On the desire to eradicate the Rabbinical authority to harm the ethical responsibility that must be engaged when taking on a Rabbinical position. The attention, the understanding, the keeping of secrets, the commitment to others, not as mere chatter on the relationship between me and you, but as an undertaking and the realization of the claim that is present in every meeting.
* Lecture at the Schechter Institute, given as part of a seminar on: “Between ‘Appoint yourself a Rabbi’ and “Hate the Rabbinate” – the Rabbinate in Israel from Pirkei Avot to current times.”
Following is the text that I used as a basis for my lecture, sometimes staying close to my pages and other times talking freely:
[I have chosen to skip the introduction to my lecture, in which I thanked my hosts and the audience]
I am delighted to be part of this evening, where we can stop for a moment and consider the tension that exists between the instruction to appoint oneself a Rabbi and the instruction to hate the Rabbinate. Such a debate, when taking place in a Beit Midrash that ordains both male and female Rabbis, it is most significant as we are now witnessing the formation of the Rabbi’s image in our future graduates and you/them will become a pipeline, a reflection, a Pillar of Cloud, an armrest and many more positions that those who fulfil this title bear on their shoulders – throughout the years. Therefore, it is vital to discuss these complex questions, through which we can weave an appropriate image of the title Rabbi [and here I refer to the Rabbinical position and not to the Rabbinical institute, at least not for now.]
Thus, if it is so difficult to choose a Rabbinical position for communities and individuals, how difficult must it be to be worthy of the ideal involved in this position and not to surrender to the sins that stand in our way. This is a very difficult task which leads us to great questions: should one totally forfeit a Rabbinical position; in communities, in giving halachic rulings and in responding to halachic questions, taking part in religious ceremonies and serving the public. Should one avoid diving into the deep and tumultuous waters, of the rabbinical position – not in the past of the past, and not in the past of that which is still expected?
I am thinking mainly about the Rabbinical students and then about this entire audience, some of whom already hold the title of Rabbi, for some who live a life that is affiliated to their title while others are not so close, but they cannot ignore the fact that this is a role, this is a profession with diverse elements that comprise it.
If my words here tonight can bring us closer to the level of caution, to promote more ethical and clearer versions that enable us to instill a faith that can weave a closer connection with the boundaries – Dayeni – I will be satisfied.
Speaking for myself, I wear several hats, or scarves, under which I am active in the world of study and practice, and to me they are all one.
I am standing here today as one who has responded to halachic questions over the past years, mainly regarding the laws of marital purity, after learning, and taking exams, in the Halachic Program for Women that was held for several significant years at Beit Morasha. Today I continue my halachic studies at the Har’El Beit Midrash.
In addition to serving as a halachic respondent, I find myself in more traditional roles, such as the mikve lady (balanit) and Kallah teacher, in which I not only impart my halachic knowledge, but also moderate information and help women and couples in their deliberations involving the juxtaposition between body and halacha.
I am active in Kolech, as well as in the Advot group, where I coordinate requests for help following sexual abuse, regardless of the religious sector in which they occurred. More than I am dealing with the physical abuse, I am dealing with healthy sexuality, but I did not personally neglect these cases, even before becoming active in Kolech. I am exposed to stories of spiritual-religious, economic, professional and, yes sexual, abuse. Sometimes it’s separate, sometimes it comes together. When it all comes together it is more disturbing and, as a series of events, also affects us as a society, in the shame that it puts on us. Talking about this is often considered “shaming” while I believe that it is more correct to say “shame on those who know and do nothing … enabling those that cause damage to continue walking around society, causing greater havoc.
More than anything else, I regard myself as an educator. It started in the years when I was teaching Jewish studies in Jerusalem high schools and I set up the department of Jewish studies at the Tali School more than a decade ago. Today, ten years later, things are continuing in the channel that I chose – studying and teaching adults from various sectors and trying to be an effective partner in the front zone of my life – the orthodox world.
