Recently, prominent Washington, D.C. Rabbi Barry Freundel received a 6 1/2-year prison sentence for spying on women immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. And just last week, The New York Times published an expose on Riverdale Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt’s longstanding habit of bringing teenage boys and young men whom he was mentoring to sit with him naked in a sauna.
With every new rabbinical scandal, after the initial shock and concern and denominational finger-pointing, people tend to breathe a sigh of relief and feel reassured that whatever flaws their rabbi may have, at least he or she isn’t an out-and-out sociopath. The rabbis who make headlines for abusive criminal behavior tell us more about the entwining of psychopathology with power than about the rabbinate, per se.
Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all rabbis are vulnerable to the possibility of misusing their power. For this reason, all rabbis should be encouraged to consider the personal psychological pitfalls that may trip them up. One bad rabbinic apple may not treif up the whole bunch, but it can remind the other apples to look carefully at themselves, not for purposes of preening but for pruning.
As a clinical psychologist and rabbi consulting to clergy across the country, as well as teaching rabbinical students, I find that they often ask me whom to be wary of “out there”: In other words, which congregants pose the greatest danger to the rabbi by way of their excessive neediness or narcissism or other diagnostic warning signals. But rabbis occupy a position that requires turning their scrutiny inward as well. They are professionally remiss if they are not routinely asking themselves: Is there something about myself that I ought to be worried about?
I’d like to describe some of the instances when a rabbi’s situational factors and behaviors should raise red flags (for both rabbis and those who care about them). I’d also like to suggest steps that rabbis — indeed all clergy — might take before potential problems turn into harmful scenarios.
Congregational leadership can be tremendously rewarding, but it is also frequently stressful, and if a rabbi is under inordinate personal pressure, it leaves her more vulnerable to making mistakes in the area of boundaries. Is she contending with serious conflict with a significant other? Separation or divorce? Worrisome illness or the death of a loved one? Rabbis spend the bulk of their time taking care of others; if a congregant exhibits kindness and generosity of spirit when a rabbi is particularly needy, he is more likely to view the source as especially appealing. For the rabbi in distress who experiences the role reversal of receiving emotional support from a congregant, the line between tender gratitude and eroticized feelings can easily be blurred. The move from expressing appreciation to behaving sexually can suddenly feel like a small but powerfully compelling step.
And what kind of behavior should prompt a rabbi to ask himself whether he is drawing too close to a critical line? Perhaps he is breaking his own rules and standards when providing pastoral care; he may be meeting in an unusual setting (e.g., in a café or sauna instead of in his office, or at an unusual time of day or night). There may be a perfectly legitimate reason for him to be making exceptions for a particular congregant — but the rabbi should observe that he is making atypical decisions and ought to ask himself what latent meaning those atypical decisions may point to.
Perhaps most importantly, if a rabbi is keeping secrets with regard to the performance of her rabbinic duties, something is seriously amiss. When she hesitates about letting her administrative assistant know about an appointment that she’s made, or misleads her partner or spouse about where she has been, or, when reviewing with a colleague a pastoral counseling session, omits mention of the hug that ended the session, beware: rabbi is likely skating on thin ice.
I have no doubt that the majority of rabbis are routinely thoughtful about their choices and deeply committed to being of service to others. What, then, should a rabbi do when he is aware that his behavior is off-kilter? Such behaviors are not necessarily indications of imminent harm. But it is not enough merely to hold an internal conversation with oneself; we rabbis, like everyone else, fool ourselves and justify our problematic behavior too easily. Contemplating our actions in solitude is likely to entail at least as much skilled self-deception as honest self-reflection.
It is precisely because the challenging thoughts and feelings that arise in rabbinic work may be embarrassing or shameful or scary for the rabbi to discuss with another person that the rabbi should — indeed, must — discuss them with someone else. Speaking about them with another person makes the issues real, and only then can they be thoroughly addressed, assessed and, if necessary, redressed. That other person may well be a therapist but other people can also serve in the capacity of trusted conversational partner, such as a peer, a close friend or a senior mentoring colleague. For those rabbis who have a spouse or partner, that person may be a helpful sounding board, but there could be some issues (like being sexually attracted to a congregant) that the rabbi is better off discussing with someone else. Some rabbis join together (or with clergy of other faiths) for peer supervision or to meet with a clinical supervisor who can provide guidance through thorny situations.
Through intentional self-awareness and being in conversation with another person regarding areas of vulnerability, rabbis are more likely to maintain crucial professional boundaries. Such boundaries help rabbis protect themselves from inadvertently stepping into professional quicksand. But just as importantly, good boundaries provide rabbis with the essential capacity to protect their relationships with others, and it is through the power of relationships that rabbis have the greatest opportunity to inspire others and strengthen the role of Judaism in people’s lives.