Thursday, November 13, 2014

Transparency and the Honor of the Rabbinate

RCA President Rabbi Leonard Matanky
Most rabbis are either sexual predators or cover-up for those colleagues that are.

That is of course one of the most ridiculous and disgusting statements anyone can make about the lofty profession of being a rabbi. And yet if one would read what is being said by some victim’s advocates and many people who comment on the issue, this would be the conclusion. I’m not saying that anyone actually believes that. But that is the impression one gets. The venom I often see spewed at the rabbinate is so over the top that it is almost comical.

The truth of course is nothing of the sort. The vast majority of rabbis are altruistic dedicated people that strive mightily to serve God and His people. Unfortunately there are always the bad apples that ruin it for everybody. This is what happens when one discovers the Lanners, Kolkos, Webermans, Gordons, Mondrowitzes, and Freundels of the world. They have abused their position to one extent or another in order to satisfy their own lust at the expense of others. Sometimes to the point of permanent psychological damage to their victims that occasionally end in suicide! This is not even arguable.

The public is rightly outraged by these miscreants. And their call for change is justified. There have indeed been far too many cases of cover-up. I believe that this is why the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is reviewing its conversion procedures. I support their doing so, despite the umbrage taken by some of its rabbis.

(Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is one such rabbi. He has resigned as a Dayan (judge)from the conversion court he was involved in because he felt that Halacha as embodied in the RCA’s Gerus Protocol and Standards (GPS) might be tampered with. While I understand his concern, I think he acted too hastily in resigning.  The RCA has clearly stated that their review will be geared only toward additional protection of  the the convert. It will not tamper with Halacha. At the very least rabbi Pruzansky should have waited to see what would happen before he resigned. But that is neither here nor there with respect to this issue.)

The precipitating event that caused the RCA to convene this committee was the Freundel scandal. As most people know by now, in his capacity as the Rabbi and overseer of conversions in his synagogue, he abused his power in many ways, the most egregious of which was installing cameras in the Mikva so that he could watch and record women utilizing the Mikva undress and immerse. 

Converts are required to immerse in a Mikva in order to complete their conversions. They are particularly vulnerable as their conversions are under the complete discretion of the rabbi that brings them to conversion. 

One may recall that a while back such vulnerability had caused a rather famous conversion rabbi to take sexual advantage of one of his female converts.

That said, I think it is completely unfair to paint all rabbis as less than idealistic. It is unfair to say that all of them – or even most of them - would abuse or cover-up abuse of their fellow rabbis. That cover-ups happen is not surprising since it is so hard to believe a long time respected colleague would ever do things he is being accused of. But to assume that all or most rabbis would protect their colleagues at the expense of victims is at best a gross exaggeration.

I have to agree with Rabbi Eliyahu Safran’s defense of the honor of the rabbinate.  He described it as place where idealistic young men have chosen a career to serve God and His people according to the dictates of the Torah. You don’t go into the rabbinate for the money. It is therefore unfair to paint the rabbinate with a broad brush. The care taken by rabbis at conversions he has been involved with should not be overlooked. I think what he described is more the rule than the exception.

Ordinarily I would say that such dedication and devotion to doing the right thing would suffice for them to self regulate. But the fact that there have been so many cases of sexual abuse by rabbis means that the rabbinate needs more transparency. The few have ruined it for the many.

How we go about achieving this is the $64,000 question. This is what the RCA is doing.  Hopefully. At least with respect to Mikva use by the convert - procedures can be developed that will prevent any future attempt at abuse by any rabbi.

It is a shame that the honor of the rabbinate has been tainted this way. There are a lot of good rabbis out there that must be paranoid by now… thinking that everyone thinks they are predators. Or protectors of their cronies who are. I do not believe for a moment that is the norm. But it is a problem that exists. And it needs to be dealt with.

Good rabbis that have deservedly been trusted before might now feel embarrassed and insulted by this turn of events. Which is an unfair and uncomfortable consequence of all this. But the better part of caution should require that rabbinic honor be subordinated to the welfare of the public. Transparency is now - sadly - a necessity.  As long as current conversion standards are not tampered with - I am all for it.

But at the same time, it is wrong to paint the rabbinate with the broadest of negative brushes that is so common these days.  Most rabbis deserve our respect. And we ought to give it to them.