By Sruli Schochet – Los Angeles, CA
There has been a lot of introspection of late about Rabbis, mistakes and our attitude towards Rabbis in general. It is a sensitive subject and I know that many will take umbrage with what I have to say. Perhaps it’s because I come from a long line of distinguished Rabbonim that I feel the need for clarification.
Where does the concept of listening to Rabbis come from?
It is actually a pretty unambiguous verse in the bible. In Deuteronomy 17:11 it states “According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left.” Our sages tell us: Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right, you must listen. The opinion of a majority of Rabbis can even override G-d’s opinion (Bava Metzia 59a-b). G-d assures us that by following the majority opinion, a system that He put in place, we are thereby fulfilling His will.
Lest one say, that only pertains to the great Rabbis of old, there is another verse that addresses that as well. Deuteronomy 17:9 states: “And you shall come to the Levitic kohanim and to the judge who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment.” Chazal note on this verse that “Yifatch bedoro k’Shmuel bedoro”. One must treat Yiftach (considered one of the lesser stature Judges) with the same respect as one needs to treat Shmuel HaNavi (one of the greatest human beings that ever lived).
The respect for Rabbis is the core of our very make up as a religion. If this concept erodes, the entire system crumbles with it. Judaism, from its very inception, is dependent upon its Rabbinic leaders to lead the way. When the masses were left to their own intuition, sins like the golden calf came about.
What happens if a Rabbi makes a mistake? Here is where the conversation takes a precarious turn. Do we throw the baby out with the bath water? Does that delegitimize that Rabbi for all eternity?
I would like to put forward that this should not be the case. Everyone makes mistakes. Doctors, lawyers, judges, police etc. etc. Often with fatal results. How often have we heard about a police officer that made a wrong decision and fatally shot an innocent person. We look at the overall environment, the pressure that the officer was under at the time and we base our decision on all the surrounding circumstances. We all acknowledge that mistakes happen. However, times and conditions all play a role.
By way of example, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, the most sacred and supreme law of the United States, were all slave owners. We all view slavery today as an abominable concept. Do we throw out the Constitution because our founding fathers had questionable moral compasses? We recognize that those were different times with different attitudes, as wrong and immoral as those attitudes may appear today.
In Jewish law we have a concept of a Par Helem Dovor Shel Tzibur (פר העלם דבר של ציבור). This is a special sacrifice that the public had to bring if the Sanhedrin caused the Jewish people to sin. Not just any sin, but matters of idol worship. Do you have any idea who the Sandhedrin were? They were the greatest minds and the purest of pure. Moshe Rabeinu himself headed the first Sanhedrin., How could it be? How can the majority of such a collection of intellect make such a mistake? Yet, it happens.
The Torah itself put a protocol in place in how to deal with it. The key is what happens after the mistake was made. There needs to be a reckoning and a sacrifice brought, acknowledging the mistake. To be clear, the process is not through the laymen out there going around insulting the Sanhedrin, bad mouthing them at every turn. That would be adding one sin on top of another.
Going around delegitimizing Rabbis results in good and blameless Rabbis to be lumped together and tarnished with the same brush. That tears at the very fabric of our Jewish society. As an aside, being that most victims of abuse do not go to the police and would sooner confide in a mentor or friendly authority figure, portraying all Rabbis in a negative light, scares them off from going to any Rabbi, thereby doing the victim a disservice can only serve to slow down their healing process and quest for justice.
To be clear, any Rabbi who breaks the law needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Being a Rabbi does not give you a free pass. They need to apologize and atone for their mistakes. Does it need to be done in a public forum? There are arguments that cut both ways and would need to be decided on a case by case basis. At the same time, when viewing mistakes made by Rabbis, one needs to cognizant of the times and circumstances surrounding said mistake, just as we do in other scenarios.
Which leads me to my next and final point. I would like to propose that one of the major reasons behind the Rabbis making these mistakes, especially as it pertains to abuse, lays with us, their community.
Rabbis are human-beings like everyone else. Their life and livelihood revolve around their community. I am certain that if a Rabbi felt that by exposing a predator he would have the full unquestioning support of his congregation, the little voice in his head legitimizing scenarios of why he maybe should not expose the predator, would dissipate.
This is not just a Jewish problem but a societal issue as a whole. It is not for nothing that Congress had to enact the Whistleblower Protection Act (you are not allowed to fire an employee that came forward to expose illegal activity, because of said exposure). Seems like common sense, no? Yet the problem was so prevalent that Congress had to enact a special statute protecting those that come forward.
We as a society love to tear people down. If you don’t believe me, just look around you the next time you are standing in line at your local Shop-Rite. Myriads of publications, selling hundreds of thousands of copies each week, just tearing down people that we as society put on a pedestal the week before. It’s called ‘schadenfreude’ and we all have varying levels of it.
We as a community need to ask ourselves: Do you believe in your Rabbi? Are your views on child abuse on the same page as his? Will you support him in his difficult choices, empowering him to be the best Rabbi that he can be to you and your community?
It’s easy to stand here and pontificate. Therefore I take this solemn promise going forward: I trust my Rabbi. I trust he will not expose an individual as a predator without doing due diligence, nor will he cover up abuse that he is aware of. Therefore, in the sad event that he needs to expose someone, I stand behind him. I will not question him, malign him or accuse him of spreading false rumors. I will stand with him and defend his position in making those difficult decisions. I know others will as well. It is up to us to empower our Rabbonim to make the challenging choices knowing they have our backing and support. For if we don’t trust our leaders, who will our children turn to? The support needs to start from us and it needs to start now.
We are currently in the month of Nissan, the month of personal and communal redemption. May all victims of abuse experience their personal redemption, free from the anguish of their past. May we as a community experience the ultimate freedom, with the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeini, Amen!