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When Rabbis Go Astray (part 5 of 5): the Dilemma for Single Rabbis; to Date or Not to Date Members

September 20, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Should unmarried rabbis date their single congregants?

The Ten Commandments clearly prohibit sexual relationships between rabbis and congregants — or any two people, for that matter — when one or both are married to other people.

But whether it is appropriate for a single rabbi to have a relationship with an unmarried congregant is now being debated by rabbis and experts studying the issue of clergy sexual misconduct.

It has never before been a questionable practice. It has, in fact, been quite common historically for rabbis to marry congregants.

The late Rabbi Albert Minda, who served as president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, married a woman he met while leading her congregation.

Today, though, the climate has changed.

There is a nascent but growing awareness in American society and in the Jewish community of the power that a spiritual leader has over his congregants, and of the ways in which it can be misused.

Awareness of clergy violations of sexual boundaries in particular has grown in the last five years, when victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and Protestant ministers began coming forward.

At the same time, it is “no less common for rabbis to date congregants today than it used to be,” said Rabbi Steven Kushner, a member of the Reform rabbinic organization’s ethics committee.

It is, however, within the Reform movement that rabbinic sexual misconduct is being discussed most actively, as a result of widespread concern with the way it has been handled in the past.

The complicated question of rabbi-congregant romance involves both the issue of the power dynamic between the two people and the pragmatic realities of a single rabbi’s social life.

Particularly in Jewish communities outside of urban centers, the only place that Jews gather may be in their synagogue.

Psychiatrists, doctors and lawyers leave their work environments at the end of their day and may not regularly see their patients and clients in social settings.

Much of a rabbi’s social life, though, is interwoven with the life of his or her congregational community, so that for both rabbi and congregant, the boundaries between professional and social engagement can seem blurred.

Congregants have a “tendency to set the rabbi up on dates,” said Conservative Rabbi Debra Orenstein, a senior fellow of the Wilstein Institute in Los Angeles.

Appropriate distance between rabbi and congregant can be “a weird boundary and difficult to define, which is why rabbis have to be especially vigilant,” she said.

Some experts in clergy sexual misconduct say it is impossible for a rabbi- congregant relationship to survive a romantic relationship, and for that reason, rabbis — male and female — should never date their congregants.

And as Kushner points out, from his own experience dating congregants when he was single, such a relationship inevitably brings with it unexpected complications.

“It’s awkward for the people surrounding that relationship. If the woman has parents in the congregation, or children from a previous marriage, they are all involved,” said Kushner, who is spiritual leader of Reform Temple Ner Tamid, in Bloomfield, N.J.

Still, he and many other rabbis say that to completely prohibit romantic involvements with congregants is simply unrealistic, and that it demeans congregants to suggest that they cannot overcome a power imbalance in the relationship.

“How far does this go? That someone with the title rabbi never dates? Are we talking about arranged marriages for rabbis because of the power of the title?” asked Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

For Reform Rabbi Howard Jaffe, the complexity of the issue became clear when he was at his first pulpit, as a single man leading a large congregation in a small Jewish community.

“My social life could not help but be enmeshed with my rabbinic life,” said Jaffe, the spiritual leader of Temple Har Shalom, in Warren, N.J., who is now married to a woman who was not his congregant.

At the same time, he said, “I realized that there were times when being a rabbi was more than incidental to the relationship I was having with certain women I was dating.”

The power of his position became clear to him when a woman he was seeing excitedly said, “I can’t believe I’m dating the rabbi!”

When he broke up with another congregant, she began citing reasons that she thought were in the Torah bolstering her desire for the relationship to succeed.

“When it didn’t, her anger was so great that she responded to me according to my role, not to me as a human being.

“It was a hard lesson, but an important one. I learned that we have to be cautious not to infantalize our congregants. At the same time, we need to be very conscious of the dynamic that is present,” said Jaffe.

“All of us have social relationships with our congregants at one level or another. Some have very intimate ones successfully.”

Some people who study this issue believe that such relationships are a bad idea, but under certain circumstances, can be acceptable.

According to Marie Fortune, a pioneer in the field of clergy abuse, ethically, it is “the professional person’s responsibility for maintaining the boundaries. The issues for single rabbis are the same” as for married clergy.

Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister and the founder and director of the Seattle-based Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, said, “My advice is don’t do it, because there’s always the potential for damage in the congregation if it doesn’t work out in six months.

“The reality is that some individuals who are very conscientious will pursue the relationship anyway,” she said. “It’s always risky, but I’ve seen people handle it responsibly by being very open with the congregation.”

Debra Warwick-Sabino, the founder and director the California Center for Pastoral Counseling in Sacramento, Calif., believes that it is permissible for a rabbi to date a congregant under certain, carefully examined conditions.

The factors to be considered include any difference in age, education, status in the community, economic level, intellectual ability, psychological resources and life experience, said Warwick-Sabino.

Another key question is whether the congregant is or was going to the rabbi for counseling in any way, she said.

According to Fortune, “There cannot be any significant counseling relationship prior to pursuing a [sexual] relationship. If there is that in terms of a mentor-teaching relationship or spiritual guiding relationship, then it is just off limits because it’s akin to a therapeutic relationship.”

Under the best of circumstances, rabbi-congregant dating “is problematic,” Warwick-Sabino said.

“To do it you have to be able to scrutinize the ethical issues involved, and someone who does that is probably not going to be exploitative.”

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