Sunday, June 07, 2015

When Leaders Fail

Illustration from Jewish Action Magazine
Human beings are flawed. That - in part - seems to be the message in Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz’s lengthy essay in the most recent edition of Jewish Action Magazine. He is of course right. We are all flawed. Some more, some less… but all. None of us would want to be remembered for our worst moments. We would of course prefer to be remembered by our best moments. In most cases, that happens. One need only listen to a typical eulogy to see how much good a particular individual did in his or her life. Never are their flaws discussed, nor should they be.

But as Rabbi Breitowitz also points out that when those flaws exist in people we see as our heroes, they disillusion us. Rightly so. And that can often make us cynical about the institutions they represent - whether a Sul of a school… and more broadly Orthodox Judaism itself if that hero is an Orthodox spiritual leader. Here is how he puts it: 
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?  
That of course would be a mistake. Rabbi Breitowitz quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous admonition… 
…that it is a big mistake to judge Judaism by the behavior of Jews. The Torah is greater than any one person or institution. The fact that we do not always live by its ideals cannot be an indictment of the ideals themselves. 
Indeed it is. Nor should one discount any of the positive things a flawed individual does.  Nor should we rejoice in their downfall when their flaws are exposed.

I certainly do not rejoice at all when Orthodox Jewish leaders get caught figuratively or literally ‘with their pants down’. I shake my head in dismay at how such great people can do such evil things. But doing evil things should not minimize their achievement.That Dr. Martin Luther King for example had extra marital affairs does not detract from the great things he accomplished for his people… and for all of us.

Yes, we should rightly be disgusted with such behavior. But to extend that disgust to the ideals he promoted. That too is wrong.

The question us what do we do about changing the culture? How do we prevent such things from happening in the future? Rabbi Breitowitz makes several suggestions some of which I have made myself in the past. The prescriptions seem rather simple and yet are to date quite elusive.

There should be safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable so that they are never put in a position where they can be compromised.

One way to do that is to observe the Halachos of Yichud. There should never be an instance where a rabbi secludes himself with a woman other than his wife.  Pastoral counseling which is often an integral part of a rabbinic practice should never be done behind closed doors if the client is a woman. Not even in a Shul office. The door should be ajar with his secretary in the adjacent room. The same thing is true for male seminary heads or any other charismatic figure involved with women.  

Spiritual leaders should never comment to their female congregants, clients, or students about their physical appearance. The minute a rabbi does that, he stops being a rabbi and starts being a predator albeit in the earliest and as of yet undetectable stages. You never tell a female congregant, client, or student how beautiful she looks or dresses.  

One should be aware of the kind of predatory behavior that is typical of pedophiles and be on the lookout for the signs. Like close personal relationships between a Rabbi and a child. One must be wary of a charismatic leader getting too close and personal with congregants, especially if they are children. Going on trips with a young child ought to be avoided. If suggested by a rabbi it should raise one’s antennae to potential abuse.

It is important for people to choose their rabbi carefully. Too often flaws are overlooked in people of great stature or accomplishment who often have a great deal of charisma. Though I don’t want to minimize the merit of great achievement, it is as important if not more so to look at his character. How does he deal with people? How does he interact with potential congregants? Is he aloof? Is he warm? Is he too warm? Especially with women? Or with children? These things ought to be looked at very carefully and should in my view be prioritized over any personal accomplishment.

There ought to be clear rules of behavior in place and transparency of the Rabbis behavior to assure those rules are followed. One cannot be too careful these days as has tragically been demonstrated of late.

There is a lot more in Rabbi Breitowitz’s article. It is well worth reading.