Throughout Jewish history we knew about the role of male Rabbis, but in our times, women are also taking this role upon themselves, from different perspectives, in different sectors of Judaism and are a direct address for women, without having the need to interpret, fear or hope that the pain will be understood. It is possible for a woman to consult with other woman on the laws of family purity (the color or appearance of menstrual stains) or on intimate issues of normal or abusive behavior. It seems that other conversations are initiated when one experiences some kind of similar situation, when one feels secure and can talk about experiences that have never been mentioned before.
The use of the rabbinical position for male and female members of the community, for individuals who are searching for advice – is extremely wide. In reality, there are no organized moments when a woman and a man remember that they are the respected rabbinical authority, possibly looking up and possibly giving a quick side glance. In the end, the rabbinical role requires high and constant availability. There are other constant roles in life, and even the Rabbinate must adapt itself to the spirit of the times in the community.
The ethical responsibility should not be taken for granted when one considers taking the role of Rabbi upon him/herself. The attention, the understanding, the keeping of secrets, the commitment to others, not as mere chatter on the relationship between me and you, but as an undertaking and the realization of the claim that is present in every encounter. It requires that one delve into the smallest detail of words and action within their relationship with the community.
In the realm of where I live, there are no organized ethical definitions of each role that I have taken upon myself. Yes, exactly in the religious world that preserves those who hold positions of authority, there is no order or clarity about what is appropriate and what is despised, both by law and in any job description created by traditional lifestyles. This is the case in my position as the mikve lady, in my courses where I mentor brides and couples, or in a single phone call that I get with a specific question.
A law proposal submitted by MK Michal Rozin, to regulate the relationship between a Rabbi and his community, contains the possibility that the elements of the relationship and encounters will be dissected into legal definitions. On the other hand, this proposal does not contain all the possibilities of abuse and harm that could occur between the Rabbi and his community, the crossing over of halachic and civil boundaries, or any one of them. These relationships of authority, which are currently being held by male and female Rabbis, are much more volatile than the simple wording of a law can contain, therefore we must ask ourselves how we want, on a humane and civil basis, this relationship to be upheld.
For example, as a mikve lady, I have taken upon myself an ethical code of “caring where I look,” and I try to be present for women that want the assistance, as if I am just a “mikve doula.” I do not touch any of the women, even if they want me to bless them before they leave, and I do not investigate them on their traditions, but accompany them in fulfilling their mitzvah.
I also teach brides and couples. There is no organized ethical definition regarding what is allowed and what is not. I have made it a routine to always start and end our sessions by claiming that I have taken upon myself the criteria of the world of therapy, even though I make it clear to all that, despite the fact that I am not a therapist, anything that is said between us, does not go anywhere else. I receive confirmation from those with whom I meet that I know them, in case I am asked to give examples of principles from behind the thick screen of questions that are raised. And no more is said between us than what is said. On the other hand, all that I say to that audience is not a shameful secret that I could not explain if it became public, but the context codes it only for the sake of intimacy of those who speak to me. I see myself as a “doula of brides.” I remember that the focus is on those who talk to me, and I am only an aid, an agent on their way. I also remind them of the caution that they must take when facing persons of authority, in general, and in the religious world, in particular, so that the “warning flags” are flying in front of them at all times.
Either way, also by mentioning the problems that exist, I am not giving any answers to the ethical questions that arise regarding what should exist on a confidential level, including conversations, clarifications, and requests for halachic responses on intimate topics, as well as in a respectful manner. Not all that is spoken at these sessions will necessarily be said in public. But, coverage is relevant only for modesty purposes, but not for reasons of duplication. If I am asked what I instructed inside the session and what outside – it is clear that there will be no difference between the two, but the context is compelling.
But, when the need for confidentiality is given as a request from the person who has crossed the boundaries – there is a problem.
When the person in a position of authority breaks the boundaries – there is a problem.
Confidentiality is relevant to those who request it and not to the person in the position of authority. When a Rabbi makes contact with a student, male or female, or with members of his community and maintains secretive relations of his own initiative, which are not appropriate to be held outside – they are also not appropriate to be held in the most secretive places. Mental and physical intimacy cannot be the initiative of a Rabbi, or even the response to such a suggestion …
The Rabbinical Beit Midrash might be a wonderful place to develop a deep and enthusiastic relationship between the students and themselves and between them and their teachers, but specifically during times of development, liminal times in life that have greater potential for one-on-one mentoring, which could become too close and intimate, to develop a dependency and cross boundaries. True, as graduates, each person is responsible for their own lives, but when the person holding the power is present – the responsibility is on the person with the greater power.
