Our editorial board thought long and hard before going ahead with this issue’s somewhat controversial cover story, “When Leaders Fail: Healing from Rabbinic Scandal.” Members of the board were concerned: Could we handle this delicate subject matter with the right combination of erudition and empathy? Could we address the issue from all angles—psychological, emotional, spiritual and halachic? We knew, however, that when Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, a maggid shiur at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and the former rabbi of the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland, accepted our invitation to write about the topic, it would be handled intelligently, compassionately and sensitively.
Why did we decide to cover this disturbing, even demoralizing, topic despite the angry letters that will inevitably follow? Because it’s necessary.
When a scandal occurs involving a rabbinic leader, the psychological and spiritual repercussions are profound. Oftentimes, congregants and community members—even those who were not closely connected to the rabbi in question—are deeply traumatized. There is pain and a sense of betrayal. Some may begin to question their faith. Some may begin to reject the idea of rabbinic authority. Make no mistake: rabbinic scandals can and do result in a form of communal trauma.
In the days of the Beit Hamikdash, there were rituals to help the community cope with the trauma of sin. In his wonderful new book, Covenant & Conversation on Leviticus: the Book of Holiness, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks describes the ritual of the two goats, the sair l’azazel and the sair laShem, that were part of the Yom Kippur service. One of the reasons for this “immensely powerful and dramatic ceremony” was so people would “feel and symbolically see the sins carried away to the desert, to no-man’s land.” The ritual was therapeutic. It gave people hope; it conveyed to them in a very concrete way that sin—whether on a personal or on a communal level—does not stain one forever.
Judaism, Rabbi Sacks writes, “is a religion of hope, and its great rituals of repentance and atonement are part of that hope. We are not condemned to live endlessly with the mistakes and errors of the past.”
These same core ideas of teshuvah, recovery, and spiritual rehabilitation come up again and again in Rabbi Breitowitz’s wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful essay. Sometimes leaders may fail, but that should not cause us to succumb to hopelessness or despair.
Nowadays, we have no Beit Hamikdash, and we can no longer experience the cathartic eradication of aveirot via the sair líazazel; so how are we to cope with the consequences of sin both on a communal and on a personal level? The Torah, of course, provides an answer. In Parashat Naso, Rashi asks the following question: “Why is the topic of the nazir juxtaposed to the topic of sotah?” He famously responds: “To teach you that anyone who sees a sotah in her destruction should refrain from wine.”
When one observes the disgrace of the sotah, he should commit to become a nazir. Why? Because witnessing the consequences of aveirah could, God forbid, help “normalize” sin in one’s mind and desensitize him to depravity.
“Become a nazir,” the Torah tells us. In other words, erect even greater, taller, more fortified fences so that you yourself don’t falter.
What should our personal and communal response be when we hear about a rabbinic or communal leader who stumbles? Perhaps we should respond by doing our best to strengthen ourselves spiritually, by recommitting ourselves to learn even more Torah and do even more mitzvot, and by deepening our own resolve to live a more authentic religious life.
We are truly honored to publish Rabbi Breitowitz’s nearly 6,000-word essay, which many of us on the editorial board feel, myself included, is one of the most important articles we have published in the pages of this magazine.
It is our hope that Rabbi Breitowitz’s stirring words will help bring some level of peace, hope and psychological and spiritual closure to those among us still suffering from scandals that have affected their synagogues and their communities.
Gerald M. Schreck is the chairman of the Jewish Action Committee.