Guest post by R. Barry Kornblau
During the years I was completing my semicha (rabbinical ordination) studies at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), an affiliate of Yeshiva University, rabbinic sexual abuse scandals had just begun to make headlines. Following on the heels of widely reported priest sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a leader in the Orthodox Union’s youth group, NCSY, began to puncture the naïve belief of many in the Jewish and Orthodox worlds that our communities and religious leaders were immune to such immorality. The intervening years brought – and continue today to bring – to light many more such atrocious episodes throughout all quarters of the Jewish and Orthodox worlds, including acts committed by prominent rabbis and other leaders.
One of my mentors was then, and is now, RIETS’s mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser), Rabbi Yosef Blau. Among his many activities, R. Blau was in regular contact with many rabbinic sexual abuse victims, and I knew how much he cared about this issue. Before heading off to my first rabbinic position, I therefore sought his advice about counseling congregants, particularly women. (Back then, rabbinic training did not include explicit discussion of this issue.) I wondered how to strike the right balance between, on the one hand, maintaining openness and warmth with a congregant who confides, often at emotionally vulnerable times in her life, intimate and personal matters to her rabbi while on the other hand maintaining the requisite emotional distance. How could I make sure that my laudable desire to help others – one reason, indeed, why I, like so many other young men, decided to become a rabbi in the first place – wouldn’t metastasize into something depraved? Sure, I observed and had carefully studied the laws of yichud and negiah (prohibited seclusion and touching between the sexes) and appreciated their great wisdom and practicality. Sure, I was then (and am now) a very happily married man and father. Yet, other rabbis who no doubt loved their wives and children and who also knew those laws had nonetheless stumbled.
R. Blau’s reply to me was direct: “Barry, I’m not worried about you.” Incredulous, I asked him why. “It’s simple: the very fact that you’re asking me these questions and that you’re self-aware, as well as aware of the pitfalls in this area, means that, while I certainly can’t predict your future, I’m not particularly concerned. It’s the people who are not self-aware, who are not concerned about the issue, and who are not asking my advice about this topic who concern me far more.”
A few short months later, a woman sat in my office at the shul where I then served, seeking my assistance with a personal matter. She told me how, one night, a rabbi who had been previously been trying to help in this matter appeared at her apartment where she lived alone. Invoking a fictional ‘halachah’, he implied that he could better assist her if they had sexual relations. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened in shock and outrage. Rabbinic sexual misconduct was no longer just a headline; a life and soul it had affected was sitting right before me.
All of this comes to mind in light of an enigmatic verse in this week’s parashah, as interpreted a century ago by R. Meir Simchah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (Latvia, 1843-1926) in his monumental Torah commentary, Meshech Chochmah. The Torah (Ex. 21:14) states: “If a man comes willfully upon his neighbor to kill him with guile, you shall take him from My altar, to die.” R. Meir Simchah writes that “it is not strange to suggest” that the verse describes the case of a powerful man who desires another man’s wife, and kills him to get her. Murderous jealousy underlies not only contemporary newspaper headlines and sordid TV show plots but also, R. Meir Simcha points out, the stories of Avram (Gen. 12) and Yitzchak (Gen. 26) in their interactions with local kings whom they suspect of possibly killing them in order to get their wives, Sarai and Rivkah.
Why, then, the reference to removing such a murderer from “My altar”? What is he doing there? This, writes R. Meir Simchah, is because the Torah considered kohahim (priests), who serve at the altar, more likely to act in this way than other men for two reasons. First, unlike other Jewish men, a kohein is prohibited from marrying a divorcee. This means that the only way he can ever permissibly marry the woman he desires is for her to become widowed; hence, he is more tempted than non-kohanim to kill her husband. The second reason is “because women need the kohanim to offer their zavah (irregular female flow; cf. Lev. 15) and newborn mother (cf. Lev. 12) sacrifices.” (“Therefore”, adds R. Yehudah Cooperman in his recent commentary to Meshech Chochmah, “love between a kohein and a woman married to another man is common.”) A century later, we can only speculate about what, if any, actual sexual transgressions between religious officials and the women they serve the sage of Dvinsk knew about which might have prompted him to suggest this innovative, “not strange” interpretation.
Contemporary observers would add a third reason to those of R. Meir Simcha, accounting for patterns of sexual malfeasance not only by clergy but also by therapists, politicians, teachers, medical and legal professionals, sports coaches, and many more: i.e., the power differential between a male authority figure and those under his sway creates the potential, and often the temptation, for immoral acts to occur between them.
A well-known episode from 3000 years ago reflects precisely these dynamics. In I Samuel 2:22, we read how the sons of Eli the High Priest, Chofni and Pinchas, would “lay with the women who assembled at the door” of the Tabernacle in Shiloh. Some commentators follow the Talmud’s approach to this phrase, suggesting that the sons’ sin was their sloth in offering the women’s zavah sacrifices, thereby delaying their return home to have relations with their husbands. Others accept its plain meaning, referring to adultery. Regardless, the Bible condemns the sons’ acts unreservedly: “they did not listen to their father[‘s rebuke] for the Lord desired to kill them.” God also condemns Eli to death for failing immediately and sufficiently to protest and stop this outrageous behavior (3:13; see Radak there), informs him that his family would be permanently ‘defrocked’ (i.e., their family would no longer serve in priestly positions of power), and more. In its next chapter, the Bible tells us how these punishments came to pass. It would seem that clergy sexual misconduct and Divine outrage about it were an ancient reality, too.
Working at the Rabbinical Council of America for many years, I am intensely aware of these issues. The past decade has seen the beginnings of a necessary, laudable revolution throughout our communities. Sometimes haltingly, we are taking important strides forward in creating the awareness, training, regulations, sanctions, and cooperation with law enforcement needed to confront the sordid reality of rabbinic sexual abuse, of young and old alike. It seems to me that over time and working together with common purpose, all the elements of our community will diminish the number and severity of these outrages. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Even as we exert ourselves to bend our community towards greater justice, it also behooves a wise nation – laymen and rabbis alike – to recall, in at least two ways, the perspective of its wisest king, Solomon (Eccl. 1:9-10): “…There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing whereof it may be said, ‘See, this is new’? [No, for] it has already been in the ages before us.” First, our fight to minimize this cause of righteous Divine wrath will be long and hard; it’s been around in the ages before us, for millennia.
Second, for those same millennia, men, women, and children have been turning to the vast majority of kohanim and rabbis who have not been depraved, chas ve’shalom, but rather appropriately caring and wise, thereby finding what they needed spiritually: sacrifices, halachic rulings, advice, pastoral support, and more. May that reality grow ever stronger.