With profound sadness I (and so many others) read a full page article in the Sunday New York Times (May 31, 2015) dealing with the bizarre behavior of a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi. This rabbi, well known as a thoughtful scholar and leader, was described as having taken male students with him to steam baths and spending time with these students while he and they were in a state of undress. This pattern has apparently been going on for a number of years and involves more than a small group of students. While the described behavior may or may not be illegal (we’ll leave that to lawyers and judges to determine), it is certainly immodest and irresponsible.
While this rabbi’s behavior is shocking and reprehensible, I do not wish to focus on his lack of judgment. Rather, I want to focus on another aspect of this scandal.
According to the NY Times article, this rabbi had been conducting himself in this inappropriate way for a number of years. Members of his congregation were aware of this. The Rabbinical Council of America had been informed of this. Yeshiva University was aware of this and stopped sending rabbinic interns to his synagogue. Parents of the children who accompanied the rabbi to the steam baths must have been aware of this.
So why did the problem go on for so long a time? Why did this scandal have to reach the pages of the New York Times? Why didn’t the parents of the abused children (I don’t believe any boys were physically abused, but it is reasonable to assume emotional and psychological abuse) confront the rabbi in a strong and unequivocal manner? Why didn’t the congregation demand that he undergo rehab or face the loss of his job? Why didn’t any of the parties that could have had influence over this rabbi exert that influence to the maximum?
I do not have inside information about what did or didn’t transpire between the rabbi and those who could have/should have influenced him. But it seems very clear that the “influencers” did not exert their influence in a definitive way.
Perhaps the rabbi was so highly regarded that people were embarrassed to confront him. Perhaps some did confront him but did not express adequate outrage.
Perhaps people were afraid to be “whistle blowers.” If they spoke against the rabbi, others in the community would blame them for being scandal mongers.
Perhaps the students were too ashamed to tell their parents about the scenes in the steam baths.
Perhaps the rabbi’s colleagues were hopeful the problem would go away by itself.
Perhaps the victims didn’t want to be further victimized by becoming embroiled in a communal scandal.
Bottom Line: when people don’t react quickly and strongly to impropriety and injustice, they allow the problem to continue. They allow others to become victimized.
So many institutions and organizations are undermined because people don’t step up to combat inappropriate, immoral behavior on the part of rabbis and leaders. It is so much easier to look the other way, to make excuses, to pray that things will resolve themselves. But if people tolerate problematic behavior, they become accomplices.
Homeland security has a motto: If you see something, say something. That motto applies not just to physical threats to our safety. It applies to moral threats to our Torah way of life. Don’t let problems fester. If you see something or suspect something, then say something. If you are not sure to whom you should address your concerns, consult someone trustworthy in your community, or call the beth din of the Rabbinical Council of America and ask for a confidential meeting.
Don’t be an accomplice to a Hillul Hashem. Be an agent for Kiddush Hashem by doing the right thing.