Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Sex, rabbis and the downfall of Judaism

As Jewish leaders pick and choose practices that align with their social norms, venerable traditionalists are shunted aside. To wit: Rabbi Art Green
Rabbi Arthur Green in 2020. (Hebrew College, via JTA, via The Times of Israel)
Rabbi Arthur Green in 2020. (Hebrew College, via JTA, via The Times of Israel)

The story of Art Green and his “sexual misconduct” has appeared in all English language publications in Israel — The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Ynet, and many more abroad. All media tell the exact same story drawn from one source – a piece by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The story has all the ingredients of a juicy and newsworthy story: sex, fall from power, and problems in a Jewish institution. To the gallery of rabbinical figures to whom we have been exposed – Ezra Scheinberg, Motti Elon, Eliezer Berland, Zvi Thau, Shlomo Carlebach, and others, we must now add the founder of Hebrew College’s rabbinical seminary, a former head of the Reconstructionist rabbinical college, one of the great present day scholars of Kabbalah, and to my mind one of the most important contemporary Jewish theologians. Shock indeed.

The title of the JTA essay that appears everywhere references “sexual misconduct.” The byline features Green’s admission of guilt. There seems to be no need to read any further. Indeed, as one analysis in the Forward suggests, the story is to be understood as one more expression of the fixed story line involving sexual misconduct, abuse of power and institutional response, that runs through all similar cases. I suppose the authors of the piece in the JTA thought in similar terms. How else is one to account for their describing these events as a “an ignominious coda to a storied career”? Codas come at the end. No music is heard thereafter. Green, then, is done. He is now a bitter memory.

All this, until one reads the piece itself, complemented by a reading of Green’s own circular letter, where he recounts things from his perspective. Reading these two documents leads me to question whether Green really fits the story line. In fact, I am not sure Green himself is where the story lies. I think another, far more troubling story, emerges from these documents, when we extract them from the standard narrative of a powerful religious leader who abuses his power to gain sex.

I am not sure the facts justify applying the predator/serial violator story line to Green. There is no predatory behavior, no repetitive pattern, no abuse of power, no violation of teacher-student relations, and to top it all – no sex. Of course, sex and improper relationships may be broadly defined and may not requires nakedness, genital contact, or any of the elements by means of which sex is typically recognized. Nevertheless, the combination of quantity (a single event that Green acknowledges as improper and a second event that is purely Green’s private matter) and quality (by all accounts in both cases we are talking about a kiss, nothing further), combined with the fact that we are dealing with a figure who is an octogenarian with no history of abuse – all these add up, in my mind, to the view that the standard story line of sexual/power misconduct should not be applied to Green.

If I am right, then we must revisit the “Green affair” not simply with the intention of distinguishing between Green and Carlebach or Berland. Two questions arise that are more important morally and religiously than whether Green is guilty as charged or not.

The first concerns the piece in the JTA. Declaring this a “coda” to Green’s career is not a neutral description. It is, in fact, creating the reality that it describes. How do the authors know this is the end? After all, Green has been removed from Hebrew College for a number of years, during which time he has published and taught. In fact, new audiences, here in Israel, are being exposed to his work that is going into translation. To declare this a “coda” is the equivalent of consciously signing a death warrant, if not for the man then for his legacy and public image. Perhaps in a #MeToo age, and given journalistic sensationalism, journalists consider this to be their task. But what does “Jewish” in “Jewish Telegraphic Agency” stand for? Is it simply a description of the subject matter covered by the agency or does it, and should it, also portray some kind of responsibility to Jewish values and ideals?

If there is any moral compass, drawn from the sources of Judaism, that should inform the work of journalists, then this story is a failure, egregious in its consequences. Hassidic teachers teach that “halbenat p’nei havero be-rabim” — don’t embarrass your friend among the many, or: public shaming — is not only something that deserves exclusion from the world to come; it is a subtle form of murder, thereby coming under “Thou shalt not murder.” The “many” of olden days was the public academy, the public square. Today, as the citing of the JTA’s piece in all media shows us, “many” is the entire world!

What are the moral guidelines of crossing from private to public that should inform Jewish journalism today, when more is at stake for the subject of a story than in any previous era? The case of Art Green is, I believe, an important test case. Whoever told the story as he told it, and moreover coined the term “coda” to describe this phase in Green’s career, was committing a subtle form of murder, character assassination if you will, above and beyond what the facts justify.

