We have been here before: persistent rumors and reports of sexual misconduct by a rabbi over the course of decades culminate in a scandalous expose in a newspaper (The Jewish Week, “With Sauna ‘Secret’ Out, Riverdale Faces Tough Choice,” June 5).
We have been here before and this is why I believe that if we don’t make immediate changes we will be here again.
There are four types of public reaction to such disclosures in the press; all of them can be observed in the current responses to the recent New York Times article.
Reaction No. 1: “Nothing happened.” If the allegations fall short of outright sexual molestation or violence, the story is dismissed as overblown drama. Perhaps the rabbi was guilty of faulty judgment, but not of harmful intent, and in any case no real harm was done.
Reaction No. 2: The accusations do point to serious wrongdoing, but they are false. But why the smear campaign? This group will argue that for a variety of reasons, all whistleblowers are lying. Some are said to have a personal vendetta or feelings of envy toward the rabbi. Others may have chosen to bring him down because of ideological differences. Often the journalist or newspaper will be accused of promoting a nefarious agenda, such as anti-Semitism or anti-Orthodoxy.
Reaction No. 3: Disingenuous expressions of shock and dismay by individuals and organizations that were in a position to stop the behavior but didn’t. Members of this group tend to dismiss and deny persistent reports of wrongdoing — too often over the course of many years — and often deal callously with those who report the problem. When the story breaks, this group abruptly switches tactics, distancing themselves from the rabbi and accusing him of betraying them personally.
Reaction No. 4: Sincere expressions of shock and dismay by members of the public, who never imagined that their rabbi could be capable of misusing his authority to harm innocent and vulnerable congregants. Members of this group trusted not only the rabbi, but also the leaders and organizations that were in a position to protect them, but chose not to.
The tragic story of prolonged rabbinic misconduct followed by public disgrace is likely to repeat itself, because to this day we have failed to acknowledge the fundamental errors in the first three reactions.
The fundamental error in Reaction No. 1: Even if no overt sexual or violent molestation took place, a great deal of psychological and emotional damage could have been done, especially given the hierarchy in the situation and the fact that the hierarchical figure is deemed to bear God’s authority.
In my experience with victims of rabbinic misconduct, the lingering effects of psychological manipulation can be even more profound and more lasting than those that accompany a physical assault. It is simply unfair to these people to summarily cast aside their distress.
The fundamental error in reaction No. 2: We would have to embrace the sheer improbability that the same lie would be told by so many people, in this case by a series of young men over the course of 30 years. Offending rabbis tend to repeat themselves and a good journalistic expose reveals the unmistakable patterns. It is up to the reasonable reader to draw the likeliest conclusion, which is that those who report offenses are in fact telling the truth.
The fundamental error in reaction No. 3: This group holds on to numerous errors and in my view bears the greatest responsibility for the persistence of rabbinic misconduct. Although charged with promoting the public interest, members of this group often choose instead to refrain from any action, and at times to actively protect and promote spiritual leaders who are accused of wrongdoing. In the current case, the synagogue leadership, which apparently was aware of the problem for decades, has the most to answer for. In addition, the reader will note the failed responses of Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America, whose most decisive action was to discreetly protect YU’s rabbinic students, but to withhold their concerns — and any kind of accompanying warning — from the public.
But why do so many leaders and organizations fail to act effectively? Here are some of the fundamental errors in their thinking that I have observed over the years: a sense of collegiality by rabbis toward other rabbis; a sense of loyalty to the rabbi (often actively fostered by the rabbi); sympathy for the rabbi, who is known and visible, but none for the victims, who are unknown and unseen. There is often a fear of washing dirty linen in public (chillul Hashem) or a sense of cognitive dissonance, which makes it impossible to believe that a man of God could do such disturbing things.
Often, normative rules of conduct are suspended for charismatic leaders. (As one rabbi once commented to me about another: “What can we do? Genius often has a dark side.) Worst of all is a human cost-benefit analysis, in which the rabbi’s good works are deemed to carry greater weight than any harm he might do. In the current case, many will point to those who benefited from the rabbi’s attentions — as if their experiences somehow cancel out the anguish caused to so many others.
Ultimately, it is that innocent public — group No. 4 — that we need to hold in mind at all times. When we truly see them, we will at long last stop our flawed thinking and address the problem with honesty and courage. We will write a code of ethics to make clear to all what our standards are, and we will set up committees to handle complaints of offense in an atmosphere of utter safety, discretion and professionalism. We will have a panel of leaders who will investigate reports of wrongdoing and who will boldly act to put a stop to problematic behavior; when that is impossible, they will dismiss the problematic leader and issue a clear warning to the public.
Journalistic expose is effective, but ultimately it is a signal that all of our internal mechanisms have malfunctioned. It is time to thank the press for their valuable contributions and to let them know that we can take it from here.
Judy Klitsner is a senior lecturer at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where she has been teaching Bible and biblical exegesis for more than two decades.