Rabbis And Scandal: Are We Losing Faith?


The unsettling reports of rabbis committing crimes against both secular and Jewish law, and against common-sense morality, seem these days to come unrelentingly.

Reform Rabbi Fred Neulander from Cherry Hill, N.J., sits in prison awaiting trial for arranging his wife’s murder, which happened at the same time he was having an affair.

Orthodox Rabbi Baruch Lanner was accused recently in these pages of physically and sexually abusing the young people in his charge in his nearly three decades with the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

Prominent Satmar Rabbi Hertz Frankel last year pleaded guilty to diverting $6 million in taxpayer money over 20 years to Bais Rochel, the girls’ yeshiva he proudly led in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Rabbis from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations have been forced out of their synagogues for sexually exploiting congregants, and scandals related to financial corruption seem to emerge periodically from the black-hat precincts of Brooklyn.

While the overwhelming majority of rabbis are, of course, ethical and professional, and these very public recent exceptions of impropriety today aren’t exactly commonplace, neither are they rare.

As the cloak of silence that blanketed clerical misdeeds in decades past gets pulled off by a press which no longer extends special treatment to presidents or priests, what impact is it having on the public trust: our trust?

It has changed the way we regard our rabbis, says Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network and chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

"People are more tolerant and more accepting of the idea that the rabbi will have flaws," he says. "That’s one of the great distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish Bible. The Bible presents its heroes as very human with flaws, and this does not disqualify them from being role models.

"For most people today there’s a kind of realism that people are more able to distinguish specific flaws in a rabbi. People are more tolerant of particular flaws and failures and less tolerant of covering them up."

The Gallup Organization, which has been measuring public confidence in professions for decades, found in its 1999 poll that 56 percent of respondents believed that clergy are highly or very highly honest and ethical, while 33 percent scored clergy as average.

The number rating clergy as highly ethical has dipped since its peak year in the ratings, in 1985, when 67 percent found religious leaders to be highly or very highly ethical and honest. A mere nine percent of respondents last year said that clergy score low or very low in their honesty and ethics: compared to 57 percent of car salesmen and 28 percent of U.S. senators.

Still, has the recent spate of rabbinic misconduct eroded people’s confidence in their spiritual leadership? What impact has it made on how we relate to our rabbis? Do we continue to seek advice from them as we once may have, or do we now doubt their ability to guide us in spiritually positive directions? Are we more likely now to seek counsel from psychotherapists?

An informal survey of rabbis, psychologists and lay people indicates that in fact, Jews continue to hold rabbis in high regard as spiritual advisers. We are turning to them more frequently than ever for pastoral aid: in times of great crisis like a death in the family or end of a marriage, as well as for more routine advice. We expect them to be more skilled counselors than we once may have, some rabbis said, and to devote more time to us than we expected in the past.

At the same time, people also are turning more and more to therapists for spiritual counseling, and that’s having an impact on the profession of psychology.

"There is a wave right now of people wanting to turn to rabbis," says Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the New York Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and of the National Center for Jewish Healing, and both a rabbi and a therapist in private practice.

"Rabbi means ‘my teacher.’ People know that it’s legitimate to expect some individualized guidance or attention from a rabbi. Some may end up disappointed, though.

"People feel like they can’t bring their health crises or bereavement to their rabbis," Rabbi Weintraub says. "They feel like the rabbi was there for the funeral but can’t be there for the grief, that he’s ill equipped to deal with it. They’ve had the experience that their rabbis, like a lot of their friends and families, have fled emotionally if not literally, especially around stigmatized things like suicide."

"All of the rabbinical schools have been woefully inadequate in their training in this area," he said.

Still, people still routinely seek answers from their rabbis to questions from their life challenges, just by dint of his or her ordination.

Rabbi Greenberg recalls that as a newly minted 21-year-old rabbi in his first pulpit, congregants asked him for advice about their marriages and other serious issues though he had little life experience.

"I was amazed and stunned at how people would turn for advice, and pull you into the most intimate and painful and most joyous moments of their lives. Just the conferring of the title enables people to feel that way," he said.

This almost desperate hunger for guidance is also visible in the pop-culture hero status of people like Drs. Deepak Chopra, Dean Ornish and Andrew Weill, who speak to the spiritual and physical needs of their followers: even if they are dispensing a kind of New Age spiritual pabulum.

It can be seen as well in the proliferation of "ask the rabbi" columns. They can be found in publications ranging from Reform Judaism magazine to the "Vebbe Rebbe" on the Orthodox Union’s Web site, to nondenominational forums like the Web site JewishFamily.com.

