Joshua Berman

Revering rabbis in the age of scandal

On the importance of being able to put our spiritual leaders up on a pedestal

To judge by the headlines in recent years clergymen (emphasis on –men) in the United States are all too often revealing just how human and fallible they are. In fact, Orthodox rabbis and Catholic priests seem to be leading the field in this most ignoble of categories. That’s no accident. Catholicism and Orthodoxy place a premium on the respect and reverence offered to the spiritual leader in a way unmatched in more liberal streams of Judaism and Christianity. That respect and reverence is meant to instill a degree of trust among the flock of the faithful. That trust, in turn creates a range of relationships and situations unique to orthodoxy and Catholicism where that trust can be brutally violated.

So who needs all this reverence for rabbis anyway? Rabbis are people, too. Maybe they know a little more than others, but they are as infallible in their humanity as anyone else.

I lecture about Judaism to largely non-observant audiences in my capacity as a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. Some aspects about Judaism are not always intuitive for my students, such as halakhic Sabbath observance or the notion of total celibacy before marriage. But there is really only one topic that is toxic, where I find that I’m better off just not raising it: the idea that you can look up to a spiritual leader that you truly revere–not just respect, or admire, but revere. When I go there, I get a contorted expressions that say, “You’ve drunk the Kool-aid. What you’re describing is a cult.”

Let me speak from personal experience. There have been four rabbis in my lifetime that I have revered all while I was in the student age of life. I looked to them not only as founts of knowledge and wisdom, which they were, but as paragons of how life could and should be lived, in spirit and in personal comport. My perception of them gave me a very high bar to which to aspire. I don’t know how well I’ve actualized those aspirations. But I never even would have tried without their personal example. More importantly, I would never have tried without the systemic subliminal message of orthodoxy that these were men to be revered.

I will admit, that as the years have gone on, my sense of these four men has changed somewhat. I am more aware of the complexities of their character than I was as a young adult. I would say that I still revere them to some degree, but not with the unbridled passion that I did when I was younger. In some ways I appreciate them even more now. Some would say that back then I was little more than a naïve groupie and that now I have come to my senses. I would beg to differ.

My evolved perception of my revered rabbis is exactly parallel to the process we all go through in relation to parents we love. If you’ve been raised in a loving home, you’re likely to hold one or both of your parents in unparalleled esteem. They are, simply put, the model of what you want to become. Yet as life goes on, that esteem becomes more nuanced and mature. You become more aware of the complexity of their character. And maybe that appreciation grows precisely because you are aware of the complexity of life.

That doesn’t invalidate the full throttled reverence you may have had when you were younger. It means that our interaction with those that model life for us takes on a different complexion at different stages of life. It is no accident that rabbinic sources draw innumerable parallels between parents and teachers. Just as a child only gains by holding a worthy parent in the highest esteem, as someone who would be a model of how to live life, so too, the rabbis understood that a worthy teacher could serve in the same capacity.

Sometimes we invest our trust and admiration in someone who then violates that trust. Thirty years ago our small congregation had a rabbi who was as intelligent and articulate as any I had ever encountered. His name was Barry Freundel. His crime against the Jewish people has been difficult personally because of the admiration I had for the vision he put forth.

I heartily endorse the various checks and balances that have been proposed to ensure that a crime like this never happens again, even if it marks every male member of the Jewish people a suspected sexual predator. At the same time, I look back on the rabbis that I have revered, and don’t regret for a second the fact that I put them up on a pedestal. Their example serves as an inspiration for me to strive higher every day.

The various scandals of the last few years are a wake-up call from our collective naivete. Going forth we will need to be more cautious, even more suspicious of individuals of authority. But let’s not lose that vital and healthy sense of reverence for the individuals who could make our lives so much richer for it. Don’t throw out the rabbi with the mikvah water.

About the Author
Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and is the author of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).