Friday, November 3, 2023

When Leaders Fail: Healing From Rabbinic Scandal

Jewish Action Magazine by Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz

In Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural, an extremely talented ball player, Roy Hobbs, is discovered to have taken a bribe to throw a baseball game. He is barred from baseball for life and all his records are expunged. In a poignant final scene, a young boy turns to Roy with pleading eyes and says, “Say it ain’t so.” But Roy cannot. He simply weeps.

In many ways, this novel is a metaphor for the loss of innocence, for the sadness of discovering that those we thought were paragons of virtue and greatness are flawed, for the sense of betrayal as we are cast adrift by those in whom we put our trust and faith. In many ways, this metaphor aptly describes a crisis that is spreading within the Torah community.

We live in the era of the fallen hero—indeed the tragic hero who is destroyed by the fatal flaw that lies within. In all walks of life, people whom we admired have disappointed us with their failures and weaknesses. We have become disillusioned and cynical. Unfortunately, even within the Torah camp, leaders in whom we placed our trust have betrayed us. And while the overwhelming majority of rabbis, teachers and spiritual mentors perform their tasks with integrity and commitment—and we should never make the mistake of condemning the many because of the sins of the few—many of us have lost faith in the very people who are supposed to inspire us in our faith. We see them engulfed in sexual scandals, child abuse, political intrigue, bribery and fraud. Some are accused of direct wrongdoing, others of cover-up and dissembling. Many have lost faith not only in those who are supposed to transmit Torah but, to some degree, in the goodness and morality of the Torah itself. God’s name and His glory quite literally have been besmirched, the very definition of chillul Hashem.

In some ways, this cynicism and loss of faith may be a greater tragedy than even the very real pain suffered by innocent victims (a pain that I certainly do not want to minimize in any way). The tragedy of cynicism presupposes that everything is tainted. Nothing good is real. No one is sincere. Everything is a gimmick. Everyone is a charlatan and a faker. And what is the use of pretending otherwise? These attitudes suck up hope the way a fire sucks up oxygen. They destroy spiritual strivings. They destroy hope for the future. They engender passivity and bitterness and ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeatism and hopelessness. It is precisely at this juncture that we have to take stock and articulate some basic simple principles.[...]

A rabbi in particular may be prone to the sins of arrogance and hubris, especially if he is talented. While not necessarily the smartest person in the room, he is usually the most Jewishly knowledgeable. He determines how people are married, buried and converted. He literally makes life-and-death decisions and often has little need to justify, explain or defend those decisions. (This is a technical halachic matter, too deep and complicated for you to understand, et cetera.) As Lord Acton remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When there is a power relationship, when people approach you in their moments of vulnerability and weakness, and when people praise you for your scholarship, organizational abilities and debating finesse, there is the risk of arrogance, of kochi v’otzem yadi. One forgets that he is in the employ of God, and that whatever talents one was vouchsafed must be employed exclusively for the glory of God. It becomes about you, and when you become the focus, anything goes. Dovid HaMelech takes Batsheva and sends her husband to his death. Yochanan Kohen Gadol becomes a Tzeduki after eighty years of faithful service. The messenger gets tarnished and the message corrupted when it is intertwined with power, influence and control.10

Both as communities and individuals, we need to avoid dependence on charismatic leadership and the personality cult. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment. The rabbi is setting himself up for the “pride that comes before the fall.” The Alter of Slobodka deliberately spoke in a dry monotone to minimize his personal charisma. He wanted people to be affected by the content of his words, not the style of his personality. Indeed, the Derashot HaRan11 teaches that Moshe Rabbeinu was kevad peh and kevad lashon (had a serious speech impediment) precisely for the reason that people should not elevate him to the status of a demigod and be moved and inspired by his hypnotic oratorical abilities. (For the same reason, the Torah conceals the place where Moshe is buried12 and, according to some commentaries, this is also why Moshe’s name is not mentioned in the Pesach Haggadah.)

Rabbi Berel Wein describes the dangers of charismatic leadership very well:

We love the flash of brilliant insight, the devastating quip, the broad permanent smile, the warm embrace and the hero worship that characterize the person who possesses that elusive quality of charisma . . . . Yet, like all other seeming blessings, charisma carries within it seeds of self-destruction.

The charismatic personality is likely to succumb to the temptation of believing all of the adulation showered upon him or her. In the triumphant parades of the Roman emperors, a servant rode along in the emperor’s chariot and whispered to him, amidst the din of the cheering throngs, a reminder of his past failings and future mortality. Believing in one’s own charismatic qualities builds one’s ego to ferocious heights. And an inflated ego always leads to downfall and personal defeat. It allows the guilty to eventually believe in their own perfect innocence and to expect others to do so as well. Prideful haughtiness goes before a fall, opined King Solomon long ago. Prideful haughtiness is very often a byproduct of the charismatic personality.[...]

