Q – I’m a shul president and I’ve just discovered that two of my board members have been carrying on an affair, using board meeting nights as cover for their trysts. I like them both and they are very hard workers. I like their spouses too. I’m not sure what to do. Do I confront them? Do I tell the rabbi? Do I kick them off the board?
Confront them in private and if they fess up, hope that they have the good sense to resign from the board, effective immediately. Otherwise, once the news gets out, if you do nothing, the reputation of your board and, by extension, your congregation, will be in the toilet.
Yes, you might consider it hypocritical not to similarly punish board members who eat ham sandwiches or break the Sabbath. But ritual laws are between a person and God. Interpersonal laws are far more complicated, but something like this can rip apart the fabric of a community, and the ancient rabbis knew it.
The Torah states "And Israel abode in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry" (Num. 25:1). Recognizing the damage that adultery can do to a community, the rabbis stated that the place was named "Shittim" because the people committed folly – "shtut," quoting Proverbs 6:32, "He who commits adultery is a complete idiot" (my translation).
If you fail to act, you’ll be implicitly condoning their behavior, and your congregation will no longer be a safe zone for the aggrieved spouses and their legions of supporters, a number that will multiply daily as the gossip makes the rounds. You don’t need to take sides, but if you ignore what occurred on your watch, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing, at the expense of the victims.
During my first year following ordination, way back in the last century, this exact same scenario unfolded. I was sopping wet behind the ears and an easy mark for a very powerful couple. The president passed the buck to me to decide their fate. So I called the perpetrators in. As their rabbi, I had to explain that they represent the organization and should resign from the board, but as their rabbi, I also let them know that I would treasure the chance to help them move forward toward repentance and reconciliation. They looked at me, a neophyte rabbi and virtual newlywed without a clue as to the trials of long-term marriage, like I was a little chutzpah-filled punk. I think the guy might have called me that. But I stood my ground, they left the board and the incident inspired me to write about the trials of being a young rabbi.
I heard from lots of people back then that when I reached my fifties, I’d come to understand why so many people sleep around, and then maybe I’d be less judgmental. Well, here I am, having successfully made it to midlife and I still don’t get it. Oh I know that successful marriages aren’t easy to sustain and I understand that temptation can be overpowering. I also try hard not to rush to judgment. But the act of deliberately jamming a dagger of betrayal into the heart of someone you once loved, or maybe someone you love still, that’s something I’ve never been able to comprehend. Once a person has betrayed that most primal commitment, how can they be entrusted with the future of anything else?
Which is why I never vote for an unrepentant philanderer. And why I wouldn’t want one on the bopard of my synagogue.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at HammermanOnEthics@gmail.com