Rabbis need therapy

My name is Ari Hoffman. I am a husband, father, community member, and I am a psychotherapist. I do not have solutions to people’s problems. My job as a therapist is to listen, be genuinely interested and curious about the people I work with, and walk with them on their journeys toward insight and healing. I am writing this with the authority of a human being. As a human being I know what the research studies have stated is true. One of the greatest healing elements of therapy is, simply: being heard.

A few months ago a prominent rabbi was arrested and charged with voyeurism. I think voyeurism is a euphemism and like most it is dangerous. It is dangerous because it hides the truth that this man was accused of violating the privacy of women in what is potentially one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. However, regardless if the allegations are true or not, what I have written here is still pertinent and urgent.

I am writing this because I think we can do better. We can do better as a race. A race of love, a race of strength, a race of belief, and a race of light which shines the world over.

We can do better.

I say we can do better because change is a mandate we all must accept upon ourselves as individuals and as a community. People who commit crimes must take responsibility and own their punishments, especially when these crimes have hurt others. However, we must learn a lesson from the law about when a dead body is found in a field between two towns. The elders from the nearest town come and wash their hands over the calf that has been killed as an atonement and they say, “we didn’t spill this blood and we didn’t see anything”. After the elders make this statement, the kohanim come and pray to Hashem and ask for forgiveness for the entire nation of Israel.

The elders didn’t do anything wrong nor did the rest of Klal Yisrael, so why do they need atonement and forgiveness?

The Baal HaTurim says that this teaches us we are all responsible for one another.

When the elders wash their hands and say “we didn’t spill this blood” it is as if they are saying, “What went wrong that we didn’t hear you when you cried out?! We didn’t kill you but we own some of the responsibility for your murder.” Similarly today, we must accept some of the responsibility for wrongs committed by our brothers and sisters, especially those committed by people in positions of power in our communities like a rabbi who allegedly abused the privacy and sanctity of the mikvah.

We could say, “Where were we when you had an urgent desire to do something that could hurt someone? Did you have your own support system? If so, where were they? And if not, what should/could we have done to institute one? You needed something, not just a system to keep your power in check but a system to provide you the necessary emotional support to be a leader in the Jewish community. Finally what do we need to do now so that we are making our most conscientious effort to make sure this stops happening and does not happen again?”

We can do better.

“I believed in money but all I got was greed, I believed in vengeance but all I did was bleed, I believed in fame but fame turned its back on me. If I had only believed in love I could have been set free.” (Peter Himmelman, 1994)

This may sound familiar to the 1,800 year old lesson from Pirkei Avos, “R’ Elazar Hakapar says that jealousy, desire, and honor remove a person from this world.”

The first step in fixing a problem is understanding its source. In the domain of human failure the problem often stems from the poisonous trifecta mentioned by R’ Elazar: jealousy, desire, and honor.

So maybe the solution to the problem is to live a life that is devoid of these things?

That might be possible if some changes were made. First, we would have to abolish positions of power like rabbis because honor is part of the rabbi package. Similarly there should be no physical possessions because inevitably someone else is going to have a cooler Succah than I do. And finally we would have to live a monastic lifestyle because desire is inherent (consider the Catholic church as evidence).

Or maybe, just maybe, R’ Elazar is not telling us to avoid all situations that could possibly cultivate these feelings. Maybe he is telling us, “Listen up folks, as you go about your daily lives watch out! Be careful because jealousy, desire, and honor can get you in loads of trouble.”

There are times, my father says, that living in our world is like walking through a dark room filled with obstacles. Chazal give us advice on how to get through as intact as possible.

One of those pieces of advice again comes from Pirkei Avos:

Yehoshua ben Perachya announces: “make a Rav for yourself! Acquire a friend for yourself! And judge everyone favorably! (exclamation points are mine)

Rabbeinu Yonah explains that making a rav means appointing a rav for yourself even if he doesn’t know any more Torah than you do; in fact even if he knows less Torah than you do. This is for a simple reason: even though you might know more Torah than the person you have accepted as your rav, he still might understand certain things better than you do. This is especially true when it comes to matters where you are personally invested and your bias is a factor that needs to be considered in your calculations.

