Sex, Saunas, and Rabbis: Where Are the Boundaries?

The cases of Rabbi Barry Freundel and Jonathan Rosenblatt highlight where our community is lagging behind.

Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch
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Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt and Rabbi Barry Freundel.
Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt and Rabbi Barry Freundel.Credit: AP, YouTube
Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch

Recent scandals involving rabbis who violated clergy-congregant boundaries are making it difficult for good, honest leaders to counsel the people we serve. Between Barry Freundel, who clearly broke the law when he spied on naked women in the mikveh, and Jonathan Rosenblatt, whose custom of mentoring young men whilst naked in the sauna lies somewhere in the legal gray area, one thing is clear: these rabbis' errors in judgment have eroded the public's trust in religious leaders as sources of safe, spiritual guidance.

Since graduating from seminary five years ago, I, myself, have felt ill-equipped, at times, to handle pastoral care issues related to sexuality when working with congregants confronted by infidelity, marital problems and divorce. None of the popular rabbinic “handbooks” on the subject made any mention of how to handle these issues as they relate to sex, and none of my classes at the seminary ever talked about how to deal with them. So I decided to sign up for an online course called “Sexual Issues for Jewish Clergy."

During this program, I discovered that rabbis often struggle with the same kind of challenges concerning sexuality and boundaries that their congregants face. Actions that for me seemed common sense and worth undertaking for my own protection – like giving counsel with my door open, and almost never agreeing to meet a person without someone else being present in the building – were far from established common practice. But what may be common sense for some rabbis is not for others. The New York Times article about Rosenblatt is a stark reminder of this fact.

There is also the issue of protecting both rabbis and congregants. A 2008 Baylor University study presented the testimonies of 47 people who described their personal experiences with clergy misconduct. As I watched the videos, I was struck by how often the victims' communities discouraged them from speaking out. Even when the victims were repeatedly violated, the congregation or their movement's umbrella organization ultimately sided and protected the violating rabbi.

This leads me to believe that a set of standards for rabbinic counseling needs to be established. While written standards may not eradicate misconduct, they can certainly provide guidance to protect both rabbis and their congregants.

Or, to take it one step further, rabbinical councils could require their leaders undertake harassment training – just like those corporate offices that require this of their employees.

I will never forget a visit I paid to a non-Jewish patient when I was a hospital chaplain many years ago. She had been reluctant to talk religion with me, but always enjoyed my company. After several months, she acknowledged that part of the reason for her initial discomfort around clergy was that she was physically abused by her pastor as a child. I was shocked by her disclosure. She then turned to me and said, "I never knew it would be a Jewish rabbi who would get me to find my faith again.”

Rabbis, among other members of the cloth, are imperfect. Given that, in our line of work, we are sometimes the first point of contact for desperate people seeking free counseling, it is proper that we be given the benefit of the doubt. Yet, rabbis cannot forget that our counseling has the power to both guide people to faith and destroy it. The high-profile nature of the Freundel and Rosenblatt cases should serve as a catalyst for change in the way we regulate our conduct. If our denominations take this opportunity to – together or separately – create firm counseling codes of conduct, they could prevent breaches of clergy-congregant boundaries from reaching this magnitude again.

Dan Dorsch is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey, and is a board member of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.

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