August 3, 2009
When Rabbis Fail their Communities
It’s become pretty rough being a Rabbi in New Jersey where your friends call you up to ask not what you’re planning to talk about in your Saturday sermon but whether you have a phone in your cell.
1. Rabbis are human, fallible, and are comprised of the usual mixture of good and bad as are lesser mortals. Judaism has no Jesus figure who is above struggling with what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’ and one’s inner demons. Rather than any of this serving as an argument against the need for religion, the very opposite is true. Because men and women gravitate to greed and are prone to corruption, we require a framework of law and the sprinklings of holiness in order that we be inspired to live righteously.
2. Our community is in need of a moral and spiritual renaissance. We are good, law-abiding, generous people. But money is becoming too important to us. We all want to afford nice things and live comfortably in upscale communities. But while such wishes are legitimate, they must forever bend to the desire to live humbly, serve as moral exemplars to our children, and practice charity with disadvantaged neighbors. We require a renewed eloquence in the articulation of Judaism’s most important values and an even firmer affirmation to live by its tenets.
3. There are two kinds of sins of which we Rabbis can be guilty, commission and omission. Commission involves serious allegations of criminal wrongdoing. But omission is even more grave and involves a failure to inspire the community to choose the Wailing Wall over Wall Street and spiritual growth over material acquisition. In this sense, none of us Rabbis are innocent.
4. Amid these serious allegations, the accused Rabbis should be judged charitably. They were not Bernie Madoff who stole money to buy a penthouse and a yacht. Several are men with long histories of sacrifice and selflessness on behalf of their communities. Running a Yeshiva, Synagogue or school, with its incessant demands for funding, can be soul-destroying. You feel like a beggar as you run from one donor to the next. The never-ending demands to meet payroll, pay utilities, and offer communal programs free of charge makes you age before your time. A friend of mine who runs a successful Jewish day school quoted to me the words of Rivkah in the Bible, “I have come to loathe my very life.” Not that this could ever justify doing anything that unethical, immoral, let alone illegal. It does serve, however, as a sober reminder that many of the accused Rabbis were looking to fund communal institutions but were tragically compromised in the process. Some will say they deserve our contempt. I will respond that they also deserve our compassion and our pity.
5. The exception to this rule is the man accused of trafficking in human organs, actions that are abominable and abhorrent to every particle of a religion whose highest principle is the absolute primary of human life.
6. Those who wish to justify their jettisoning of faith based on these and similar scandals ought to bear in mind that there is a difference between hypocrisy and inconsistency. The former involves proclaiming, for public consumption, a belief that one inwardly repudiates. The latter involves believing something but not always summoning the moral courage to live by one’s convictions.
7. My dear friend Mark Charendoff, an exemplary leader who heads the Jewish Funders Network, wrote of the Rabbis, “There is a special place in hell reserved for these individuals. Not only did they play the part of pious clergy while pursuing their criminal paths but they made religious and charitable institutions into (one hopes unwitting) accomplices.” But hell, a place of eternal damnation, which we Jews don’t believe in anyway, is reserved for people like Hitler and Osama bin Laden, in other words, people with no good in them whatsoever. But these Rabbis, who chose community work over more lucrative professions, ought to have the good they performed applauded even as the transgressions they are accused of are condemned.
8. Before we give up hope on Rabbis or the Jewish community, let’s keep in mind that many questions remain that have yet to be answered. How many Rabbis were approached who turned down the FBI informant? How many times did those who eventually acceded reject the informant’s persistent overtures until they succumbed? And as far as the Syrian community is concerned, few Jewish communities are as renowned for their generosity, philanthropy, and devotion to the needy.