November 19, 2013

When Rabbis Sin

Rabbi Haber

NOTE: As can be seen from the date below and the content of the post, I wrote this originally in November 2013.  In October 2014, a few days after the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, I posted it again on my Facebook page.  An intense conversation ensued with a number of my friends making some very salient comments.  As a result, I realized that the original post was not nuanced enough - so I have now added a few additional sentences.  Those added sentences appear below in this green color.

Today was a sad day for anyone who cares about the honor of Torah. This morning's news reported that former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was arrested on suspicions of accepting bribes, and of a list of other serious offenses including fraud, money laundering, breach of trust, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

Of course, the rabbi has not even been indicted yet, and certainly not convicted, so we must be careful about drawing conclusions. In addition (and this is itself a sad statement about the current state of the rabbinate), I don't know too many people who actually viewed Rabbi Metzger as any type of halachic or spiritual leader. Nevertheless, the sight of someone who represented Torah to Israel and the world being led away into police custody is extremely disturbing.

This incident comes on the heels of a number of other disturbing incidents in recent months and years involving high profile rabbis caught committing various types of sins – some of them criminal offenses, and some not. Unfortunately, the list is not very short, but a few that come to mind are Rabbi Michael Broyde of Atlanta, a prominent rabbinic judge on the Beth Din of America who was caught using fake internet identities to dishonestly promote himself and his scholarship; Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Brooklyn, who was arrested a month ago on accusations of charging women tens of thousands of dollars in order to help them receive a get by hiring thugs to torture their recalcitrant husbands; and Rabbi Motti Elon here in Israel, who was convicted this past summer of indecent assault against two minors.

These extremely unfortunate incidents cause a huge amount of damage, in a number of different ways. Besides the direct damage they have caused to specific individuals, and the general element of Chilul Hashem (desecrating God's name) they cause, there is something else that often escapes attention. Many of these discredited rabbis were talented leaders, and their indiscretion robs the community of the opportunity to continue benefitting from their scholarship, leadership and whatever else they did that brought them to their exalted positions in the first place.

Of course, the responsibility for this tragic state of affairs rests on the shoulders of the offending rabbis themselves – through their violations of halacha and ethics, they brought about all of this destruction, and they must be held accountable.

The question, though, is whether the damage can ever be reversed.

Must every scandal always be a career ender? Hypothetically, if these disgraced rabbis would apologize and express remorse, could it ever possible for them to be forgiven and continue to lead us? Can someone who has committed serious offences ever regain our respect and admiration?

At first glance, the answer should be no. Although we believe in the power of repentance and might be able to overlook past indiscretions on the part of our friends and neighbors, we expect more from our leaders. They have to be people of impeccable character; this is what makes them worthy to lead us. Indeed, this seems to be the view of Rabbi Yochanan, quoted in the Talmud (Chagiga 15b) as saying that in order to be worthy of teaching Torah, a rabbi must be comparable to an angel of God.

On the other hand, a different statement of Rabbi Yochanan (Avodah Zara 4b-5a, in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) tells us otherwise. If someone is unsure of the power of repentance, he says, he should look to the example of King David, who "raised up the yoke of repentance". According to the Bible (II Shmuel 11-12) King David was guilty of some of the most severe crimes possible – adultery and murder. [1] He was accused of these crimes by the prophet Natan and sentenced to multiple punishments involving very severe suffering for many years.

But he wasn't removed from his position. In fact, not only did he rule the Jewish People for the rest of his life, but he was promised that his descendants would continue to rule forever. And he leads us not only in spite of the fact that he sinned, but to a large extent because of it. Some of his most inspiring psalms were written as a result of his feelings of anguish for what he did (e.g., Tehillim 51) and of the tragedies he suffered as a result (e.g., Tehillim 3).

Yes, Rabbi Yochanan teaches us that our rabbis must be like angels, but he also teaches us that King David is our role model because he sinned and repented. Apparently, one can become like an angel even after committing very serious crimes.

Therefore, I would like to call upon each and every one of these rabbis who have been found guilty of any type of wrongdoing, to follow David's example, admit his guilt and accept responsibility. This is not going to be easy. Among other things, it will require them to publicly accept guilt and apologize, and to make amends to the offended parties as much as possible. Very often, it will also require at least temporarily being removed from positions of honor and influence.  In cases where they have committed criminal offenses, they must also cooperate fully with law enforcement and - after due process - accept the justice of whatever sentence they are given, and serve it with dignity. 

The rabbi will need to convince the community that he is serious about repenting, and is willing – like King David – to pay the price for his offences, doing whatever is necessary, for as long as it takes, to convince us of their genuine sincerity.

If and when that happens, though, I suggest we make clear that we will be willing to take them back as rabbinic leaders, but only if we are confident that appropriate safeguards are in place to make sure they don't repeat their crimes. Many times - certainly in the case of sexual offenders - they must permanently remove themselves from any position involving direct contact with students or congregants.  But if they have done everything described above, even they could still contribute in other ways, for example by writing articles.

Sadly, I don't see too many instances of disgraced rabbis acting this way. They generally continue to maintain their innocence or at most acknowledge some minor errors of judgment. Undoubtedly, this is largely because it is very difficult for anyone to publicly admit guilt and suffer the huge embarrassment this entails. But perhaps it's also because they know that their only chance of salvaging their careers is if they could somehow convince people that they aren't guilty at all. In our current culture that expects our rabbis to be perfect saints, there's simply no room for public repentance.

If we make clear as a community that we are willing to be led by those who follow in the footsteps of King David, maybe we'll be able to encourage some people to take those difficult steps. If they do, then when a great rabbi makes a great mistake, we won't necessarily have to lose a great leader. Maybe at least one of them will rise to the challenge and own up to his errors.

If he does, perhaps we'll be able to continue learning from his Torah. And more importantly, he'll teach us all an important lesson about how to repent.

[1]I am well aware of the various rabbinic interpretations suggesting mitigating circumstances according to which David was not actually guilty of those specific offences. There are also other views in the Talmud that say that in fact he was guilty of exactly those crimes, and of additional ones as well. But since that discussion is not the focus of this post, I began my sentence with the phrase "according to the Bible". The plain sense of the Biblical text is certainly that David committed adultery with Batsheva and then sent her husband to his death in order to cover up his crime. If he did not actually do these things, the Bible apparently wants us to understand that whatever he did do was, in his case, just as bad.

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