Thoughts on the Latest Rabbinic Scandal

We have all been shocked and saddened to learn of the immoral and illegal behavior of a prominent Orthodox rabbi who was recently arrested for voyeurism, i.e. for planting a hidden camera in the mikvah of his community. This behavior is reprehensible beyond words, and the women who used that mikvah are understandably indignant over this breach of their privacy. They came to the sacred precincts of the mikvah for ritual purification—but now learn that their trust has been betrayed by their own rabbi.

Users of mikvaot throughout the world now wonder if they, too, are being compromised by unsavory individuals who might also be able to install spying devices. This is surely a “wake up call” to all operators of mikvaot to carefully examine their own facilities, to ensure that no hidden cameras are on site. They need to be vigilant that nothing like this can happen again.

The current scandal goes beyond the particular crime, because the rabbi involved has been a well-known figure in the Rabbinical Council of America and a foremost leader in developing the RCA’s policies on conversion. This rabbi, who served as one of the RCA’s gatekeepers into Judaism, now turns out to have severe moral and religious deficiencies. Many are now asking: are all the conversions he performed valid or not? Are his conversions retroactively annulled so that his converts need to undergo new conversions? Rabbi Gedalya Schwartz, the head of the Beth Din of the RCA, has ruled that all conversions performed before the rabbi’s arrest on October 14, 2014 are valid; all those who converted under that rabbi’s auspices are Jewish and do not require a re-conversion. This is a wise halakhic decision.

It is ironic that one of the RCA’s most visible proponents of “raising standards” for conversion has now had his membership suspended by the RCA. This case reminds us of the scandal a few years ago involving a rabbi who headed the hareidi conversion organization Eternal Jewish Family. He had to resign his post due to serious allegations of sexual improprieties. These rabbis who spoke piously for “raising standards” i.e. drawing on stringencies in halakha rather than relying on more compassionate and inclusive halakhic views—turn out not to have been stringent in their own religious behavior. Even when they must have realized the impropriety and immorality of their behavior, they did not seek outside help, they did not resign from their posts, they did not cease in their public statements calling for stringency in halakha.

On a positive note, the arrested rabbi’s congregation acted quickly when it learned of their rabbi’s sins/crimes. They suspended him without pay. Likewise, the Rabbinical Council of America held an emergency meeting on October 15, at which the rabbi’s membership in the RCA was suspended. Instead of trying to cover up or downplay this scandal, these organizations acted promptly and responsibly.

Neither the rabbi’s congregation nor the RCA could have foreseen that this man would be arrested for voyeurism. Although the RCA had received some negative reports about this rabbi in the past, none seemed to be more than hearsay and none was found to be actionable.

I would like to jump to another topic….that I think has bearing on the current scandal.

Years ago, I was active in the National Rabbinic Cabinet of the UJA. This group sponsored important conferences that brought together a large group of rabbis of the various denominations. At one of the conferences, we heard a talk that we will never forget.

One of the leaders of the group—a non-Orthodox rabbi—was known to us as a fine, dedicated friend. He was likeable, thoughtful, even charismatic in his own way. At one of the conferences, he stood before his colleagues and told us: “I have suffered for many years as an alcoholic.”

We all gasped. Here was a respected colleague…and now we learn he is an alcoholic!

But then he went on and told his story…how he first became an alcoholic, how this impacted on his wife and family, how he continued to function as a rabbi while keeping his alcoholism a secret, how he deceived us over the years by hiding his alcoholism from us. At some point, he realized he could no longer live this lie. It was destroying himself, his family, his ability to function in the community. He went to the Board of his congregation and confessed his situation. He assumed they would fire him.

They didn’t fire him. They gave him a sabbatical. They told him to sign himself into a rehab program at their expense. They stood by him at his time of distress.

The rabbi went through months of rehab and came out “cured.” He resumed his role as rabbi of his community. He continued his leadership role in UJA and other organizations.

After his speech, we all rose and gave him a long ovation. He feared that he would be diminished in our eyes by confessing his alcoholism. The reverse happened. Our respect for him grew. He showed how it was possible to emerge from a tormented lifestyle and to take responsibility for putting life onto a positive track.

The lesson is: when rabbis—or any others—recognize that they have deep problems, they need to seek help. They need to be courageous enough to face their negative qualities, to admit their inability to control negative behaviors…and then to reach out to those who can help them to overcome the problem. Addictions are destructive. Whether the addictions are related to substance abuse or sexuality or gambling…or whatever else, a person must face up to the problem and seek to overcome the addiction.

Whenever a rabbi—or any other religious role model—is arrested for scandalous and criminal behavior, this creates a desecration of God’s Name. It defames religion and fans the flames of religious cynicism. It takes time to restore public trust; and sometimes, that trust is never fully restored.

It is imperative that people who are trapped in a pattern of deviant behavior seek help immediately, before a public scandal is caused. This is for their own good and for the good of their families and communities. It is for the greater glory of God.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel is Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. Author and editor of 38 books, he is Rabbi Emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City, and Past President of the Rabbinical Council of America.