Rabbis Behind Bars: What Do We Do When Our Jewish Leaders Fail Us?

In their humanity, some of our rabbis have failed us of late, with accusations, and even convictions, of money laundering, corruption and sexual abuse.

This week, a rabbi from New York was convicted of money laundering. Rabbi Mordchai Fish was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for laundering close to a million dollars in what he thought were illicit funds through a religious charity. We should be flabbergasted that a teacher and preacher of Judaism should stoop so low. But, of course, we’re not shocked at all. In fact, we’ve seen rabbis who’ve done, or have at least been credibly accused of doing, much worse crimes.

In the U.S., rabbis were arrested as part of a major corruption sting surrounding the illegal organ trafficking of a Mr Levy Rosenbaum (himself, not a rabbi). In Australia, a tightly knit Chabad Lubavitch community was rocked by claims of sex abuse by the community’s rabbi, in alleged instances of child abuse at an Orthodox boys school. And in Israel, Rabbi Moti Elon has long been fighting off serious accusations of sexual abuse. The Rabbi denies the accusations; he concedes that he  kissed and hugged his students but denies that this had any sexual intention.

In this latest case concerning Rabbi Fish, one might have some sympathy for the man. He was, after all, caught in a sting operation. He was approached to launder money by a police informant to see how he might respond. He was tempted. Now he’s going to prison. The problem with a sting operation is that you can never know whether the person really would have lead a life of crime had it not been for your entrapment. The Torah commands us not to put a stumbling block before the blind. If you ignore this law, and then blind people stumble, you can hardly blame the blind.

On the other hand, one has plenty of reason not to sympathise with Rabbi Fish. First of all, the ease with which he was able to get his hands on large amounts of money left the judge wondering just what other crimes the rabbi was getting up to, and how sophisticated his crime ring may have been. It’s still a mystery. And, Rabbi Fish had already been convicted of bank fraud some ten years earlier, which hardly made him look squeaky-clean. And finally, a Rabbi, almost by definition, holds himself up as a paragon of virtue. When their criminality is revealed to us, we feel betrayal and can hardly bear the stench of hypocrisy.

It seems important, at this juncture, to point out that these rabbis really do constitute a tiny minority. All over the world there are rabbis that do tremendous work in educating those who are illiterate in Judaism, caring for their communities, providing a life-line to the most vulnerable, and helping to bring Divinity into people’s lives. This is the norm. The criminals, and even the morally neutral, seem to be the exception to a wonderful rule.

And yet these stories keep coming.

I want to share two action points that I think we should take in response.

First of all, we need to reignite the flame of social justice in our Judaism. In Israel, to be religious is quickly being reduced to being a member of a particular club: the religious team. Our democracy is quickly being reduced to what scholars sometimes call an interest group plurality. In an interest group plurality nobody cares for the greater good of the society. Each person merely wants to get the best for his or her constituency. And thus, in Israel, religious parties fight like dogs to get benefits for religious people, and often forget to think about the greater good or the overall ethical ramifications beyond the contours of their small community. As long as we think of being religious as belonging to an inward looking little club, of course we and our rabbis will have little concern for keeping the laws of the land. In actual fact, Judaism is a powerful moral voice that seeks to heal the entire world. We need to reignite that flame.

Secondly, we have to realise that our rabbis are in some sense or other a reflection of our communities. The Mishna tells us to “make for yourself a rabbi.” To the extent that our rabbis sometimes fail us, perhaps we are to blame. If we’d be more exacting of ourselves, perhaps we’ll be more exacting as to whom be bestow the title of “rabbi” upon.

But even if we take all of this to heart and revolutionise our communities and our way of life, Rabbis will always be human, and will always be liable to stumble. Although we may be blessed to have teachers in our lives who guide us towards the majesty of a life lived through the prism of Judaism, we must know that in the end, nobody can be relied upon to be Jewish on our behalf. Your rabbis can point you in the right direction, but you shouldn’t rely upon them too heavily nor be too surprised if they, in their humanity, fail you, because, ultimately, the path is yours, and nobody else’s, to walk upon.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.