Rabbinic ethics codes leave adult congregants at risk of abuse

As a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community, I’m very interested in the ways in which the ethics codes of different denominations of Judaism treat the issue of sexual relationships between clergy and adult congregants. Prohibitions against rabbinic sexual misconduct appear in all of the ethics codes governing Jewish clergy: the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Ethics Code, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) Code of Conduct, the Code of Professional Conduct for Members of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the Code of Conduct for the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the OHALAH Code of Ethics, and the ALEPH Professional Code of Ethics.

Some codes cover the issue rather briefly. Others are more complex and detailed. But all of them have one troubling thing in common: While they all address the propriety and impact of clergy-congregant relationships in different ways, no code prohibits them absolutely. In fact, each code suggests that, under some circumstances, such relationships can be ethical.

I find this stance to be a serious error that puts vulnerable congregants at risk.

For this post, I’ve chosen to critique the guidelines on sexual misconduct in Section D.3 of the OHALAH Code of Ethics, which governs the behavior of Renewal rabbis. By choosing the OHALAH code for this analysis, I am in no way suggesting that it is uniquely problematic. To the contrary: I have chosen it because it is representative of the problems found, to one degree or another, in all the other ethics codes. Were I to address each ethics code in a separate article, I would only be recycling, to a greater or lesser degree, the same critique.

Some Basic Facts

I’m going to begin by articulating some basic facts about the clergy-congregant relationship that underlie my critique:

1. The clergy-congregant relationship cannot be one of equals, under any circumstances.

Many people are inclined to see sexual contact between a rabbi and an adult congregant as an “affair” or a dating relationship. As I’ve written before, an “affair” suggests a relationship of equals. Because a rabbi, by definition, occupies a position of authority over a congregant, an equal partnership is not possible. A sexual relationship between a rabbi and a congregant is therefore always an abuse of power.

2. A basic asymmetry of vulnerability and power is built into the rabbi-congregant relationship and produces a diminished capacity to consent. Full and free consent is not possible.

3. A congregant’s vulnerability does not derive solely from the nature of her professional relationship with her rabbi (for example, as a person seeking counseling), but also from the rabbi’s power and authority in the community at large.

4. Exploitative people can be drawn to the clergy. No ethics code should assume simple misguided goodwill on the part of clergy people who behave unethically.

5. Rabbis cannot put their own needs before their professional obligations to their congregants. Therefore, rabbis must get their needs for sexual intimacy met outside their congregations.

As they should, all Jewish ethics codes prohibit sexual harassment, sexual abuse of minors, and sexual assault of adults. The OHALAH code is no exception.

However, when it comes to sexual relationships between clergy and adult congregants that do not involve physical coercion, Jewish ethics codes are very inconsistent and show an inaccurate understanding of the nature of clergy sexual abuse. The OHALAH code is representative of the problem.

Easily Exploited Loopholes

Section D.3.(a) of the OHALAH Code of Ethics prohibits sexual harassment and defines it broadly. I take no issue with its treatment of that subject.

Section D.3.(b) covers the rights of minors and unwilling adults, along with two other classes of congregant: married or partnered congregants, and congregants who have specific pastoral relationships with their rabbis.

(b) Unethical Sexual Activity. It is unethical for a spiritual leader to engage in, or attempt to engage in, sexual activity with a minor, an unwilling adult, a married or partnered congregant, or a congregant or other person whom a spiritual leader is counseling or aiding in life cycle events, conversion, or other pastoral situations. It is also unethical for a spiritual leader to engage in, or attempt to engage in, sexual activity with anyone who is similarly dependent on the spiritual leader. Such sexual relationships are unethical even if suggested or welcomed by the congregant. It is the responsibility of spiritual leaders to maintain appropriate boundaries. Sexual activity may include intimate or unwanted physical contact as well as intercourse.

Of course, it’s crucial to protect minors and adults from sexual assault, and the OHALAH ethics code, like all other Jewish ethics codes, speaks properly to the issue.

In addition, it is wise to keep rabbis from engaging in relationships with married or otherwise partnered congregants. Apart from the issue of adultery, sexual activity with a married or partnered individual can have a serious impact on the stability of a relationship and family.

