Rabbi Joel Roth, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, has resigned in the wake of a scandal that has derailed the career of the Conservative movement’s most prominent interpreter of Jewish law and tradition.
Roth resigned from the position March 29, several days after allegedly making a sexually explicit statement to a student at the seminary’s West Coast affiliate, the Los Angeles-based University of Judaism.
Roth was one of six members of a committee interviewing a candidate for admission to the rabbinical school. According to an eyewitness, he made sexually suggestive remarks to the male student, leaving the other committee members stunned and angry.
“He said inappropriate things to the student,” said Rabbi Eliot Dorff, the university provost and a member of the committee conducting the interview. Roth has “some deep-seated problems for which he needs help,” Dorff said.
Roth did not return phone calls, and a family member, reached at home, said he was unavailable for comment.
But Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the seminary’s chancellor, said Roth resigned last week “because he felt he was becoming increasingly ineffective in his post as dean and was concerned it would impair the school, as well as the seminary.”
The incident is significant in part because Roth has been a leading opponent of the Conservative movement taking a more liberalized approach on matters of sexuality. He recently led a campaign in the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to prohibit the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.
It is also not the first time Roth has been accused of sexual impropriety. In fact, the Los Angeles incident occurred after a month in which Roth was surrounded by a storm of controversy over a much earlier incident in which he allegedly harassed a student sexually.
That incident, which allegedly occurred nine years ago, was brought to the attention of everyone at JTS through an unsigned letter distributed at the seminary four weeks ago.
1984 INCIDENT RESURFACES
The anonymous letter, which many believe was written by a rabbinical student, charged that Roth had sexually harassed a student in 1984 and that the JTS administration had not publicly admitted or dealt with what had transpired.
Roth served as dean of the seminary’s rabbinical school for several years until 1984, when he stepped down.
According to several seminary graduates, Roth’s 1984 resignation was part of a settlement to avert a threatened lawsuit from the family of the alleged sexual harassment victim. Roth, who is married, also promised at the time to seek counseling according to these accounts.
In 1984, all rabbinical students were male.
Seminary officials confirm that something inappropriate transpired between Roth and a student nine years ago, but they refuse to confirm or deny that it was of a sexual nature.
After resigning in 1984, Roth continued to teach at the seminary and later served as chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker succeeded him as head of the rabbinical school and occupied the position from 1984 until the summer of 1992, when he left on a two-year sabbatical.
Roth resumed as dean of the rabbinical school at the beginning of the current academic year. According to Schorsch, he will continue as a seminary faculty member, where he is a widely respected professor of Talmud and rabbinics.
In the course of several meetings of the law committee devoted to discussion of homosexuality in late 1991 and early 1992, Roth presented two responsa that some supporters of gay and lesbian rights said were based on outmoded scientific sources and homophobic reasoning.
And while some said that the way Roth framed his views created a climate of rejection of gay and lesbian Jews at the seminary, the anonymous letter circulated in March is widely believed to have been written by a heterosexual woman student.
COMMUNITY TROUBLED BY CONTROVERSY
The seminary community has been ripped apart by the controversy surrounding Roth. Both those who support Roth and those who feel that the seminary has mishandled the incident are concerned about the destructiveness of lashon harah, or gossip, and about what some have described as the administration’s insensitivity to the sexual harassment of students.
Schorsch defended Roth after the anonymous letter was circulated and, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after Roth resigned, portrayed the former dean as the victim of the letter writer.
“The anonymous letter placed him under the searchlight and made it difficult for him to conduct the affairs of the rabbinical school normally and naturally,” said Schorsch.
A rabbinical student at the seminary criticized the chancellor for backing Roth. “Schorsch is out on a limb,” the fourth-year student said. “He really undermines his support among the students.”
The student, who requested anonymity for fear that he would be punished by the administration for speaking out, said that even before the anonymous letter was circulated many rabbinical students knew of the earlier alleged incident of harassment.
The administration’s reluctance to deal head on with the questions about Roth’s conduct have caused students great pain, the student said.
“Many students, as individuals, both before and after the letter, asked the administration to deal with this pastorally, to work this out in a communal way, so we would feel less isolated. It still hasn’t happened and never will,” he said.
When asked if there were any special programs slated in which the students’ concerns would be addressed, Schorsch said, “We have counseling staff available and a very active student life office.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.