Scandal or tragedy? Some thoughts on the burdens of leadership

Oh, no, here we go again.

That was my instinctive reaction when I first saw the headline “The Rabbi and the Sauna” on the front page of the Metropolitan section of the Sunday New York Times a few weeks back. Had yet another prominent Orthodox rabbi been caught engaging in scandalous behavior – behavior that would be an embarrassment not only to himself and his synagogue but, more important, to the Torah he’s supposed to be teaching? Can’t rabbis manage to learn from the mistakes of their colleagues without first repeating those same mistakes themselves? And can’t newspapers – especially our self-styled “newspaper of record” — find something else to write about for a change?

Rabbinical scandals, however minor they may be in comparison to the myriad other scandals reported by our news media with depressing regularity, are always exceptionally anguish-inducing for those of us who value Torah. In this case, that natural anguish was exacerbated by the timing. This Times story appeared only a couple of weeks after another prominent Orthodox rabbi was sentenced to a six and a half year prison term for secretly videotaping women using his synagogue’s mikveh. Despite some superficial resemblance between the two, this most recent scandal – if it can even be fairly called a scandal – is in no way comparable to the hidden-camera-in-the-mikveh case. The coincidence of timing, however, made it inevitable that some readers would compare the two, even though the Times story itself acknowledged that the rabbinical behavior complained of in that story was a far cry from the scandalous behavior reported in other high-profile cases: “His case is hardly the typical stuff of clerical scandal; parsing it is an exercise in ambiguity.” (Since the scandal has been widely publicized, interested readers, if they are so inclined, can easily identify those involved. Because blog posts sometimes pop up in other contexts, however, and because the identity of the rabbi involved, is not necessary for the points I am making, I have not included identifying information in this post.)

The behavior described in the Times story was a by-product of the rabbi’s attempts, beginning shortly after he came to the shul, to bond with teenage boys and young men of his shul, and later to mentor rabbinical students and prospective rabbinical students of typical college age — efforts that by all accounts were largely successful. He would invite them to games of squash or racquetball, which were sometimes followed by conversations in the sauna, during which he and/or they were sometimes naked. Some of those who engaged in these sauna conversations felt uncomfortable with the nudity, while others apparently did not.

At some point fairly early in the rabbi’s tenure, some of the congregation’s lay leaders told him that the sauna part of these meetings was problematic and urged him to stop. At some point, he apparently stopped the sauna invitations to teenagers, though the Times article was unclear as to precisely when. That may have occurred in 1989, after he was initially approached by the then president of his congregation. He apparently continued sauna visits with some rabbinic interns and young adult congregants.

This situation is significantly different from the hidden-camera-in-the-mikveh case. Unlike the rabbi in that case, the facts as reported here – in addition to involving only men – contain no hint of secret pictures or videos, or indeed secret viewing of any kind. Nor is this comparable to the notorious case of the sexually abusing youth worker a decade ago, since in this case, unlike that one, there has been no allegation of improper touching. According to the Times story, the Rabbinical Council of America, at one point consulted a psychiatrist, who opined that the rabbi “did not represent a danger to young men in that no physical boundaries had been crossed.”

Based on what is publicly known so far, there appears to be no ground for criminal prosecution. The original Times story quoted a legal expert uninvolved in the case, who suggested that the rabbi’s “conduct could be construed as endangering the welfare of a minor, a misdemeanor” – a speculative wording that hardly suggests confidence in the outcome of any such prosecution. Yes, I know — shortly after the Times story broke, the local district attorney’s office announced that it was opening an investigation. Given the widespread publicity, the DA had little choice but to investigate, but there is a long way to go between that announcement and a formal charge, much less a conviction. The prosecution’s announcement acknowledged, moreover, that the only potentially prosecutable offenses were those involving minors that occurred within the 6-year period prescribed by the applicable statute of limitations. It is unclear whether any of the alleged incidents could meet those threshold requirements.

I am not a rabbi so I don’t claim to know for certain whether the rabbi’s actions were a violation of Halakha. In all that I have read in the weeks since the story broke, however, the only claim I saw that his behavior violated Halakha came from a source that has no competence in such matters. I have been told that others with demonstrated halakhic credibility have also concluded that the behavior in question violated Halakha, but I have not seen any written report of such opinions and therefore cannot comment on them. Even assuming that the rabbi’s actions did not violate either Jewish or American law, however, it is clear that at a minimum, he displayed egregiously poor judgment over a long period of time.