Finally, I fully support the need to maintain boundaries when a rabbi is engaged with a congregant in a counseling relationship, in developing life cycle rituals, in (what the code vaguely refers to as) “other pastoral situations,” and in cases in which a congregant is “dependent on the spiritual leader.” These terms appear to cover the gamut of the roles that a rabbi can play: counselor, ritual leader, spiritual guide, and teacher.

However, there is plenty of ambiguity here for a less than scrupulous person to exploit. For example, what would “other pastoral situations” consist of? After all, if the code prohibited clergy-congregant relationships in all pastoral situations, it would have said so. Since the code specifies a number of very specific ones, but does not prohibit these relationships in all of them, there must be exceptions.

What are the exceptions? Who decides where the line is drawn?

Even more to the point, who defines what “dependent” means? The rabbi? The congregant? What happens if they do not agree? What if the rabbi manipulates the situation to make it appear that the congregant is not “dependent” on him at all? Who is the arbiter of the degree of dependency involved, and how is it measured? Is that arbiter more likely to believe the rabbi or the congregant?

While some people who commit clergy abuse may simply be without proper training regarding boundaries, many clergy abusers are well aware of what they are doing. Defining specific situations in which relationships are not allowed only enables exploitative people to foster situations that appear to be outside of those limits. Abusers are often people who believe the rules don’t apply to them. Unless they are absolutely prohibited from initiating relationships with congregants in all situations, they will always find ways to create exceptions for themselves.

No Outright Prohibition on Clergy-Congregant Relationships 

No Jewish ethics code evinces a willingness to prohibit clergy-congregant relationships altogether. Why is there no blanket prohibition? Apparently, there is still a belief that there are instances in which a clergy-congregant relationship is not an abuse of power. Such a belief is reflected in Section D.3.(c) of the OHALAH code.

Section D.3.(c) covers single spiritual leaders and congregants as a separate class.

(c) Single Spiritual Leaders and Congregants. Although not automatically unethical, any sexual relationship between a single spiritual leader and a single congregant is fraught with risks for both parties and may be illegal in some states, provinces and nations. These risks include ambiguities about the perceived power of the clergy, the spiritual leader’s ability to provide future pastoral care for the congregant, and the future of both parties in the congregation. A sexual relationship effectively ends the clergy-congregant or clergy-constituent relationship between the parties, and the spiritual leader is responsible in assisting the congregant/constituent in obtaining rabbinic or other spiritual leadership support elsewhere if necessary. Spiritual leaders in small or isolated communities should be especially aware that a problematic relationship may make it difficult for the congregant to stay in the congregation and may result in the congregant’s loss of a significant religious and/or spiritual connection. A sexual relationship between a single spiritual leader and a single congregant is potentially an ethical violation, and to be avoided where possible. Spiritual leaders are strongly urged to seek guidance from colleagues or other professionals before beginning such a relationship.

Strangely, while going into detail about the dangers involved in these kinds of relationships, this section does not outright prohibit them. It says that such relationships are “not automatically unethical,” are only “potentially an ethical violation,” and should “be avoided where possible.”

Avoided where possible? Are there circumstances under which a sexual relationship between clergy and congregant would be impossible to avoid? Are rabbis responsible for the spiritual welfare of entire communities really incapable of saying no?

The ethics code, far from prohibiting these relationships, strongly urges rabbis “to seek guidance from colleagues or other professionals before beginning such a relationship.”

While well intended, this advice has the potential for great harm. I’ll share how that kind of advice went for me.

My rabbi sought professional guidance about having a sexual relationship with me. He talked to a counselor. He talked to his fellow clergy. He talked to other colleagues in the community. He told them that we were soulmates destined to do the work of God in the world. They all believed every word he said. They all supported him in having a relationship with me. They all told him we had a beautiful love story. They all cared about what he needed from the relationship.

By contrast, they never asked me how I felt about the relationship at all. They never asked me how they could support me. They never asked me what I needed. They never asked me what our relationship was like. They never asked me what was happening to me in the community. They entirely took his word for what was happening and never talked to me at all.

Why didn’t they talk to me? It’s simple. He was the rabbi, and he had much more power and authority in the community than I did. It is no more or less complicated than that. It wouldn’t have mattered whether we were in the most intense counseling relationship in the world, or whether I only came to services once a month. The particular nature of our relationship was not the deciding factor in whether other people saw harm. The deciding factor was my rabbi’s stature in the community.