Bradley Shavit Artson, the rabbi who answers at JewishFamily.com, fields questions from all over the world, from Jews and non-Jews in places as far apart as the American Midwest and the Muslim Middle East. Some of the questions are about simple ritual matters; others relate to deeply intimate issues.

Some come from Jews who don’t personally know a rabbi to whom they can turn. Others are too embarrassed to speak with someone they know.

One recent query came from a 62-year-old woman whose husband of 42 years, with whom she parented four children, announced that he is gay and sexually active outside their marriage. She couldn’t talk to local rabbis, she wrote, because he refuses to "come out," and she doesn’t want to violate his trust.

Is she required to stay in the marriage, she asked? Could she stay with him, according to Judaism, though they had long not shared intimacy?

Rabbi Artson answered that she would surely be within her rights to leave the marriage but could also stay, if she was getting what she needed most from her husband’s companionship.

"What always amazes me is the extraordinary trust with which people approach rabbis, and that has not changed," says Rabbi Artson, dean at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the Los Angeles-based University of Judaism, in an interview.

"The compliment people pay the rabbinate is that their outrage at those rabbis who do wrong is predicated on knowing that they can get something different from everyone else."

At least one leading rabbi believes that there is a downside to the Web-reb phenomenon.

The brief, easy answers to sometimes serious questions available on-line "tends to undermine local rabbinic authority," says Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

People may not take the responses as seriously as they would from a face-to-face consultation with a rabbi.

"With the availability of information of all kinds today, there’s a danger that every congregant becomes a rabbi in his or her own eyes. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," Rabbi Meyers says.

Congregants are increasingly turning to their rabbis for more in-depth counseling as well, say several members of the clergy: so much so that it sometimes taxes rabbis who don’t feel they have the training or time their congregants want.

Many rabbis attempt to set clear limits on how much congregants should expect from them. A few New York rabbis, according to sources in the pulpit, have even begun to inform congregants after the first couple of sessions that they will impose an hourly fee, much as a professional therapist would.

"There are people who turn to their rabbis all the time as the first resort. Rabbis don’t charge, and shrinks do. A lot of it is economic," says Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbis’ association. Rabbi Dworken also worked as a pulpit rabbi for 30 years.

"But the fact of the matter is, people have very personal relationships with their rabbis. For many people, the rabbi is the first respondent."

One Manhattan rabbi, who asked that he not be named, says he recently counseled a congregant (a therapist himself) for several hours before recommending that the man seek professional help. The congregant responded angrily, saying, "This is not counseling, this is just talking to my rabbi!"

"People need an outlet, and rabbis are public servants of a very unique form," said the rabbi.

Part of the problem stems from the changing nature of the rabbi’s job. In the Jewish communities of Europe there were ravs and there were rebbes. Ravs were consulted on ritual and legal matters, rebbes were sought for personal counsel.

In America the modern rabbi is expected to fill both roles by a sophisticated clientele educated to expect a high level of expertise from doctors, lawyers, therapists: and rabbis.

"There is an expectation that a rabbi is a chief executive officer, and spiritual leader, and interpreter of Jewish law, and someone who delivers sermons," says the Manhattan rabbi. "As the modern rabbinate takes new shape it’s also holding onto old roles."

And just as rabbis are expected to be more therapeutically oriented, professional psychotherapists are starting to depart from their traditional position as analytic "blank screens" and offering patients spirituality-influenced counseling, says Sara Zaslow, a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

"Moral and ethical and spiritual issues come up all the time in therapy," she says.

Patients now bring to their therapists the kinds of cosmic questions about why things are happening to them, about the meaning of their lives that they once may have turned to clergy for. Today, though, patients increasingly expect the therapist to help them find some answers.

"In the past there has been an understood taboo that therapists should restrain any kind of assertion of their own value system or spiritual perspective," says Zaslow.

But today, spurred by the influence of the 12-step recovery movement, which has always seen religious belief as integral to the healing process, "there is more of an acknowledgement that patients need and ask for guidance in the spiritual and ethical realms," she says.

"Many therapists are quietly or not-so-quietly embracing spirituality as an aspect of treatment. It gets complicated because it can interfere in the psychotherapy process and not every therapist has a spiritually evolved perspective to offer. Many of us are ambivalent about it," Zaslow says.

It’s so much an issue within the profession that leading analytic institutes are exploring how to integrate spirituality into therapy, she reports.

"It’s controversial," Zaslow says, "but definitely on the floor."