What Stops Jewish Communities From Holding Their Rabbis to Account?

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A rabbi and a synagogue (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

What would you do if rumors of sexual impropriety were circulating about someone in your community? Whom would you approach and where would you get advice? It all depends. If the rumors concerned someone in your child’s school, you might go to the principal. If they concerned someone in your congregation you would likely talk to the rabbi; after all, the rabbi is expected to know everyone and to be above personal squabbles. He would be able to sniff out the source of the rumor discreetly, and if the matter were found to be serious, he would know whom to contact.

But what if the rumors were about the rabbi himself? Further, what if the rabbi in question is beloved by many, and in any case you’re not sure that any serious transgressions have occurred?

Rabbi Jonathan RosenblattCredit: YouTube

In a culture as reverent of tradition as ours, the veneration of rabbis is understandable. But this is not without risk: it removes the checks and balances that might keep inappropriate behavior from escalating to actual transgression.

That was the situation that confronted the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx over many years. For several decades, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt reportedly took young men and boys, some as young as 12, to the gym for a game of racquetball, then showered together with them and took them into the sauna to talk.

The rabbi made no secret of his “sauna talks”, and appeared to see nothing irregular about his behavior. Nevertheless, many were disturbed by it.

Why then, did they not speak out?

While his actions may not have crossed the line of state law, Rabbi Rosenblatt's behavior ran contrary to rabbinic law. The sages who legislated Jewish law over the centuries were well aware of the power imbalance between men and women and between teachers and pupils. Not being able to “legislate away” the imbalance, they tried to prevent situations in which unbalanced authority might lead to abuse. Thus, a man was instructed never to be alone with a woman who is not his mother or his wife, and bachelors — even widowers — were instructed to avoid teaching young children.

These rules of Yihud, or intimacy, have been modified over the ages; but the central focus has remained the fear that a man in a position of authority may succumb to his own desires in a situation where the victim has no option except to submit, may fear to tell others what happened, or may not be believed if s/he does report the incident. After all, how powerful is the word of a young female convert or an imaginative schoolchild against that of a respected rabbi?  

The wisdom of such rules was borne out by the reticence of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s congregation to confront him on the issue. Asked why they had not spoken out, many of those who had felt uncomfortable with his behavior said that they had feared to tarnish his reputation. Others were embarrassed, or felt that perhaps they were just being over-sensitive. The rabbi’s authority and charisma made it difficult to speak out.

The only way in which the issue was dealt with was behind closed doors. There was no oversight and no follow-up. Rosenblatt’s congregation had no idea what steps his superiors and colleagues had taken. One couldn’t call this a willful conspiracy of silence, perhaps; but still, silence begets silence.

While these problems can appear in any student-teacher relationship, Jewish communities face additional impediments to speaking out. The rules against lashon hara (slanderous speech) mean that speaking about the behavior of others can entail censure and ostracism of the speaker. Too often, people fall back on the rules of lashon hara as an excuse for not calling attention to questionable behavior.

However, the rules of lashon hara do not in fact preclude drawing attention to potentially harmful behavior; and, indeed, recent research has found that a certain amount of gossip can actually be beneficial, allowing the community to identify problems and brainstorm solutions. Still, no one wants to be considered a spreader of gossip.

Another bar to speaking out is the fear of “airing dirty laundry in public.” We prefer to keep problems within the Jewish community. Thus, when Sura Jeselsohn urged Marvin Hochberg, then the Riverdale Jewish Center’s president, to have Rabbi Rosenblatt get counseling, she was reportedly told that there was no need to involve “outsiders”. (This problem is aggravated in Haredi communities by the notion of Daas Torah, the idea that rabbis, by constant devotion to Torah studies, have elevated themselves to a moral and intellectual position above the norm, and thus above criticism.)

Jewish congregations must hold their rabbis to the same standards as any other professional. The Riverdale community has accordingly asked Rosenblatt to step down.

In the end, it isn’t merely the rabbi who needs to be held to account, but the community as well. It is the community that produces, educates and appoints its leaders — a bottom-up approach that has served Jewish communities well for centuries. Communities ultimately get the leadership they deserve.

Yael Shahar divides her time between researching organizational dynamics and Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish topics can be found at www.damaged-mirror.com.

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