Responding to Scandal With Nuance

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Shocked, devastated, pained, violated, outraged, and anxious are just some of the understandable reactions to the despicable scandal that broke last week.  As has been pointed out, the mikvah is the most sacred space in a community: a place of purity, vulnerability, and exposure.  If the allegations are true, the conduct of the rabbi who is alleged to have placed cameras in his community’s mikvah is not the result of illness, and must not be excused as a rabbi having human fallibility and temptation.  Such egregious behavior, premeditated by definition, is evil and wicked, plain and simple, and he must be held accountable for his actions.


The list of those violated as a result of his behavior is long.  Obviously, the people videoed are the greatest victims for whom our sympathy and support must know no bounds.  The righteous converts who underwent a life transformation under his supervision have suffered unnecessary worry and angst about their status.  The members of his Shul, who placed their trust and faith in their Rabbi, have been unfairly drawn into the spotlight and forced to confront an unimaginable, terrible and distasteful scandal concerning their rabbi.  More broadly, among those suffering are women everywhere who use the mikvah, many of whom will now hesitate, pause or immerse anxiously and hurriedly and while distracted.  And of course, we can’t imagine the pain of his innocent family.


It is incumbent on the Jewish community to use this scandal to motivate us to evaluate our policies and procedures as they relate to mivkah, to review how our mikvaos function, and to identify ways that we can do more to preserve modesty and integrity, and provide comfort and reassurance to those who rely on us.  Undoubtedly, there are improvements that can be made and safeguards that can be put in place within our Jewish organizations and institutions and some of them are already being implemented.


As a Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, I am proud of our swift action to unanimously suspend the perpetrator from our organization and to state publicly that “conversions performed by the perpetrator prior to his arrest remain halachically valid and prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.” Moreover, the RCA announced that “every Beit Din assembled under their Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) will appoint a woman (or group of women) to serve as ombudsman to receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.” Additionally, “This week, the RCA will appoint a commission composed of rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals (including men and women) to review the current GPS conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.”


But, there is one more group that has been violated by the unconscionable behavior of the accused rabbi: namely, we his colleagues.  His behavior has placed a stain on the rabbinate and given rise to an atmosphere and mood of suspicion and distrust towards rabbis in general.


I understand the pain and I recognize the devastating hurt.  I share it.  While women are the primary victims, one does not have to be a woman to feel outrage.  The suspicion and distrust of leaders, particularly of rabbis that has rapidly swelled is understandable. After all, the perpetrator was trusted, admired and respected. Who would have believed he was capable of what he allegedly did? And therefore, who knows what my rabbi or community leader might be doing as well?


A survey of articles, blog posts, and social media comments reveals an almost wholesale, sweeping condemnation of rabbis, members of rabbinical conversion courts, mikvah caretakers, and, in some cases, all men.  The cynicism, skepticism and distrust are understandable. But are they healthy for the Jewish community? Are they fair to its leaders? And will these attitudes ultimately be helpful and productive in fostering the safe environment and positive changes that we all seek?


The Gemora tells us and the Shulchan Aruch quotes: “rov metzuyin eitzel shechita kesheirim heim.”  There is a chazaka, an established assumption, that the majority of those that engage in shechita, ritual slaughter, are trustworthy, honorable and faithful.  For centuries, the shochet of the community had the confidence of the community.  The butcher shop didn’t have supervision or a mashgiach.  The butcher unlocked and locked the shop.  He wasn’t suspected and his integrity was not challenged.


But that changed. Enough scandals and too many violations caused the global Jewish community to require supervision, checks, balances and oversight. Did the butcher lose his chezkas kashrus, his assumption of trustworthiness? Do we now assume that all butchers are liars and thieves such that we must vigilantly supervise them? No. Their intrinsic and assumed trustworthiness remains, but circumstances require us to take precautions and institute reasonable safeguards in order to eliminate and protect the community from the rare individuals who seek to perpetrate fraud.


The behavior of one revealed to be corrupt and immoral, even if it is the exception, can and should motivate us to improve our systems and governance. This improvement does not represent a concession that corruption and immorality are the new status quo and therefore leave anyone justified in slandering and vilifying others.


Our reaction to this horrific revelation must be swift, strong and unwavering. But it also must be thoughtful and nuanced. In our pursuit of justice we must be just towards those whose presumption of innocence and whose integrity remain.


To be clear – this scandalous behavior did not happen because the perpetrator was a rabbi or a man.  It happened because the perpetrator is an immoral, depraved pervert.  This crime could have been committed by a female mikvah attendant, a corrupt rebbetzin, or a degenerate maintenance man.  It could have happened in the women’s bathroom in shul, in the changing room at the “frum” women’s clothing store, or in the locker room at the women’s only gym.


Calls for safeguards, improved supervision, and greater input and leadership by women are important and welcomed. However, sweeping indictments of rabbis and promoting a culture of suspicion towards all leaders is an unfair and counterproductive injustice. Opportunistic calls promoting various agendas that in truth are totally disconnected from this scandal are distracting from the real changes and unifying efforts that we need to be working on together.


Rabbis are not perfect, not above the law, and in need of feedback, supervision, and accountability. But make no mistake, this scandal did not happen because rabbis form the batei din of conversion or because rabbis hold the “keys to the mikvah” or because rabbis don’t have annual reviews. It happened because a disturbed individual behaved in a deplorable and unforgivable manner. It is fair to explore what safeguards can prevent such behavior in the future. However, it is not fair to impugn the reputation of rabbis everywhere, many of whom work tirelessly, selflessly, and at great personal sacrifice with integrity, honesty and sensitivity.


In July, Johns Hopkins Hospital agreed to pay $190 million to 8,000 patients of a gynecologist who worked for them and was found to have been recording his patients with a spy pen.  It was found that the doctor often did not have a nurse in the room during examinations, something that should be done consistently.  Certainly, there are lessons to be learned for the medical community from this episode.  But would it be reasonable or responsible to suggest that all male doctors are somehow suspect or that only women should be ob-gyns, with no men in that specialty at all?


Our tradition teaches us, hevei mesunim b’din, be cautious and careful when issuing judgments.  Understand the ramifications and unintended consequences of how we react when a scandal breaks and the damage we may cause to those who don’t deserve it.


Above all, I pray that those victimized find healing, comfort, and the strength to maintain faith in leaders, and in the beauty of Judaism, Torah, community, and Mikvah.


I pray that my colleagues and I will all have the courage, commitment, integrity and conviction to evaluate how we can improve our institutions, organizations, Shuls, communities, and mikvaos, because we can always get better, without having to accept guilt for something we have not done.


And I pray that all of our responses and reactions, in print, on the internet and around our Shabbos tables, be nuanced, thoughtful, fair and just.