In Wake of Fake Persona Scandal, U.S. Orthodox Rabbi Tells Haaretz: It’s Not Unethical

In an exclusive interview, Rabbi Michael Broyde, who used a fake identity to join a rival rabbinical group, promote his own scholarship and correspond with other rabbis, says, 'I don’t understand the issue. That’s the truth.'

NEW YORK - Rabbi Michael Broyde, who has arguably been the single most prominent young Orthodox rabbi in America, has lost his job as a judge on the Beth Din of America, after admitting he used a false identity to write and comment on essays and blogs, and join the closed email discussion list of a rival rabbinical group, over the past two decades.

The director of the rabbinical court, Rabbi Shlomo Weissman, said in a statement to Haaretz, “Rabbi Michael Broyde has requested an indefinite leave of absence from his role as a chaver (member) and dayan (judge) of the Beth Din of America and the Beth Din has accepted his request…We thank Rabbi Broyde for his numerous contributions to the Beth Din over the past many years.”

The Rabbinical Council of America, under whose auspices the Beth Din operates and on whose executive committee Broyde sat, also removed his name and bio from its website.

These are the first of the prominent roles Broyde has played in modern Orthodox life that he has lost as a result of the scandal, whose significance he did not seem to understand. In his first interview once his subterfuge became public, Broyde said, “I don’t understand the issue. That’s the truth.”

In addition to using the name Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser to laud work he had written under his own name, Broyde used it to obtain a membership in the online forum of a rabbinical organization competing with the professional organization of centrist Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, on whose executive committee he sits.

Broyde is also a tenured professor of law at Emory University.

The story ricocheted around the Orthodox blogosphere on Friday, when it was published by Steven I. Weiss on the website of cable network The Jewish Channel. Just before Shabbat began, a blog where Broyde has posted articles since 2007 published an apology from him, titled “My nom de plume exposed.”

In it, Broyde writes, "It was an error of judgment on our part to join any professional organization. We did so in an era in which membership was not verified at all and no fee was charged, but it was still something that my own rabbayim would not approve of and thus I regret. I am truly and genuinely sorry for this."

At a time when few Orthodox rabbis engage publicly on contemporary issues, Broyde has been one of the rare high-profile Jewish legal authorities to comment on the intersection of culture and Jewish law, as well as on purely technical halakhic matters. He has weighed in on subjects as fraught in contemporary Orthodox Judaism as conversion, divorce and the ability to enforce marriage contracts, and women’s ordination. Broyde has published eight books and more than 100 scholarly articles and book chapters, according to Emory Law School. He was named this year to Newsweek’s list of the 50 top rabbis in America.

Broyde, 48, spoke exclusively with Haaretz as soon as Shabbat ended in Atlanta, where he lives with his wife and their four children. In an interview during which he ranged from sounding befuddled about the fuss to defensive and at other times contrite, he downplayed the seriousness of his deception.

“I don’t understand the issue. That’s the truth,” he said.

He and a friend began using the Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser identity in the early 1990s, writing to Jewish journals using the name, he said. They used the name to publish in Jewish scholarly journals as diverse as Conservative Judaism and the RCA’s Tradition.

“It started as an intellectual adventure to see if we could write together on some things. We were good friends, partners on many different topics,” Broyde said.

He would not identify the friend, saying, “he has more at stake to lose than I do.”

Asked if they both had access to the Hershel Goldwasser email account, Broyde paused before saying yes. He said they stopped using the Hershel Goldwasser name “three or four years ago,” but that since then someone else has been using it. “When you have a pseudonym you can’t complain when someone else uses it,” he says.

He has, Broyde admitted, “sockpuppeted” since then, using other names to post compliments of his own blog essays. One, from “David Gold,” complimented a January 2013 essay written by Broyde on a Torah-focused blog called Hirhurim. “What a thoughtful and interesting piece by Rabbi Broyde,” wrote Gold.

The Jewish Channel article reports that there are three different names that posted laudatory comments under Broyde’s Hirhurim essays between 2011 and 2013, all of them originating from the same IP address, or unique identifiers indicating that they came from an account Broyde owns.

Asked if he will continue to sockpuppet, Broyde said, “I don’t know. I haven’t in a while. I haven’t given it any thought.”

He defended the practice of adopting a false name under which to publish articles or books, citing examples as varied as Orthodox rabbis, Lewis Carroll and Stephen King.

“Presenting an idea independent of the author is not a deep problem. Sometimes you want people to examine ideas independent of the person who said them,” Broyde said. “It’s not unethical to use a different name.”

Asked if he considered it lying, Broyde said, “I don’t view writing under the name Hershel Goldwasser as lying. It’s a technical untruth, so I guess you can call it lying. But it’s a well-accepted social convention.”

While no one takes seriously Internet trolls who post attacks using obviously fake names, Broyde’s deception was more convincing for the length of time that he employed it, the believability of the names he adopted for his online commenting and writing, and because he is so well known for his erudition.

“People take him very seriously," said Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department at the American Jewish Committee. "He is very widely respected. There is a lot of depth and richness there. The fact that he is a tenured professor at Emory Law School is quite an achievement,” said Bayme, who is also part of the centrist Orthodox community.

But Broyde appears not to feel that he merits his relatively high profile.

“I’ve never quite felt important in any significant way,” he told Haaretz.

Asked if he thinks he may have undermined his ability to work as a judge, an interpreter of Jewish law or as an attorney and law professor, he said, “I certainly hope I haven’t done irreconcilable damage to myself.”

When The Jewish Channel article appeared, Broyde said that he immediately went to speak with the dean of Emory Law School. Dean Robert Schapiro “listened attentively,” said Broyde, "but I don’t think at its core it is an Emory matter.”

Likewise, he said that he doesn’t think it will present a problem for the bar association to which he is admitted, and he has not heard from anyone at the Beth Din of America, the Rabbinical Council of America or Emory.

Even though it has become routine for people to adopt fake names when posting comments on blogs, Bayme said, “Given his stature I’m a little bit more surprised than I would be for someone else. It’s unfortunate that it’s done at all. But here the degree of unfortunateness is greater. It certainly is surprising.”

“This should be seen as a serious lapse in judgment for which he should be held accountable,” Bayme said.

Other scandals have recently rocked the mainstream Orthodox world, including a sexual abuse cover-up by Yeshiva University. But of Broyde’s long-running deception, said Bayme, “I would hardly see this as fatal for centrist Orthodoxy.”

Asked why anyone should believe that there was a second person involved in creating and using the Hershel Goldwasser character and why the friend was letting Broyde take responsibility for the deception, the rabbi said, “My agreement was that I would go public. It’s reasonable that someone could even question my credibility. But what can I do? You have to have some loyalty to your friends.”

Asked by Haaretz why he would laud his own essays on websites, Broyde described it as “succumbing to the vanity of naked praise. That’s just immaturity.”

He minimized its importance, saying, “It doesn’t sound so serious. It’s not as though there’s a stock price I’m trying to manipulate.

“I think I have something to contribute. I hope to go to back to presenting ideas to our community in a useful way. But I’m not 100 percent sure” if serious damage has been done, Broyde said. “I can only hope and pray on the matter.”  

YouTube screenshot