August 5, 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.
OK, poor attempt at humor. But this is honestly one of the hardest columns I’ve ever written. How do you address the painful images of rabbis on the perp walk, accused of money laundering and organ trafficking? How do you respond to charges of religious hypocrisy and to the large number of unaffiliated Jews who use these outrages as justification for rejection of Jewish observance?
I guess you do so humbly, mindful of President Obama’s own recent misstep in wading into legal matters without full knowledge of the facts, but agreeing that such difficult circumstances also provide teachable moments.
Here are the lessons that I have culled:
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 Western 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 Bernard 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 make 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 unethical or 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 primacy 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.
I have spent my life trying to bring Jewish values to the mainstream public. I know how much damage is done to that cause when rabbis are led away in handcuffs. Indeed, when I contemplate my own, albeit lesser, imperfections as a man — my appreciation for recognition and my, at times, selfish behavior — I question whether I always do justice to the title of rabbi myself. But while we Jews dare never excuse our corruption, we likewise dare never become so cynical as to forget that those who seek to become rabbis and communal activists do so while watching their friends embrace careers where they will probably not face the same financial pressures.
The vast majority of those who work in the community are heroes. Imperfect. Flawed. Inadequate. But heroes nonetheless.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s upcoming book, “The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger,” will be published on Sept. 8. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network. His Web site is shmuley.com.