did not respond, and the material remains there to this day.

When a “sex positive” and self-professed “Jewish” website does not take sexual predation seriously, one has to wonder…

Spiritual and progressive types want to be open minded and non-judgmental. But at some point, you need to set “harsh” rules and boundaries (see Part 1). I am here to tell you that this ought to be one of them — that you need not become so lenient that you inadvertently enable truly harmful sexual misconduct in the name of “kindness” and “open mindedness.” When you do, please understand that you are being played. 

“Sex positive” does not mean not having boundaries, not having moral judgement, ignoring power differentials, or even liking sex or being sexually active. It also does not mean protecting every LGBTQ, kinky, or “poly” person in power who is accused. If we believe ourselves to be “sex positive” and wish to include polyamorous people and couples into our communities, as an extension of that, we will suffer cognitive dissonance when we place penalties upon a rabbi who professes to be “polyamorous” or otherwise living a sexually deviant lifestyle. We will think, “Gee, that poor guy” and be more permissive of his behavior. Chances are, the rabbi in question knows this and is playing you like a violin.

Chances are, the rabbi in question knows this and is playing you like a violin.

Consider what sex positivism is and is not as you read the rest of this series and my previous posts. Then ask yourself, “Is it really sex positive to permit such a man to remain in the pulpit, given the things described by this lady?” 

“Feel Sorry For Me, I’m Not Monogamous.”

Polyamory is a highly convenient accountability bypass, especially when ethics committees and communities are uninformed about what that word actually means and ought to entail. In this Gafni interview, note how he was not practicing polyamory at all despite calling it that. A “Woodstock scene” is just a loosening of sexual boundaries, NOT Polyamory. 

But this should not be a matter of semantics. Imagine being the victim of rape and abuse and while in a state of severe, acute post-traumatic stress, you find yourself typing out definitions of Polyamory for a clueless ethics committee in order to demonstrate how your abuser was not actually practicing this lifestyle which he was using as a defense. You are healing from rape trauma and you are in a semantics debate with a bunch of rabbis.

Fortunately, I recognized that this distraction was exactly what my perpetrator wanted. He wanted to make it an issue about Polyamory to distract from my more serious allegations. During the pendency of my case, I was publicly shamed by people in his sexual circuit who were not even Jewish, and who begged the ethics committee to be accepting of Polyamory. The funny thing is, the ethics code did permit polyamory, though not explicitly. In fact, one of the heartbreaks of my situation was the realization that there was no reason for my abuser to keep me hidden in the shadows, as marginalized as I was. Had he actually valued me, he would have been open about the relationship, including in his [extremely progressive] congregation.

In cases such as my own, Rabbis who play the “open marriage” or “polyamory” or “consensual non-monogamy” card hope that ethics committees and bystanders will assume that all parties are fully aware of the extent and nature of each of the rabbi’s romantic and sexual bonds, and that everyone involved is transparent, equally empowered, and happy. This is just a form of minimization and distraction. And often, it is a con job; it is not reality.

Deception is possible in non-monogamy, just as it is in monogamy — along with betrayal, abuse, rape, and other dark things. Just because a man’s wife knows about his sexual relationships, does not mean that those relationships are not harmful. And just because she knows does not mean that she is fully informed of all of the promises and level of emotional bonding between her husband and the other women.

Further, such a situation is ripe for the practice of triangulation, gaslighting, scapegoating, sexual coercion, and other traumatic abuses of power. The rabbi in question may lie to both his wife and his extramarital lovers, telling each woman what she wants to hear, promising her a future that is quite different from the future he is promising his wife. This is abuse. In fact, secrets may become a part of the relationship, as the rabbi instructs his young consort to not display emotional attachment during group sex as to not cause his wife distress, or as each spouse confides secrets in the victim that the victim is not to share with the other. Dynamics in these situations can be extremely sick, and that sickness can be so easily minimized or overlooked completely when the rabbi decries that he is a poor, misunderstood “sexual minority” whose lifestyle is simply an “innocent” and enlightened deviation from the social norm of monogamy.