Our illustrious past is flooded with stories of teachers and students – the Bible, the Misha and Talmud, the Zohar and Chassidut.
[Example of teachers’ and students’ relationships in the Aggada and then in the Zohar, Idra Rabba]
We can also rely on stories from other ancient or newer cultures, but throughout documented history, some of which includes both intentional and incidental stories, which have given us a narrative basis which we can accept or criticize – we find almost no cases of women learners within the traditional world who were learning with male teachers, or vice versa. This is a topic that should be discussed in our times. The more diverse situations of encounters between teachers and students, between Rabbis and the public – required the rethinking of an ethical code that will be binding over and above a discourse that runs closely along halachic or legal lines. The existence of a code of ethics that accompanies Rabbinical Batei Midrash, Batei Midrash for learners everywhere, communities, or even one-on-one encounters between Rabbis and students, or anyone interested in studying without a structured framework, but the Rabbinical authorization is present between them.
I know that the World Union for Progressive Judaism has a code of ethics and that the Israel Movement for Reform Judaism is about to validate a code of ethics in the near future. I hope that such a code of ethics will be instated into the Orthodox world, containing not only halachic and legal language, but also responding to all that we require as a society, in the largest sense of the term, to what we aspire, from what dark and evil behaviors we wish to distance ourselves, and which gray actions turn us all black.
Dilemmas of covered and exposed knowledge, of private property and public property concern society at large, but Rabbinical Batei Midrash give space to talk about what is wanted and what is appropriate, about the aspiration not only to function in one’s role, but to grow within that space, while the world grows with him …
One can also discern, in many cases, “persistent rumors,” voices that do not stop, and it seems that there is factual basis to the claims, but the voices continue and questions of validity become more prominent. A voice that does not stop, a bad rumor about a Torah scholar – these are cases that are significant to society. Is this a true baseless rumor or the source of a voice that reaches from one end of the world to the other and is heard? Is this the case of a bad rumor that puts people to shame without any true basis or in a case of a complicated balance of power between a Torah scholar who has transgressed and any one of his victims – should society be obligated to get involved, request amendments, request a change? Give a voice to what was sounded in private and give power to those who can sound a voice for the victims.
Who is in the high risk group? We all are. There exist relationships of authority in various realms of our lives. When the relationships of authority rely on tools from the world of tradition, we sometimes lack the pivot of human respect in the minor provisions of the law, which were not part of this conversation in the past.
If I had the strength, I would go out on to the streets and tell every women who was abused against her will, both in the city or in the fields, both if she screamed during the act or went silent out of fear,
Both if a feeble child froze on the spot or an adult was shocked when his boundaries were shattered –
I would tell all these people that we hear them and we want to extend our hand, that even if we were not witness to the event, we can offer them help. We can correlate and verify many of the details, but not all is possible. In a world of never-ending documentation, we still cannot be sure that all has been taken down, that all can be proven.
A hunter knows his skills and the prey does not know how to flee.
We have used our common sense and have an understanding heart in giving an opportunity to all those who were harmed and carry the scar and weakened body with them. What else can we do but save the weak from those who are stronger than them; even when in ancient languages the dangers in this balance of power were not yet known.
It seems that the term villain in the Torah has specific definitions, but they do not contain the full creativity of an aggressive person and the reality of knowing all aspects of the Halachic and spiritual language, like clay in the hands of one who seeks to manipulate in any way possible.
To hear a story of first hand abuse is accompanied by a sudden soundtrack of clear warning signs, as well as a form that is returning to itself – but when events are in the present, there is no perspective and afterwards there are those who remain crushed.