The second charge is equally important. Acquire a friend for yourself. Because as Rabbeinu Yonah explains, among the many benefits to having a friend one is that you can talk to a friend and be sure he or she will maintain your confidence. Having a person like that with whom you can share ideas, fantasies, misgivings, doubts, weaknesses, and everything in between is of epic importance. In fact this is so important that it is worth paying for which is why Pirkei Avos tells us to acquire (i.e. buy) a friend.

These instructions from Pirkei Avos apply to every Jew, rabbis and community leaders included.

There is a story on my mind about R’ Yochanan and his chavrusa (and brother in law), Reish Lakish. R’ Yochanan and Reish Lakish were arguing vehemently about a particular topic related to tumah and tahara. R’ Yochanan got quite upset about his chavrusa’s position on the matter. He got so upset that, in spite of his sister’s protests, he prayed for Reish Lakish’s immediate demise.

When Reish Lakish died, R’ Yochanan recognized the folly of his actions and was absolutely devastated. When the Rabbis found out what happened and how upset R’ Yochanan was they sent someone else to learn with him, to be his chavrusa. This did not turn out very well as the following narrative from the Gemara indicates (Baba Metzia 84a):

R’ Elazar ben Pedas (who was quite sharp) went to learn with R’ Yochanan. Every time R’ Yochanan would say something, R’ Elazar b. Pedas would say, “there is a mishna that supports what you just said”. Finally R’ Yochanan said to him, “Listen. When I would tell Reish Lakish something he would come up with 24 challenges (with proofs) against each thing I said. And you keep telling me there is a mishna that supports what I am saying! Of course there is, do you think I don’t know what I’m talking about?!”

My father, R’ Henoch Dov Hoffman, explains that R’ Yochanan was not looking for a ‘yes man’ to simply support everything he said. R’ Yochanan wanted someone who could challenge him to grow, to learn, and to push through his own intellectual and spiritual limits.

This is what everyone needs, especially our Rabbanim and community leaders. We need someone to challenge us in a healthy and respectful way but in a way that is not afraid or bashful. And our job is to treat this person as a Rav and a friend. This person needs to be treated as someone who can give guidance and will also maintain our humanity, doubts, and struggles in total confidence. The role of this person could be accurately described as a life partner whom the Torah calls ezer k’negdoa help against you.

This person I have described here, who fills the role of rabbi and friend is the antidote to those forces which R’ Elazar HaKapar warned us about. We will all be challenged by desire, jealousy, and honor but if we have someone with a clearer perspective then he or she can help and challenge us through those potential pitfalls. Imagine how things might have been different if the Rabbi had been able to trust someone enough to tell him, “I have this intense desire to watch women in the mikveh please help me get through this difficult challenge.”

In order for the Rabbi to have said something so vulnerable he would have had to know with certainty that he would not be judged negatively by his listener and that this person could hold the rabbi’s humanity with love. HaRav Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk explains that for the whole “friend” thing to work out the subject must be able to share everything without fear of embarrassment. He explains that only by feeling free to share will the person be able to properly utilize his own power and that of his confidante against the challenges that he must confront.

We can do better.

We can recognize that we and the rabbi are equally fallible. We can recognize that being the rabbi in a community is profoundly challenging and as a community we own the responsibility of providing a support system for our rabbi. This is not only a system of checks and balances but a system of support, a system that can say “I see your humanity and I’m here to support you.”

So I say to you, Jewish Community: Find someone who is not scared to hold the rabbi’s humanity. Let that person be trained and experienced so he knows how to hold space in a supportive way, can listen without judging, and suggest without commanding.

What I have written here is not a sure solution to the problems that affect our communities. Rather, what is suggested in this article is a contribution to the dynamic process of good people trying to make the world a little better and more conscientious, one experience at a time.

Let’s do better.
















About the Author
Ari is a married father of 3 living in Denver, CO. Ari has been a therapist since 2007 and has a physical and online private practice. Ari has been a wilderness guide since 1999 doing trips in Colorado, Utah, and Alaska. He aspires to be a bush pilot in Alaska when he grows up.