The Tragedy of Rabbi Broyde's Errors

Pathbreaking Orthodox Rabbi Michael Broyde's online deceptions devalued his contribution to the moral and practical arenas where he had the most resonance: the intersection of Judaism and modernity.

Stunning revelations about Rabbi Michael Broyde’s deceptions of more than two decades have evoked strong feelings for many of us. They have also illuminated the moral obfuscation around online identities that is particularly salient at a time when publishing is moving almost completely from the printed page to the digital realm, where appearances are easier to manipulate.

Rabbi Broyde was a star of mainstream Orthodoxy, before he was revealed as someone who used false identities - Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser was his favorite, but journalist Steven I. Weiss also this week discovered another, whose opinion on Jewish law Rabbi Broyde used to buttress his own perspective on the halakhic views of women’s hair covering. Rabbi Broyde used these identities to publish essays and to comment on others’ work, as well as to join a competing rabbinical association.

He has been more willing than virtually any other Orthodox rabbi to delve into the intersection of Jewish law and issues of contemporary concern, like women’s ordination. He has managed to achieve great success in both the religious and general professional realms. Respected in the religious world for his knowledge of Jewish law, Rabbi Broyde is also a tenured professor of law at Emory University, has authored eight books and lectures widely. As his Emory bio states, Rabbi Broyde was recently a finalist for the job of Chief Rabbi of the U.K.

The dean of Emory Law School has called Rabbi Broyde’s work “pathbreaking.” The director of the Emory Center for Law and Religion, where Rabbi Broyde is a senior fellow, describes him as “a brilliant bridge builder.” Now Emory is investigating Broyde, and it is possible that he will lose his job there, as he has at the Rabbinical Council of America and its Beth Din of America, which he revitalized in the 1990s and has since served as a respected judge. The Law School dean is now conducting what the law school is calling "a confidential review of the allegations concerning Michael Broyde."

It is a shocking fall for someone who has achieved such significant and meaningful professional heights.

Some think that we journalists take pleasure when people, especially those who are Orthodox and have earned prominent reputations, have their flaws revealed.

Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum writes, in the “Food for Thought” column of the Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne’eman, “The non-religious and anti-religious media have, of course, had a grand time gleefully reveling in the fact that another Orthodox rabbi has been caught practicing deception and dishonesty. Haaretz, The Forward and numerous others jumped on the story and seem to be having difficulty hiding their joy.”

Birnbaum also accuses writers on Hirhurim, a Torah-focused blog where Broyde published many of his scholarly opinions on issues relating to women’s roles in Jewish ritual, of schadenfreude, that petty sense of pleasure from the misfortunes of others.

I feel no schadenfreude. There is no glee or satisfaction in covering Rabbi Broyde’s undoing. Instead, there is sadness.

I harbor no illusions that rabbis are not as vulnerable to ordinary foibles and failings as any other human being. I’ve covered too many rabbinic scandals to think otherwise. And still. Even those of us who do not count ourselves as Orthodox Jews necessarily, but are still religious, and feel respect and admiration for those who are steeped in Torah, we hope for and expect more from religious leaders.

Torah study is supposed to lead to the refinement of character, say many engaged in such study. But the twentieth-century Stiepler Gaon (Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky) knew better. He wrote, in Mivakshei Torah, "There are some who had they not learned Torah would be predatory beasts, yet by virtue of their diligent Torah study have escaped wickedness. Yet that does not suffice for them to have good character. Only if someone works on this, engaging in much study of ethics, constantly examining his spiritual condition, and breaking down his bad traits and lusts, can he become a person of good character."

I hope that Rabbi Broyde is now examining his moral condition and character. It is a serious loss to the modern Orthodox world of engagement between the religious and secular realms that Rabbi Broyde’s voice is now silenced, stilled by his own dysfunction.

His shame is more than his own loss of face. It is also a loss for the world of those who grapple seriously with the tensions between modernity and fidelity to Judaism — a world being rapidly overtaken by those further on the right, who are interested in separating from modernity whenever possible.

Despite the fact that I’ve witnessed and covered some truly corrupt behavior on the part of religious people before, Rabbi Broyde’s ethical offenses are remarkable for the length of time they went on and the extent to which he developed this alter ego of Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser without ever seeming to doubt the legitimacy of doing so.

When I interviewed him, shortly after the scandal first broke, Rabbi Broyde voiced confusion about what, exactly, the big deal was. His lack of understanding of why it is problematic for a rabbi to sockpuppet, using false identities to publish and comment on others’ work, was surprising and sad. When I asked him straight out if he thinks such behavior is the same as lying, he said he didn’t view it as unethical.

That it is unclear to someone steeped in the intricacies of Talmud says something significant. Equally important has been the back and forth between commentators who appreciate Rabbi Broyde’s importance as an interpreter of Jewish law, and in comments under the articles about him have debated whether it is really problematic for a rabbi to adopt false online personas or whether that is just business as usual. That, to me, reflects an ethical morass that supersedes one rabbi’s problems.

It shows how great the need is for moral clarity in the digital age. And do you know who I wish I could call to get an interesting, informed perspective on the ways in which Jewish literature addresses such contemporary moral issues? Rabbi Broyde. It is deeply saddening that, rather than being able to illuminate complicated questions with Torah scholarship, it is now Rabbi Broyde who is the subject of the shameful revelations prompting the questions.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes from New York for Haaretz and is a contributing editor at The Forward. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine and she is the author of "Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant" (Jewish Lights). 

YouTube screenshot