Three years ago Mordechai Tendler, a controversial Modern Orthodox rabbi, met with nine leading haredi rabbis in his community of Monsey, N.Y., who challenged him on a number of his halachic rulings and on allegations that he had acted improperly with women.Since then, Rabbi Tendler has said publicly that he was exonerated by the rabbinical panel, which he has described as a bet din, or religious court.
This week a statement signed in May by seven of the rabbis became public through the Internet and in selected mailings, asserting that Rabbi Tendler’s assessment of the meeting was “an outright lie,” and urging people not to seek his advice on halachic matters on marriage, divorce, conversion or family harmony. (One of the original nine rabbis moved to Israel and another said he agreed with the others but wanted to remain private.)There has been little harmony in Rabbi Tendler’s community for some time now, particularly since he was expelled last March by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest Orthodox rabbinic association, for “conduct inappropriate to an Orthodox rabbi.”
The case centered on charges of sexual abuse and harassment against the rabbi from several women, and it escalated last week when one former congregant filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court charging that the rabbi had induced her to have sex with him from 2001 to 2005, claiming that he was the messiah and could help her find a husband by submitting to his “sex therapy.”
Several sources close to the case said that a number of meetings were held in the last week at Rabbi Tendler’s synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead, and at the homes of its leaders to discuss what, if anything, to do about the latest charges. While the top leadership of the shul appears loyal to the rabbi, others are said to be either wavering or more openly skeptical of his veracity in light of the lawsuit and the statement by the highly respected group of rabbis. Some congregants left the shul after the RCA expulsion.Rabbi Mordechai Ohrbach, one of the seven rabbis who signed the statement last May 29, told The Jewish Week “we felt we had no option but to respond” to Rabbi Tendler’s claim that the rabbis had found his statements truthful when they met with him three years ago. “He did not come across as truthful, and he said things at the meeting that were borderline absurd and delusional, and totally false,” he said.
One copy of the statement, he said, was given to the RCA, which had come under attack from supporters of Rabbi Tendler after expelling him, and another to a bet din in Israel that Rabbi Tendler has appealed to, insisting that he was not given a fair hearing by his American colleagues.Rabbi Feivel Zimmerman, another signer of the statement, told The Jewish Week that although the rabbis did not make their statement public — it is not known who did — “it is authentic and we stand by it.” The material, released in recent days by a group known as the Monsey Committee for Rabbinic Integrity, included a lengthy responsa from Rabbi Benzion Wosner, a respected rabbinic authority in Monsey. It found that that the RCA had “a right … and Torah obligation” to expel Rabbi Tendler, and that “his own congregation thus has a similar obligation.”The ruling by Rabbi Wosner said that “numerous rabbis sat together and heard tapes” indicating that Rabbi Tendler sought to “seduce married (and unmarried) women.”Other rabbis involved in the matter told The Jewish Week that they have seen convincing evidence that would prove Rabbi Tendler’s sexual involvement with women, though none would comment publicly.
The rabbis who signed the statement have no direct influence over Rabbi Tendler or his congregants, but several noted that while he has complained that he was being attacked by the liberal element of the Orthodox community — namely, the RCA, an arm of the Orthodox Union — those who signed the statement were haredim.Another irony, they said, was that while Rabbi Tendler has complained that he was not allowed by the RCA to make his case before a bet din, he himself has described his meeting with the Monsey rabbis as a bet din — and they found him to be untruthful.
According to several sources, the original meeting was called at the suggestion of Rabbi Tendler’s father, Moshe Tendler, a prominent rabbi in Monsey and biologist on the faculty of Yeshiva University, who sought to clear his son’s name. He was informed a few days later that his son’s explanations and denials had not been believed by the group, someone close to the case said. Phone messages for Rabbis Moshe and Mordechai Tendler were not returned. Mordechai Tendler has maintained his innocence of charges of sexual misconduct. Described as a brilliant, charismatic and generous rabbi, he had been a champion of some Jewish women’s groups, primarily for his help in allowing agunot to receive a religious divorce. Some of his halachic decisions on agunot and conversions drew the ire of a number of his Monsey rabbinical colleagues. When they questioned him three years ago about his rulings, which he said he based on observing and assisting his late grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading posek, or arbiter, of his generation, the nine rabbis concluded that he was not being truthful or consistent with Rabbi Feinstein’s decisions. “We found his halachic decisions to be borderline Conservative,” one of the rabbis said.
Rabbi Tendler has maintained that he is the victim of an effort by some rabbis with whom he disagrees on religious matters to portray him as a womanizer so as to diminish his halachic stature. He has said that he often dealt with troubled women, some of whom were emotionally fragile, and that rather than being appreciated for taking the time to counsel them, at no cost, he was the subject of vicious and untrue rumors about his moral behavior.