None of us can know for certain whether the rabbi had an ulterior motive for his behavior or was merely acting in a manner that, he believed, effectively enabled him to establish a bond with the young men of his congregation or with rabbinical students he was mentoring. For a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, societal standards in this area have unquestionably changed in recent decades, so that behavior that once would have been presumed to be innocent is now deemed suspicious. To some extent, this rabbi may be a victim of that transition.

If this had been a one-time episode or if no one had called the potential impropriety — or at the very least appearance of impropriety — to the rabbi’s attention, it would be easier to sympathize with him and to attribute this quasi-scandal to an innocent failure to keep up with contemporary mores. It is clear, however, that neither is the case. Lay leaders of his congregation, and colleagues in the Orthodox rabbinate — people who were sympathetic to him and had every reason to wish him success in his efforts to bond with the young men of his congregation — repeatedly called his attention to the questionable propriety of his actions. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that he completely ignored these warnings; apparently, he did at some point limit his sauna conversations to legal adults. It is obvious, however, that he never really took the warnings to heart. Even in the letter he sent to his congregation after the story broke, he seemed unable to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong, limiting himself to expressing “regret” if his “conduct at any time inadvertently offended anyone.”

Some of those sympathetic to the rabbi have questioned why the story broke when it did and why the Times gave it such extensive coverage. Those are fair questions, but they cannot justify or excuse the rabbi’s conduct. The Times story, somewhat obliquely, hints that these incidents were brought to light by a particular individual whom the rabbi “once took to the sauna after he learned that the rabbi had spoken to sixth graders at the school the man’s son attends.” No particulars of the rabbi’s talk to the sixth graders are given, nor is there a suggestion that its subject matter was in any way improper. It appears, however, to have been the catalyst that led the man to post a query about the rabbi to an on-line discussion group.

The ensuing e-mail thread was “private but later shared in part with a reporter,” according to the Times story. Clearly, the conduct complained of was real, and as has become unambiguously clear from the reaction that followed the Times story, there is no clear consensus as to the propriety of that conduct, either in the rabbi’s community or in the larger Jewish world. Whether the Times was approached by the individual and simply reported a breaking story or whether its interest and follow-up essentially created the story remains unclear. Whether the Times was reporting the story or creating it has no bearing on the propriety of the rabbi’s actions. Without question there was a time when this type of behavior would have raised no eyebrows. It is even possible that the impropriety of such behavior was uncertain when the rabbi first came to his shul. It still remains that he not only failed to notice the attitudinal transition in progress but also failed to heed repeated warnings from the shul’s lay leaders.

Why? Any attempt to answer that question will necessarily be speculative, since none of us can get inside another person’s head. While there may have been more than one motivational component contributing to the rabbi’s ultimately self-destructive behavior, I suspect that a substantial factor is pretty straightforward: the rabbi believed that he knew better than anyone else, that he understood the attitudes of both parents and children far better than his lay leadership could. They were worrying unnecessarily, he may have thought, and following their advice would cramp his style, interfering with his hitherto successful attempts to bond with the youth of his community.

Excessive egotism is an occupational hazard of the rabbinate, all the more so for a rabbi who has been as professionally successful and widely respected as this one. Not every rabbi succumbs to the temptation of ego, of course, but it is a temptation against which they must be constantly on guard. Those who come to believe that their congregants have nothing worthwhile to say have disabled one of the key restraints against that temptation. Moses, the Torah teaches us, “was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3, even though he alone “knew God face to face.” (Deut. 34:11). His humility did not devalue his unique relationship with God. Rather it helped him never to forget that even the greatest human being is not omniscient; only God knows all.

Pirkei Avot teaches us that one who is wise learns from all people (Avot 4:1). However much a person knows, there is something he can learn from each person he meets. Moses, after all, followed his father-in-law’s advice on how to set up a court system (Ex. 18:13-26 ). Indeed, the greater a person’s knowledge, the greater the risk that he will confuse human wisdom with omniscience.

The finale of this drama hasn’t been written yet, but it seems unlikely to end well. Even if there are no surprise revelations and no civil or criminal litigation, the rabbi’s moral stature has been compromised. Even if he retains his position, he can never regain more than a shadow of his former effectiveness. Even his past achievements will inevitably lose some of their luster.

Unlike some other recent rabbinical scandals, this story does not have an unambiguous villain, merely a flawed human being who has done much good and could have done much more; that is what makes this story so tragic. There are no villains here, and no heroes, just a Jewish world that doesn’t have enough good leaders and now will have one less.

What a waste.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.