Should people have stopped him? Yes, definitely. When our relationship came to light, I was shunned, I was scapegoated, and I was cut off from Jewish ritual, Jewish practice, and Jewish community. My disastrous experience in a rural, isolated congregation is aptly summed up in these words from the OHALAH ethics code:

Spiritual leaders in small or isolated communities should be especially aware that a problematic relationship may make it difficult for the congregant to stay in the congregation and may result in the congregant’s loss of a significant religious and/or spiritual connection.

The ethics code describes precisely what happened to me. And yet, the code leaves congregants open to this same risk. That is unconscionable.

Time Does Not Change the Power Asymmetry

Does time change the power differential? No.

If a relationship was born of a vast power asymmetry, time will not magically rewire that bond. People do not simply forget the previous nature of their relationships, nor can they compartmentalize the origin of those relationships and then somehow start on a whole new footing. Moreover, rabbis do not lose their power and authority when they change communities and take up new positions there. The power imbalance remains.

And yet, the OHALAH ethics code suggests that time can change the power asymmetry. Paragraph D.3.(d) of the ethics code allows relationships prohibited by paragraph D.3.(a) and D.3.(b) if at least eighteen months have elapsed after the termination of the professional relationship.

It is unethical to engage in sexual harassment or sexual activity with an adult that is prohibited in paragraphs D.3.(a) and D.3.(b) within eighteen months of the termination of a congregational, educational, pastoral or other professional clergy relationship.

I’m not sure how sexual harassment or unwanted sexual activity is ever allowed, at any time, but perhaps that paragraph is just poorly written.

More to the point, speaking specifically to the relationships described in D.3.(b) — but not, curiously, to those described in D.3.(c) — the ethics code states that these relationships can somehow be put on an equal footing once the professional relationship has ended.

With regard to paragraph D.3.(b), there must be a full termination of professional relationship to help break the power imbalance and thus allow the potential of a healthy, mutual relationship to grow. This does not mean that any relationship, after eighteen months, is automatically ethical, but that it will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Some states, provinces, nations and professional organizations prohibit relationships for longer periods following the termination of a professional relationship.

I find it hard to believe that anyone talked to a victim, or a professional expert in clergy abuse, before writing this paragraph. There is no way to “break the power imbalance.” The power imbalance in built into the relationship itself and into the ways in which communities value their clergy over their congregants. Perhaps people would like it to be otherwise, but wishing does not make it so.

Please, heed my experience: My clergy abuser resigned his position in the synagogue shortly after our relationship came to light, and we were together for the next fourteen years. In those years, I struggled mightily to change the nature of the relationship and to put myself on an equal footing with him, in every way I knew how.  We saw more than one counselor. Sometimes, we lived in the same house. Sometimes, we lived apart. At one point, we led services and taught together. At other points, I ceded Jewish worship and teaching to him. I was willing to do whatever I could in the service of changing the power dynamic. I thought that time, and effort, and commitment would make all the difference.

The power dynamic did not change, and it was a fool’s errand to believe that it could. The power imbalance was built into the fabric of the relationship, and my rabbi continued to enjoy all the power and authority that came from being clergy. In fact, my belief that I could somehow “break the power imbalance” kept me inside an abusive relationship rather than freeing me from it.

Conclusion and Next Steps

It behooves the writers of any ethics code to talk with victims of clergy abuse and professional experts in the field in order to understand the dynamics of the clergy-congregant relationship. They must understand that such relationships are always unequal, always asymmetrical, always an abuse of power —  not just because of the vulnerability inherent in the relationship, but also because clergy people are given tremendous power and authority by their communities.

Let me be clear: There is no ambiguity about the power of the clergy. That power is not a matter of perception, but one of fact. To leave ambiguities in an ethics code provides a way for vulnerable congregants to be left undefended in the face of specious arguments by their abusers about whose perception of the relationship is correct.

Many people would like to believe that all rabbis who engage in sexual relationships with their congregants are simply well-intentioned people who make mistakes. The reality is that exploitative people are also drawn to the clergy, and they know exactly how to manipulate and victimize the people who trust them the most. Unless an ethics code takes into consideration that such clergy people walk among us in every religion, every path, and every denomination, it will not protect laypeople as it should.

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu, an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. (To learn more about the work of Shema Koleinu, visit their website at www.shemakoleinu.net.) Rachel is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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