Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Feet of Clay - Who Watches the Watchman?

Guest Post by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
The trespass so clear, so disturbing, so defiling that no caring member of the Jewish community can help but feel a deep sense of humiliation and disgust.  Whether in Los Angeles or Jerusalem, the behavior of the Washington, D.C. rabbi, caused every Jew to feel a physical revulsion, no less than if they had been members of his particular congregation. 

What was his trespass that it brings about such a harsh reaction?  A prominent rabbinic leader and scholar desecrated the trust of young Jews and the holiness of the mikvah by videotaping female congregants and converts as they prepared for and immersed themselves in the mikvah.

A transgression of this nature would be profoundly troubling no matter who was responsible.  But to discover that a rabbi undermined the trust in his office and his person in such a fundamental way is almost beyond belief.  Sadly, as we have come to appreciate only too often when we’ve heard stories of abusive priests and other predatory religious leaders, the damage done to individuals and institutions when religious leaders behave so atrociously is devastating. 

By virtue of their learning and leadership, rabbis hold an incredibly powerful position in shuls and Jewish communities.  This rabbi acknowledged as much when he stated arrogantly to one of his congregants in the context of a conversation about establishing a mikvah, “I’m the rabbi!  You’re just a layman.” (As reported by a Washington Post column written by Michelle Boorstein on November 8th). 

Arrogant, yes.  But also true.  A rabbi commands great authority.  He is the one who makes determinations about religious behavior, answers questions about kashrut, and helps congregants negotiate Jewish experience in a difficult, complex modern world.  His learning and, hopefully, his modesty and caring, place him in a unique position in the Jewish community.  He is, indeed, the “watchman”.

In almost every Jewish congregation and in almost every instance rabbis have proven themselves exemplary stewards of Jewish life and the personal needs of their congregation and community.  It is because the earned trust is so deep that a betrayal such as the one alleged in Washington D.C. sets of a seismic shudder through the entire Jewish world.  For some, his behavior raises the question, When the watchman does err, who watches the watchman?

Our discomfort with the unwanted media attention this story has brought to the Jewish community is natural.  No one likes such a bright, unrelenting light shone on such an ugly event.  In the media’s sensationalizing, it is hard to remember that the thing that makes it so “sensational” is that it is such an ugly aberration.  It is, in fact, the story of one man’s behavior.  Yet there are those who would try to generalize from this man’s behavior to broad brush the entire rabbinate!  One recent opinion piece even went so far as to say, “Mikvah Scandal Underscores Need to Regulate Rabbinate.” 

Need to regulate the rabbinate? While I feel the pain of this man’s behavior as deeply as any, I do not understand why one would generalize from one man’s disgusting behavior to sully an entire group of people?  In particular, rabbis.  The perversion this man demonstrated is not part of a rabbinic mindset or protocol.  No psychology or practice would encourage such behavior (as might be suggested when celibate religious figures engage in sexual perversions).  Such behavior is so far yotze min ha’klal – outside community norms – that the community itself will quickly regulate and enforce standards.

More particularly, the sanctity of the mikvah is held in such regard that to defile any aspect of its practice or ritual is even more anathema to rabbis.  A headline like the one that appeared in last week’s media:  “Local Rabbis Sweep the Mikvah for Bugs” is astonishing.  To suggest that this man’s disgusting trespass could possibly cast doubt on generations of administering mikvaot with non-negotiable protocols of  reverence, discretion, modesty and decency is as great a transgression as that committed by the accused. 

I think of the all rabbis who spent sleepless nights in pursuit of perfecting mikvaot physically, esthetically and spiritually.  Are their genuine and sacred acts simply erased by the shameful act of one man?

I know of young rabbis who have assumed positions in new communities who, before they even settle into their own homes, ascertain that the mikvah in their synagogue or town is properly administered with every last detail and nuance of modesty adhered to from the minute the front door’s handle is turned until the woman is well on her way home!  Is that simply ignored by this man’s behavior?

I recall contemporaries calling the most respected Poskim in the middle of the night to review their mikvah’s protocols, particularly as relating to issues of discretion and modesty.  Are these spiritual priorities, so determinedly adhered to, blithely overlooked because of one man?

And if there is an aberration?  If a rabbi is so arrogant as to overstep, to transgress, to defile?
It is true that synagogue boards and councils often defer to rabbinic authority, but no rabbi is a priest or a pope; no rabbi commands authority except by virtue of his teaching and adherence to Torah and Jewish law.  The authority in the Jewish community is clear.  The buck does not stop with the rabbi, but with Torah.

And in this regard, rabbis are regulated far more thoroughly than any civil board could ever dream to regulate.  Every Jew with knowledge of Torah (which is, hopefully, every Jew) constantly evaluates rabbis.  King David did not need a “board of regulators” to condemn his sinful behavior.  He needed only one man, Nathan, with knowledge of the Word of God.

* * *

When I served as a congregational rabbi in Pittsburgh, every discussion and deliberation concerning any aspect relating to a prospective convert was handled by a group of at least 3-4 rabbis, with genuine fear and trembling, with the knowledge that we, the rabbis, bore the burden of representing K’lal Yisrael.  And when the day finally arrived at the mikvah?  My God!   The discretion, sensitivity, modesty and respect displayed by all… recalled the experience at Har Sinai!

Each and every step of the way was handled with discretion and respect, mentoring, motivating and serving.  Not just halacha but mentschlichkeit mapped our way forward!  As it was then, so it is now.
When in Pittsburgh, I frequently called upon the sage, sensitive, and loving advice of that humane Gadol, Moreinu Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt’l, and mentor and rosh yeshiva at RIETS for close to 50 years. 

Whenever I spoke with him, I jotted notes to refer to. When consulting with him about issues relating to a pending conversion, he responded in great detail, and with his inimitable patience and love. After ascertaining that I was absolutely certain that this woman was indeed worthy of becoming a Giyoret, he added the following words, (we always conversed in Hebrew): rak tizkor ledaber b’nachas u’bekavod; remember to speak calmly and respectfully; tamid tareh lah b’chol diburecha u’maaseicha ad kama gedola v’kedosha Torateinu. Always demonstrate with all you say and do how great and sacred our Torah is.  Al tishkach sh’im tatzliach az tuchal l’kayem mitzvat ahavat ha’ger b’chol prateia v’dikdukeia. Ata meivin Reb Eliyahu – scharecha harbeh me’od.   Don’t forget that if you succeed you will then be able to observe the mitzvah of Loving the Ger with all its ramifications. Do you understand Reb Eliyahu; your reward will be great.  And then he reiterated, tomar es zeh gam l’chaveireich ha’rabanim ba’ir, share this with your rabbinic colleagues in the city, as well. 

We rabbis regulate ourselves, guided by our rebbeim and mentors. And, when a rabbi acts as a rogue, any Jew can prove to be his undoing.  As the Post article makes clear, the Washington D.C. rabbi’s undoing was the result of an observant mikvah attendant (not a scholar, not a rabbi, not a macher in the community – an attendant!) who took her concerns to the leaders of the mikvah and the synagogue.  And then, as the Post reports, “A lawyer was called.”

 As long as there is Torah and Jews knowledgeable in Torah, no more regulation is needed.