[Talk about Nitsche and Buber’s language of seduction and the power and danger of poetic rhetoric]
For every case of which I know the details from the victim him/herself, we first have to ask – what do we do? In which direction do we sound our voice? Should we sound our voice? Or not? When and how? Is there a chance of private recovery? When a person is harmed by a Rabbinical personality and turns for help to another Rabbinical personality, there is a chance for a kind of amendment and this is the most difficult test for those who have a friendly and professional relationship with the aggressor. Yes, there are also cases of women who were attacked and told their story, with all details, to a Rabbi whom they expected would help resolve their suffering. But he never came back to them with an answer and passed the responsibility back over to them, while trying to nullify the meaning of crossing boundaries. Another such attack, from one whom we admired, from one to whom we turned for help, from one who we expected relief for the burns to our souls – this all shames us as a society. We all expect that those who undertake the Rabbinical role and are regarded as spiritual leaders will be a figure to help, to bring the attacker to ask for forgiveness, to take responsibility and change one’s behavior for the future. It is painful to see a Rabbinical figure ignoring the cries of the victims.
When witnessing the victims’ pain one must demand an investigation, to verify, to examine if there is a possibility of a process of amendment and justice with the offender, or not.
The support given to offenders burns our heart and smashes it into pieces. The listening ear and desire to help – from Rabbinical personalities, men and women, is still a drop in the ocean, but saves lives and tries to help find a way to direct the pain and asses the chance of future offenses.
The bullying of those who protect the offenders is sometimes subconscious, the attempts to respond to every first hand testimony as if it did not happen, is as if abiding by imaginary criteria of correctness that testifies to hedonism deeply set beneath a cloak of holiness and spirituality. In this case we must worry about the desecration of God’s name (Chilul Hashem), which is connected to harm performed between fellow men, desecration that has no chance of repentance in this world. The social fear of shaming a person is more apparent than the burden of proof and the obligation to burn out the evil from within your midst. The abstention is infuriating. There is a price for taking a stand; that is clear. For example, the choice of the biblical Tamar to disclose Yehuda’s private details and expose the act that was performed is not marked in Jewish tradition as one of heroism, because commentators marked her action as a probable second choice; a decision she was forced into after realizing that she would not be saved through private or discreet means. If, in fact, actions are taking place in the darkness, actions of a certain personality that would not be tolerated in the light of day, there are times when the sunlight must be sinning and telling us as a society that we must offer our support to the victims and hope that the offender cooperates with a process of repentance, which includes remorse and acceptance for the future.
On the other hand, in a reality where the traditional world awards more power to one who is appointed as a Rabbi than to one who is anonymous – it is true, the voice of the offender is louder. Add to that the double language – where the offender himself might stand up and speak ideal thoughts, but behave differently in the most private situations. Maybe it is human nature, but we can ask to instill other behaviors within our society. My heart still breaks when hearing about another holder of religious power who has sinned, of another religious authority who has supported the offender. I am less shocked when I hear conversations of refined bullying or attempts to encourage me to keep quiet and join the shaming campaign. The existence of suspicion in society, in addition to learning the importance of caution – is a high price, but we are not privileged enough to be able to lower the human price for anyone who was injured or might be injured in the future.
In general, when asked to give an example of the tension between the exposed and the disclosed in the halachic world, one uses rulings for the individual and rulings for the public. Halachic adjudicators know that if their rulings were called out aloud for all to hear – they would still uphold them but disclose the circumstances that underlie each case. However, covering up the intimate relationships between holders of religious and spiritual authority is not appropriate, not because of poetic language but, because in reality we have understood the actions taken to catch and prey on a captive audience, which, in fact, is all of us.
I hope that the term “All is One” will be used as a basis for the self-introspection of each and every Rabbinical student here, as well as all others who are present – “All is One” not only as a theological statement that Hashem is One and all that is in his world is one, but as an ethical demand both inside and out, in closed rooms and in halls, and that we should merit to keep the image of Hashem in front of our eyes at all times, so that we never sin.
[A lecture I gave on Monday, 20 Elul, 5777, September 11, 2017, at the Schechter Institute, as part of a seminar on “Between ‘Appoint yourself a Rabbi’ and “Hate the Rabbinate” – the Rabbinate in Israel from Pirkei Avot to current times.”]
Read Hebrew version: אתיקה של סמכות רבנית בגלוי ובמחשכים