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Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.
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When a rabbi sins

Those who cross the line irreparably violate a trust – and yet they are still people and need to know they are never beyond help

In the last three weeks alone, we have been bombarded by stories and allegations of rabbinic behavior that violates every normative standard, that preys on the weakest and most innocent of victims. The compliment the world pays to rabbis is that they’re shocked when rabbis behave as badly as many other humans in power do as well. And somehow the excuse, “Well rabbis are just people,” while technically true, does not temper the outrage. We continue to hold them, as we should, to a higher authority. It is not okay to turn children into victims, to wage war against women, to assault gays, lesbians, and trans people; and to do it under the cloak of rabbinic power is a sin.

We need to be clear that there can be no accommodation for such behavior. There is teshuvah (repentance) possible for every individual, but not restoration. The trust that the world bestows upon rabbis is millennia strong and eggshell fragile; when it is broken, it is destroyed. I want to be very clear that people who commit these crimes remain people. Our tradition teaches unambivalently, “Those who love the Lord must hate evil,” and the rabbis rush in to affirm we must hate the evil but not the evildoer.

The evildoer is a broken shell of a person, or else they could not behave in the way they have. Nevertheless, the sin is beyond repair. It is unforgivable. Any perpetrator forfeits the capacity for people to bestow upon them the unbelievable trust that they hand to us every time. “Here, Rabbi! Be with our pre-schoolers.” “Marry our children.” “Stand with us as we die.” “Counsel and comfort us in our grief.” “Offer us wisdom to make sense םכ a crazy world.” They turn to us based on a trust that can only be given once.

We rabbis are answerable; we are commanded; we live, and we breathe in covenant. That covenant is our greatest privilege and at the same time a heavy burden. All of which implies that we have to know ourselves. We must know ourselves well enough to know what we cannot cope with. We must know when we are beginning to crack, when the anger surfaces too easily, when our victimhood becomes a weapon against others. We must read ourselves and know when we need help.

One of my favorite midrashim zeroes in on that moment when our ancestor, Joseph, was enslaved in Egypt in Potiphar’s home. Mrs. Potiphar was coming after him hot and heavy (that’s not the exact words Scripture uses; you know what I mean), and Joseph could feel himself wavering. We are taught in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah that his response was to conjure the image of his father, Jacob, whom he hadn’t seen in several years! Inspired by the image of his father, Joseph was incapable of acting on his lust, or hers.

From that story, we learn two insights: The first is that we don’t actually have to call the person we would designate to call; sometimes, it’s enough to summon their image and that can remind us for the moment of who we truly are and give us the fortitude to say, “I need to step away; I need to leave.”

But, sometimes we need to have an actual person to call. Don’t finish this article without having determined who are the two or three or four people who, when we cannot be who we’re meant to be — before we do anything that crosses the line, call them.

I recall a beloved colleague who thought that he had done something so irreparable that he drove himself to his death. And the drive wasn’t a short one. It spanned half a day. What I can’t get over is that at no point in those hours and hours of driving, in the depths of his despair, he didn’t think of one of us, his colleagues who loved him, to call and say, “I’m about to lose control, come get me. Meet me where I am.” There are several rabbinic colleagues who would give anything to have received that call and would have driven to his side.

So, make a list of your go-to friends. Promise you’ll call. Before you hurt yourself. Before you hurt someone else.

We all hit bumps. We all have terrible days, and we sometimes do terrible things; that doesn’t make us terrible people, it means we did a terrible thing. Please have some people to call. Put me on that list if you don’t have real people, but call somebody.

We are taught by Jewish tradition that each person has a Holy Flame, a love of Torah, a love of justice, a love of compassion and decency and goodness, a desire to serve and to help and to be Klei Kodesh (God’s holy instruments) in a world that desperately needs healing.

There will be times when we will have come so close to crossing that line, don’t do it.

The mountain hangs over our heads and we are commanded to stay on the straight and narrow and if we do, “fools will stumble, but the righteous they will stand” shining a light that will make the night as bright as day. At those moments when we feel ourselves tipping, please know the only deluded Jew is one who thinks they are alone, who thinks they are beyond love, beyond care, beyond help. We are an ancient and chosen people; we are never outside, never alone.

So, in those times picture our father Jacob, picture our mother Rachel crying for their children, picture your own parents who love you, picture your friends and classmates, your rabbis and teachers, and then call out. I bless each of us to know our own strength, courage, vision, and the awareness that we do not have to walk this path alone.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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