I want to share a secret about American Orthodox rabbis: We have no power. We serve at the pleasure of lay leaders who sign our paychecks. We often live in homes we do not own. With relatively few exceptions, we are employed under contracts that must be renewed every few years. If we make a few false moves or anger the wrong laypeople, our contracts can be bought out or it can otherwise be made clear that we are no longer wanted, that our time here is up.
In our line of work, there are often only a handful of jobs in each city. We have all gone through the process of finding a new job, a new community, and new schools for the kids. Telling the kids that they will be leaving their good friends is always difficult. Like in the story of the biblical Isaac, dad hears God calling, but the child is the sacrifice. Every rabbi has at some point wished that someone else had been called.
It is therefore difficult to express how infuriating it is when every instance of a rabbi behaving badly is framed as a question of power imbalances and authority structures in which the old boys protect their own, victims be damned. The RCA is a grossly underfunded, chronically dysfunctional, and entirely impotent organization. Yet it is deemed to have swept all sorts of unsavory things under the rug in order to maintain and bolster its phantom power. How else can we explain why Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt is still on the job, almost three decades after the first incidents, and after a New York Times exposé? And given this protectionism, can we not understand why victims are unwilling to risk speaking out under their own names?
And so every member of the RCA is guilty by association, and the Internet has declared open season on Orthodox rabbis. We are all deemed culpable for bolstering a “system” or “power structure” or “hierarchy” or whatnot that hordes power and victimizes with impunity. Our attempts to offer commentary that does not fuel the outrage machine are met with a flood of responses in ALL CAPS. All discussion is cut off before it starts because it’s just so OBVIOUS what the moral stance is here. If you try to present an alternative “narrative” you are “blaming the victim.”
In truth, I am torn about the case of Rabbi Rosenblatt, but not because it falls in a moral grey zone. I am torn because it is a Rashomon-style conundrum, with two distinct but totally incompatible stories, which both begin with the one group: the past and present board members of the Riverdale Jewish Center.
This group knew more than anyone else about complaints and allegations concerning Rabbi Rosenblatt — certainly more than anyone who read an article or two and know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who claims to be a victim. This group not only declined to fire Rabbi Rosenblatt, it has even renewed his contract several times over the decades, despite vocal opposition from wealthy and powerful community members who went so far as to offer to buy out the rabbi’s contract. Over the past three decades, this board has included some of Modern Orthodoxy’s best and most well respected lay leaders. It is absurd to think that this group was somehow cowed by their rabbi or the “establishment” or that they were so irresponsible for so long.
That leaves us with two options (neither of which supports the wave of vitriol against Orthodox rabbis in general):
Option A: Rabbi Rosenblatt has done a masterful job of masking his exhibitionism or a similar sexual disorder by expressing it only in contexts where male nudity is acceptable and where he could claim to be acting in a pastoral or relationship-building role.
Option B: Rabbi Rosenblatt really believes that the locker room is an excellent venue for male bonding and that nudity, where acceptable, can break down barriers and help build relationships. He was not trying to exploit a power imbalance to get naked with students and mentees — he was trying to establish a relationship of equals, a naked relationship, free of pretense or airs. It is true that some were creeped out by the sauna scene — it can be pretty creepy — but there is no denying that the culture exists. The shower rooms in question have no curtains between showerheads; male public nudity is the norm. The board understood this and worked with him to avoid situations that would seem especially creepy, but in the main it tolerated his benign eccentricities.
Which is it?
At the moment I am inclined toward Option B for one main reason: With the exception of Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, nobody has gone on record, though it is claimed that several people outed themselves on the Wexner Fellows distribution list. Contrast this with last year’s sordid Freundel case, in which a number of courageous women stepped forward immediately, before the jury of public opinion reached a verdict. They spoke out even though they are converts and risked having their very Jewishness called into question, and even though the community is sadly often dismissive of converts.
Wexner Fellows are not quite so vulnerable. If a handful of Wexner Fellows would describe openly, as Kurtzer has, how they are victims of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s predations, it would dispel all doubt about this case. Others will surely join the chorus.
But if they don’t, then eventually the outrage will die down or find a new target, and the slow process of reclaiming one man’s unfairly tarnished reputation will begin.
“Rabbi Batzek” is an American Orthodox rabbi. His name has been changed to protect him from the current consequences of expressing unpopular opinions".