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Good and Bad ‘Sex With the Rabbi’

“Sex With the Rabbi…” would be a great title for a sex column written by a rabbi’s spouse. (To any rebbetzins or husbands of rabbis reading, it’s yours!) But “sex with the rabbi” also a subject that’s been in the news lately — first as the informal moniker given by Modern Orthodox yeshiva day school students to a mandatory course on Jewish Sexual Ethics that was featured recently in The York Times’ “On Religion” column.

Days after the Times piece ran, the subject of “sex with the rabbi” came up in a in a very different, more sordid context, when the prominent ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Leib Tropper was allegedly caught, on audio tape, admitting to having a sexual relationship with a woman seeking to convert to Judaism. He was also allegedly heard admitting to giving her money and asking her for sexual favors on behalf of other men.

Oy vey is right.

The Times article about the Jewish Sexual Ethics class at the Ramaz Upper School begins with a discussion of the class’s homework assignment, reading an article from the Forward “about a married couple who participate avidly in both synagogue and swinging. ‘Aren’t these people just being honest?’ Rabbi [Rabbi Haskel] Lookstein asked.” I’ve heard some criticism of Lookstein for discussing such themes with teenagers, but I, a former student of Ramaz’s “Sex With The Rabbi,” think he should be given a tremendous amount of credit for openly confronting the issue of sex — already on the minds of most teenagers — in the context of a religious viewpoint. So often religious institutions either ignore the subject entirely or turn sex into something forbidden. Lookstein’s Jewish Sexual Ethics class, which has become an institution at Ramaz, attempts to teach students that sex is natural and positive when handled respectfully, within certain boundaries dictated by Jewish law.

I wonder if the New York Post article about Rabbi Tropper’s alleged sexual wrongs will become required reading for Lookstein’s class. Though some of the increasingly sordid details are better left to the imagination, for teenagers and adults alike.

Compounding the controversy is the fact that Tropper has been one of the American rabbis most vocal in questioning the validity of and overturning certain conversions in which he found the converts in question to be lacking in their religious observance. (In one case, a woman’s conversion was overturned, allegedly, because she occasionally wore pants and neglected to cover her hair.) It lends an added air of hypocrisy to the whole disgusting scenario.

Even the Rabbinical Council of America has issued a statement on the matter, reading: “What we have heard, if true, violates the fundamental elements of all that Judaism holds sacred.”

But the extent the violations have not been proved (see DovBear’s “food for thought” for some measured skepticism about the accusations). Certainly, the details of Tropper’s supposed sexual fantasies and proclivities are no one’s business but Tropper, his wife, and the other sexual partners he may have had.

What does matter is whether or not this ultra-Orthodox rabbi cheated on his wife, paid for sex, and used his position of power to force or coerce a woman, or multiple women, to engage in sexual acts against their will.

Tropper has not commented publicly about these accusations, though the New York Post reports that “a source close to him said the rabbi feels like he’s a victim and was used by [Shannon] Orand [the woman who allegedly made the audio recordings].”

If the allegations are found to be true, the real victims here, besides the women he allegedly abused, would be the people who trusted him as a religious authority, and especially the people whose status as Jews have hung in the balance of his faulty, human hands.

And that is another lesson that Jewish teenagers would do well to learn. Rabbis, no matter how righteous they may seem, are still people, with faults, weaknesses and capacity for wrongdoing as the rest of us.

And, oh yeah, they have sex, too.

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