The second question that arises from the events as recounted is even more troubling. It has to do with where some forms of Judaism are going and how far expressions of Judaism can go without becoming, as the joke goes, “the religion closest to Judaism.” For many Orthodox thinkers, all other denominations have long crossed the line and are, in fundamental ways, no longer Jewish or faithful representatives of Judaism. I have long resisted such an approach, preferring what Jonathan Sacks (in One People?) calls an “inclusivist” views of other streams of Judaism, as seen from an Orthodox perspective. The facts of the present case lead me to revisit this question. Excluding purely political motives (suggested by Green himself, in order to account for the discrepancy between his misdeeds and official reactions), it appears there is a much more fundamental divide that touches on the nature of contemporary Judaism and where it is going.

The facts are that Green and the offended faculty member, who is an ex-student, did hold a meeting, in which Green apologized, and some measure of understanding and forgiveness was attained. Hebrew College had also asked for a public ceremony of “restorative justice” to be held, which Green refused. I don’t know what such restorative justice ceremonies consist of and I do not know why they need be public. I do know that they are not part of tradition. Tradition requires a person who has hurt another to seek his pardon. This Green did. His refusal to comply with a newly invented ceremony is, in fact, an insistence on following the classical instructions of Judaism, and not practicing newly invented rituals, in the name of Judaism. I have a very strong sense that this fact shapes the entire story, leading eventually to Hebrew College’s public announcement of Green’s sins and declaring him a persona non grata on campus.

In this reading, the story is not Green’s sinfulness. It is the story of how Judaism is constructed. One cannot separate all this from Hebrew College’s move toward permitting its gay students to marry non-Jews, a policy to which Green strongly objected. Thoughtfulness, understanding and compassion (the divine trait of mercy) are applied to the needs of students to the extreme of bending fundamental definitions of Judaism. When it comes to the “father figure,” the opposite approach is taken. The divine trait of judgement, harsh judgement, is applied, amplifying transgressions, in quality and in quantity. Green is viewed through the very same set of priorities that focus on the needs of gay students, but now reversed and applied as judgement upon Green himself.

Judaism, in the ideology of the present leadership of the college, is malleable. Its rules can be bent to accommodate the needs of its student body. New ceremonies enter and receive foundational status, to the extent that failure to conform with them leads to eventual exclusion. Judaism is no longer a set of binding rules. It is a smorgasbord of options, rituals, possibilities, to be applied at will and in line with reigning ideologies and social norms. Rabbi Sharon Anisfeld, the college’s president, provides us with further example of this when she speaks of Green’s lack of teshuva. Teshuva is something one engages in in relation to God. In relation to an offended human party, one engages in the asking of pardon. But Green is declared by her as having failed to do teshuva (by what spiritual authority, I ask) because of failure to live up to the social norms she imagines. Yet, these are the very same norms that she supports in relation to her students.

None of the “sinful” elements of incident one are present in incident two, that has led the college to its extreme reaction. The only common denominator is a second kiss, with no complaints, no victims and no violation of any ethical or institutional codes, the very behavior that would be seen as normal for her students. The hypocrisy and inconsistency require an explanation. If it is not purely and simply political, in seeking to neutralize Green’s voice, then something far worse comes to expression. Judaism has been so twisted and turned into something else, that she, and others, can no longer distinguish authentic, historical Judaism from the emerging mutation of Judaism to which they subscribe. Green’s story, then, is one of classical Judaism (even in its Conservative variant) confronting emerging forms of Judaism that operate by a different set of ideals and rules.

In my reading, the tragedy is much greater than the public shaming of Green. He’ll get over it, I’m sure. But what of Judaism? What of a generation of rabbis being trained by this particular form of “Judaism”? What of their congregations who will encounter a gay, intermarried rabbi as the authentic representative of Judaism, with no sense of commandment, obligation, and submission to tradition?

Art Green is an important Jewish figure. He has been important as a teacher for decades. With this story, his importance takes on another expression. Through this story, he has become a mirror, that is held up to Jewish bodies, in media and in the rabbinate. What he reflects are crucial questions that cannot be set aside. Perhaps the next important chapter in Green’s career should be devoting himself to reflecting further upon where Judaism is going, in its various denominational and non-denominational expressions.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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