It is important to note that even when practiced correctly, abuse can still occur in polyamorous relationships. And the abuser can use the “polyamory” label to try to politicize the case and gain sympathy for himself. Abuse is abuse — and abusers will use almost anything they can to maintain their power and control.

A Convenient Cover For Abuse

At first, I thought that explicitly permitting polyamory was the solution, as it would remove the need for secrecy and its toxic effects. As it turns out, polyamory was not explicitly against the Reform movement’s ethics code and there was no reason for my abuser to keep me in the closet (other than the fact that he was an abuser). I once naively thought that had the relationship been permitted to be out in the open, the abuse would not be able to fester behind closed doors. Those were extensions of my denial. Abuse is abuse, and he was abusive towards his wife, and that relationship was out in the open. In fact, I’ve since met clergy sex abuse survivors who married their perpetrators, thus establishing a public relationship, and it only made things worse. The solution to abuse does not lie in permitting polyamory in the pulpit. Nor does it lie in NOT permitting polyamory. Abuse needs to be confronted in and of itself.

In my case, the rabbi in question was, first of all, not practicing ethical non-mongamy or polyamory; he co-opted those terms to suit his agenda and take advantage of his synagogue’s progressiveness, and of me and other women (including at least two female rabbis). He established polyfidelity and then deceived and cheated because he was a philanderer, not the progressive, loving “spiritual” guy that he sold himself as.

A news article stated that this is the reason that I left — this issue of “other women.” That is not correct. I left because of his chronic and escalating gaslighting, triangulation, blame shifting, lying, and physical aggression, degrading comments and sexually objectifying jokes, intermittent reinforcement, incorrect spiritual rhetoric being used to coerce and manipulate me, increasingly strange and risky sexual requests, my completely realistic fear of being surprised with further unexpected/unsolicited group sex scenarios, constantly being compared to other women, being asked to keep secrets from the other spouse, being placed in double binds, being weighted down with secrets to keep from the congregation, and the ultimate realization that he was abusing others in worse ways than I had thought (ways that I would not even permit in an acquaintance let alone a spiritual partner). I was smart enough to know better than to believe that he would treat me any better than he treated his wife or the women before me, no matter how “special” he said I was. Looking upon his wife, I thought to myself, “If I stay, this is how he is going to treat me. Also, I am not going to be party to the degradation of another woman as he dangles me and our relationship in front of her like that. She is clearly unhappy and this is not ethical non-monogamy, but abuse.” Clearly, this wasn’t a “polyamory” problem. There was a much, much bigger problem, and “polyamory” was his cover.

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A Message For Jewish Communal Professionals

As this term, “polyamory,” becomes more popular, synagogue boards and rabbinic ethics committees will continue to contend with it, and it can serve as a major distraction from what is important, as the perpetrators want to sidetrack or bias investigators and adjudicators from the real problem; they want to make it a “polyamory issue” when it’s really an abuse and exploitation issue. Beware. It is often played with the “two consenting adults” broken record. Simply put, it is an appealing “soft” cover for real, hardcore exploitation of vulnerable human beings.

If we can learn to think critically and not fall for the halo effect of terms such as “polyamory” or “ethical non-monogamy,” we can better protect ourselves and our communities from people who use those terms to exploit others. We have a duty to become educated regarding these terms, and to familiarize ourselves with abuse dynamics and how to discern healthy from toxic relationships. We must be able to recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships regardless of labels and identity politics. I cannot emphasize this  enough.

We must be able to recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships regardless of labels and identity politics.

When you start getting complaints from anyone, you need to take a closer look at the man behind the curtain and not fall for the “I’m a downtrodden minority living an alternative lifestyle” song and dance, which the rabbi in my scenario nearly pulled off to his congregation’s board of directors [as documented in one investigative report]. He did not have the “courage” to out himself to his congregation until he had been reported for abuse and needed to use “polyamory” as a life preserver. And this is how he would have become the first openly polyamorous rabbi of a large, mainstream congregation, and perhaps lauded as a progressive hero as a result. And that is a terrifying thought.

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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