There is yet another danger that charismatic leadership poses, a more subtle one that may be especially damaging to adolescent students, ba’alei teshuvah and candidates for conversion. Such leadership tends to be autocratic, controlling and disparaging of individual choice and personal autonomy (even within the bounds of halachah). These are warning signals that should not be ignored. Leadership that tries to micromanage not only institutions but individual lives is inherently suspect. At least within the non-Chassidic tradition, the role of rabbis, roshei yeshivah, teachers and spiritual mentors is to inform, educate and inspire, not to command and direct. The students/congregants are expected to think for themselves and to have the ability and maturity to make decisions and take control of their lives; the rabbi’s function is to enable and enhance the development of those capacities.

From my own personal experiences, I can say that this was very definitely the approach of my roshei yeshivah, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman and Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, as well as that of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, all of blessed memory; and this was deeply rooted in the teachings of the Alter of Slobodka. As mechanchim par excellence, they saw their role as helping the student formulate his own approach to life and not simply be an automaton blindly following either the leader or the crowd. From the disciples of the Rav, I gather that Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was exactly the same. This indeed was historically characteristic of the Litvishe gadol.15


Why does the Torah go into so much detail about the korbanot, and why is a kohen not permitted to contaminate himself by contact with a corpse? Rabbi Saul Berman22 once offered an intriguing thought. The kohen has great power; the power to effect atonement, reconciliation with the Creator. He has access to holy places that no one else may enter. He can perform rituals that no one else can perform. He is in charge of a cosmic apparatus that literally determines the survival of the world. This puts him in a position of control, and with that control comes the potential of abuse and manipulation. The antidote is transparency and accountability. Every Jew is entitled to know what the avodat hamikdash is and how the kohen performs it. The avodat hamikdash must be demystified and clearly explained so it does not become a force of control. For the same reason, the kohen effectively distances himself from people at the moment of their greatest vulnerability and weakness, for it is precisely at those moments that the potential for manipulative control is at its maximum. Rabbi Berman suggests that these considerations have relevance to the rabbinate as well. Rabbinic rulings, procedures and standards should not be seen as arbitrary, mysterious pronouncements whose authority is grounded in personal charisma but should be explained in terms accessible to the kehillah. While it is incontestable that a rabbi must be the final halachic authority within his congregation, it is equally true that he must be able to explain his positions, his standards and his behaviors. As Justice Louis Brandeis remarked in a different context many years ago, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Anything that cannot be explained was probably not justified in the first place. Rabbi Yossi aptly stated, “I never did anything for which I had to turn around and see who was watching me” (Erchin 15b).[...]

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner30 noted long ago that although we are very familiar with the great successes of our gedolim—their brilliance, their hasmadah (diligence), et cetera—we know much less about their struggles, their mistakes and their failures. But in many ways, knowing how they dealt with setbacks and disappointments might be far more useful and instructive than simply viewing them as superhuman and perfect. (He was thus a bit critical of the hagiographic tendencies in the biographies of gedolim.) The true measure of greatness is growing and learning from our failures. “The tzaddik may fall seven times and rises” (Mishlei 24:16) does not mean he rises despite falling but rather it is the very confrontation with his inner demons that is the source of his greatness.[...]

But teshuvah is neither easy nor cheap. First, teshuvah necessitates taking responsibility for one’s actions rather than denying, equivocating or blaming others. When Shaul HaMelech failed to fulfill his duty to eradicate Amalek, he was not given a second chance. He was told that the malchut would be taken from him and given to someone better and more suitable. When Dovid HaMelech, on the other hand, committed sins that were arguably more severe, i.e., adultery and murder,34 he remained king and indeed his dynasty will produce the Mashiach. Rabbi Yosef Albo35 suggests that the key distinction between Shaul and Dovid lay not in the nature of their sins but in how they responded to the rebuke of the prophets. When the prophet Shmuel confronts Shaul, Shaul first denies the accusation (“I did the will of God”) and then blames others for his failure. By contrast, when Natan communicates to Dovid the enormity of his offense through the parable of the rich man and the lamb, all Dovid does is utter two words, “chatati laShem,” “I have sinned.” No excuses, no mitigating circumstances, no blaming of others.36 Indeed, Dovid followed the noble example of his ancestor Yehuda who similarly stepped forward to declare publicly “tzadkah mimeni,” “she [Tamar] is more righteous than I.”37 God does not expect our leaders to be perfect; God does expect them to take responsibility when they fail.

