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Reining In Our Rabbis

Though appalled, I laughed when I first heard about Rabbi Barry Freundel. How he hid cameras in the mikveh to watch his congregants and conversion protégés undress and prepare for ritual immersion. The image that came to my mind was that of the boy in my third grade class who tried to peek up my skirt. How puerile, I thought. And then there’s the newly reported matter of Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt and his habit of inviting young men to play racquetball and then join him in the sauna, naked, in order to conduct “sichot nefesh,” the serious discussion about matters of the heart. A bit creepy, no?

But of course all of this is much more than just infantile and creepy. Years of close contact with rabbis have made it harder for me to be shocked by their infractions than it might be for others. As an Israeli divorce lawyer, I have had the dubious privilege of spending hours in the presence of rabbis who were appointed by the State of Israel to be in charge of “personal status” issues — to determine whether a Jew can marry or divorce. And I have learnt the hard way, and after much failed expectations, that there is absolutely nothing “greater” or “better” about those men that entitle them to the accolade of “rav,” which literally means “greater” or “better.”

Rabbis are just people like the rest of us. Some are puerile. Some are creepy. Most are better versed in Jewish Law than the rest of us. Some have an intuitive sense of social justice. Some have a keen knack for ritual detail. Others are vigilant gate-keepers, deciding who is in and who is out of the Jewish People.

Yet whether appointed by the state or chosen by their congregants, whether spiritual guides or alert gate-keepers, rabbis, if they are indeed “greater” than the rest of us, must be held to a higher standard. We have endowed them with our trust, trusted them with our secrets, and charged them to be greater than the rest of us. They cannot be allowed to keep their higher status if they peep, ogle, molest, cheat, bribe, or sting sinners with cattle prod-guns. Rabbi Freundel is not a mere peeping Tom. He must go to jail for voyeurism and breaching the fiduciary trust of his congregants. Rabbi Mendel Epstein, the Prod-Father, should go to jail for assault and battery, even if his assaults and batteries were directed against offensive recalcitrant husbands. Similarly, Israeli Chief Rabbi Metzger should spend time in jail for bribery, if indeed he bribed. And all of those “better” and “greater” rabbis should be stripped of their illustrious titles. So should Rabbi Rosenblatt. He is not just one of the guys, he’s the “rabbi” for God’s sake.

In fact, what I am recommending, as a general rule, is that we should consider eschewing “rabbis,” or at the least being very, very careful about who we place in such esteemed positions and what it is that such “greater” persons are responsible for. For example, I don’t think rabbis should act as family therapists, sex counselors, police, or lawyers. Such jobs are best left to professionals. And, as we have learnt here in Israel, the state should not cede authority to rabbis to decide who gets custody of the kids and whether stock options are marital property. In Israel we activists are doing our best to limit the damage done by such concessions of legal and judicial power to rabbis. Diaspora Jews should learn from us and be wary of do-gooders who might urge similar concessions to rabbis and rabbinic tribunals in the name of “multiculturalism.”

These recommendations of mine to limit rabbis and their powers is not new. See, for example, what our sages themselves wrote in the first chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers, Mishnah 10: Love work [even if you have passive income], loath mastery over others [even if you are the official “rabbinate”] and [if a rabbi] avoid intimacy with the government.”

Dr. Susan Weiss is the founder and director of the Center of Women’s Justice in Jerusalem.

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