“In short, there is no crisis; there is only…life, people and human frailty. The nostalgia for the perfect world of the past, where all Jews, especially Rabbis, were decent, honest, ethical and upright, is a fantasy, and a dangerous fantasy. Human nature remains human nature, and as a people we are defined by the majority, not by the exceptions, even if the exceptions grab the media spotlight. And the majority of religious Jews – and Rabbis – are decent, honest, ethical and upright people, and even among the accused wrongdoers, the overwhelming majority of their actions also reflect the values that they profess.” I wrote that last August in response to a number of scandals in Jewish life, and once again it is, sadly, timely. (https://rabbipruzansky.com/2009/08/05/crisis-in-orth…xy-perhaps-not/).
News reports have revealed the lurid details of a Monsey Rabbi who allegedly abused his position as prominent converter of non-Jews to take advantage of the women who came into his orbit. Until last week, the individual in question headed a right-wing Orthodox agency called Eternal Jewish Family (endorsed by many Gedolei Torah across the world) that was created ostensibly to foster universally-acceptable standards for conversion to Judaism. I do hope that allegedly trading sexual favors for conversion are not the “universally-acceptable standards” he, or the organization, had in mind.
This is no attempt to glorify myself or anyone else at the expense of the perpetrator. Anyone mature enough to understand human nature will recognize that what distinguishes people are not the desires or tendencies that we have but only our ability to control them, and to pursue them licitly. What varies from person to person is the level of self-control we maintain. What moves me to write is that the Chilul Hashem is, again, breath-taking, and “in the place where there is desecration of G-d’s name we do not defer to the honor ordinarily due Rabbis.” It is simultaneously embarrassing to the Jewish community but not shocking, another brutal reminder that “there is no guardian against sexual immorality.” Any person can succumb, and the Talmud itself has a number of cases to prove the point, wherein chaste, virtuous people succumbed, or nearly succumbed, to this passion. Elmer Gantry rides again. In the last fifteen years, such miscreants have emerged from the left, center and right wings of Orthodoxy (and from the non-Orthodox movement, and from the non-Jewish world), putting the lie to the perception of many in each group that their particular wing is the repository of all virtue and goodness and all others the domicile of the impure and the promiscuous. There is good and less-than-good in each group.
What makes this case especially egregious was that the alleged offender in question was instrumental in stirring up the “conversion” tumult that has rocked America and Israel in the last few years – questioning past conversions, besmirching or belittling current Batei Din, and generally sending shock waves throughout the system that have not yet died down. I do not know the individual but have met him; I even participated – at his invitation – at an EJF convention that I found to be both over-hyped and underwhelming. It was much ado about very little, and at one kind-hearted and well-meaning person’s expense flew in Rabbis from all over the world (including myself) to a luxury hotel to hear restatements of the obvious in both obvious and quasi-threatening ways. I serve on the Bet Din L’Giyur of Bergen County, faithful and successful adherents to the GPS guidelines promulgated by the Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of America. The thought of using the conversion process in order to obtain money or other favors is abhorrent, as despicable as preying on people who are spiritual searchers and therefore somewhat vulnerable to the charms of their teacher or mentor. In these matters, self-control should be a prerequisite, an absolute.
There are some important general lessons to be derived from this mess. I am always suspicious of people who rail against the failings of others, and by name, and who make every dispute (I mean, EVERY dispute) personal. The Talmud (Kiddushin 70b) said wisely that, generally speaking, “he who delegitimizes others does so with something illegitimate about himself.” People stigmatize others with their own blemishes –perhaps to avoid exposure themselves, perhaps in an effort to deal with the internal conflict and guilt they must feel. Readers know that I have strong feelings on a variety of issues (like EVERY issue) but I try never to personalize the dispute, but rather to disagree forcefully but agreeably. Just because someone disagrees with me does not necessarily mean they are wrong, and even someone who is wrong is not necessarily a bad person. People should never to be defined by one issue, position, or deed, I always assume that the motivations of my antagonists are sincere, and there is much good in them that transcends our areas of disagreement. I wish that were the norm in religious life.
Those who obsess over the failings of any particular wing in Orthodoxy (or, for that matter, Jews generally) should recognize how little these intramural wars of the Jews matter to our enemies. Perhaps they should matter less to us as well. I am often stunned by the vituperative reactions in each group – left, right and center – to any criticism, and the glee that erupts when they find new ammunition to fire at their foes who are, after all, their brothers and sisters. We should rise above that.
One other question intrigues: the individual in question had the ear (and support) of Gedolim throughout the world. How is it possible that they were fooled, that – even if the allegations are false – they did not reckon with the reality that such allegations could be raised against this person? After all, these are the great leaders and thinkers of our time.
This is confirmation of something that I have witnessed myself over the years. Gedolei Torah – and most Rabbis – are incapable of recognizing true evil and hypocrisy. Call it the “Yitzchak Avinu and Esav Syndrome.” I have been in the presence of Gedolim, and they live on a plane of purity and saintliness where such incidents – while theoretically possible; after all, the Tanach is filled with stories of the foibles of great people – are not considered practical possibilities. Most never encounter salaciousness, degradation, and the dark side of man. (Fortunately – or unfortunately – I worked as a criminal defense lawyer for 13 years, and so I am permanently spared of such illusions.) To see this alleged scoundrel in the company of great people – even some who guided him and supported him – is not to see their failings but, paradoxically, to see their greatness. Certainly they can – and do – err, and certainly they should do their due diligence in these matters as best as possible, but the bottom line is this type of misconduct is not part of their world view. They know on some level that it exists, but it is as real to them as the prospect of eating a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur. In the long run perhaps they are better off, even if there is price that is occasionally paid for this propriety.
As I concluded in August: “So let us not rationalize nefarious conduct – but let us also not be naïve about human nature or simplistic about the Torah’s commandments. Let us continue to demand of ourselves the highest standards of fidelity to G-d’s law… The Torah is perfect; no one ever claimed all of its practitioners were also perfect. Rather than cast aspersions on others and make sweeping and smug generalizations, we should instead look in the mirror and confront our own failings… And then we will truly become servants of G-d, a nation renowned for its virtue and piety, and a people worthy of redemption.”