Second, teshuvah requires seeking the forgiveness of those who were wronged, primarily specific victims but including also the community as a whole that experienced significant betrayal.38 Rabbi Hutner39 eloquently explains that when a person hurts another, the damage he inflicts is not only the particular hurt the victim suffered but the fact that the victim feels psychologically violated, less secure in the world, bitter, angry, betrayed, less able to trust. The victim, in a sense, has become diminished as a person, and the perpetrator must do what he can to restore the person to his or her wholeness. Bakashat mechilah (asking forgiveness), then, is not simply an apology for the past but an attempt at restoration. And learning how to forgive is part of that restorative healing process as well. We are all weak and vulnerable, and we should look at all people with compassion and forgiveness. We must learn to forgive not only for the benefit of the sinner but for ourselves. A heart filled with anger and resentment can never move on. It is stuck. There is no room for God.

Third, teshuvah does not automatically mean restoration to a prior position.40 To take an extreme case, no sane person would argue that a repentant child molester should go back to teaching children. This is so for two reasons. First, it is impossible for anyone to gauge the true depth and sincerity of the teshuvah process. Second, even a sincere teshuvah may not be able to withstand a strong, overpowering temptation and the ba’al teshuvah may falter.41 We simply cannot take the chance that innocent people, especially children, may be harmed. Nevertheless, assuming we can minimize these risks, the person who takes responsibility, works to improve and sincerely seeks the forgiveness of those he harmed deserves the gift of a second chance to be of service to Klal Yisrael. All of us earnestly pray that God will give us these chances when we need them. God shows us the compassion that we are able to show to others.42 [....]


The sin of a spiritual leader, especially when that sin becomes known to the public, carries a much greater level of severity. In addition to the sin itself, there is a chillul Hashem, a desecration or profanation of God’s name, as the rabbi’s misconduct brings shame and disgrace on the Torah.43 This would even be the case if the misbehavior would not otherwise be a serious sin (e.g., rudeness in the checkout line or cutting someone off in traffic), and the chillul Hashem is obviously compounded by the gravity of the offense. According to Rambam,44 one who is guilty of chillul Hashem has no atonement (kaparah) until the day of death. Neither teshuvah nor Yom Kippur nor even suffering can erase the stigma of the sin. Standing alone, this ruling might suggest that although teshuvah is a necessary component for forgiveness, it is insufficient; there is literally no atonement possible within the confines of Olam Hazeh. However, this ruling does not, in fact, stand alone and other factors must be considered. There are at least five halachic arguments that suggest that even the sin of chillul Hashem is amenable to sincere teshuvah. [...]

Published response to above article   Jewish Action
“When Leaders Fail” is an article that fails. It is too late, cold and clinical and is filled with error. 
The author states, “In some ways, this cynicism and loss of faith may be a greater tragedy than even the very real pain suffered by innocent victims (a pain that I certainly do not want to minimize in any way).” This is wrong. Child abuse kills. It damages the brain. MRIs and other diagnostic tools prove this. Victims have shortened lives. 
The author writes, “There is an element of collective guilt in the fact that we as a community allowed these abuses to occur, did not respond to the problems that were brought to our attention, ignored them, swept them under the rug.” Wrong again. There is now a well-populated community of outspoken abuse survivors and advocates, whom the author neglects to thank and we do not bear this “collective guilt.” 
The author writes, “There are, of course, laws of lashon hara, and I am not necessarily envisioning full public exposure in the media (though this happens anyway), but at least within the limited community of responsible leadership, those who were harmed must be able to speak.” Wrong again. The author first told us that leadership bears the blame, and now recommends that victims should consult only with this failed leadership. He writes this while reminding us, in the vaguest way, of hilchos lashon hara, planting the seeds of doubt that true negative information about a misbehaving rabbi should not be reported. 
Finally, he states, “In the superheated atmosphere of the Internet, everyone is guilty until proven innocent and indeed quite often, is guilty even after being proven innocent. In this world of hyperbole, gossip, unsubstantiated rumors and personal vendettas, a casual reader might conclude that the rabbinate, and indeed the entire Torah community, has run amok, is utterly devoid of any semblance of morality and is nothing less than the modern incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. This does not reflect reality, and it is important that our children know this.” This sentence is not only wrong, it is an insult and smear upon every abuse survivor and advocate who taps words onto the Internet complaining about his or her abuse. Additionally, the implication that the survivors and advocates are guilty of many false accusations is an outright falsehood. 
This article does not deserve the OU haskamah. 
Elliot B. Pasik
Long Beach, New York

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