For those who look up to the American Jewish clergy, it has not been a good year.
Last week, one of the Reform movement’s most prominent rabbis was suspended from the movement’s rabbinical association for past sexual misconduct.
Shortly after his suspension from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, widely respected as a Jewish thinker and teacher, resigned as president of the movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
The news about Zimmerman came on the heels of several other widely publicized incidents involving Jewish clergy:
A Reform rabbi in Cherry Hill, N.J., faces a possible death sentence for allegedly hiring people to murder his wife in 1994.
A Conservative cantor in the Chicago area was arrested over Thanksgiving weekend for alleged involvement in a prostitution ring.
The Orthodox Union has just received a report investigating its handling of allegations that a New Jersey rabbi working for the movement’s national youth group sexually harassed and molested teens. The report’s findings and recommendations will not be made public until late this month.
The wave of incidents is refocusing attention on an issue that has come into public view only in recent years.
In the past, rabbinic misconduct — particularly sexual misconduct — was rarely discussed publicly. Many advocates for victims complained that rabbinical associations were more interested in protecting their members than the people they hurt.
Today there are stirrings of change. Leaders of the rabbinic organizations say misconduct remains rare, but during the past five years, three of the four denominations have developed new guidelines or modified old ones for addressing misconduct.
In addition, some rabbinic seminaries are raising the issues for rabbis-in-training, both before and after ordination.
It is unclear what overall impact such changes are having, since no one appears to be tracking the issue or monitoring how the new guidelines are affecting the number of complaints or the actions taken against rabbis.
While some believe that recent high-profile cases may encourage victims to come forward, others worry that the pendulum may swing too far.
They worry that fear of false accusations or misunderstandings are leading rabbis to become nervous about even innocently hugging congregants in need of comfort or counseling people behind closed doors.
One result from all the publicity is a growing awareness of the issue, which many expect will lead to less tolerance for misconduct.
“The wall of silence around clergy misconduct is being taken down,” said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of Lilith, a feminist Jewish magazine.
In 1998, the magazine published an article about women who said they were sexually harassed by the late charismatic Orthodox leader, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, a fellow at the Wilstein Institute in Encino, Calif., who has been an advocate on this issue in the past, said, “People are less skittish and afraid of saying this happens with rabbis and are therefore more willing to deal with it.”
Rabbinic sexual misconduct is an extraordinarily complex issue.
It ranges from more obvious transgressions, such as sexual harassment and inappropriate touching, to more ambiguous cases in which a rabbi has a seemingly consensual relationship with a congregant or staff person, but which is questionable because of the power dynamics involved.
It is difficult to know how prevalent misconduct cases are or what percentage are reported.
As Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA), put it, “I can never guarantee there are not things that happen that don’t get taken care of.
“Obviously someone has to lodge a complaint,” he said. “My office is not a police force, and we’re not on witch hunts.”
It is also difficult to assess how fairly cases are handled, since rabbinic ethics committees — in order to protect both the accuser and the accused — operate in secrecy.
That secrecy “by its very nature makes it difficult to evaluate the process at all,” said Rabbi Shira Stern, chairwoman of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network.
The Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbinical associations have created or modified policies concerning sexual misconduct within the past five years.
The Conservative movement’s guidelines, in the works for several years, have not yet been printed and distributed to rabbis but are expected to be completed in June 2001.
The Orthodox rabbinical association has not modified its procedures in more than 50 years, according to Rabbi Steven Dworken, the group’s executive vice president.
But the group’s president, Rabbi Kenneth Hain, said the process may be re-examined if that is recommended in the Orthodox Union’s new report on the handling of the youth abuse case.
The movements vary in how explicit their guidelines are about procedures for inquiry and punitive measures. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which is Orthodox, and the Reform movement’s CCAR made their guidelines available, while the Conservative and Reconstructionist associations gave overviews but would not distribute actual policies.
All the ethics committees request complaints in writing and give an opportunity for the accused rabbi to respond in writing. They then interview both parties and other sources, where appropriate, in order to ascertain what happened and how to respond.
When rabbis are found guilty, the responses range from a reprimand to suspension to expulsion from the association, depending on the misconduct and the assessment of the ethics committee.
Some of the movements require therapy and a process of teshuvah (repentance) in order for the charged to pursue their rabbinic careers.
In addition, the Reform movement informs any future employers of that rabbi about that rabbi’s past transgressions and rehabilitation process.
None of the rabbinic associations could provide data prior to 1995, but since then, three Reform rabbis have been suspended for sexual misconduct and two Conservative rabbis have been found guilty but not suspended.
Both Conservative rabbis were required to undergo therapy and be monitored by the ethics committee, and one was forbidden from taking any rabbinic post other than teaching adult education courses.
Meyers said the RA’s ethics committee is currently wrestling with a case in which a now 86-year-old rabbi is being accused of something he did 30 years ago, raising the question of whether rabbis should be disciplined for transgressions that occurred long ago.
Officials of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association would not disclose how many cases it has reviewed or what disciplinary action it took, and the Orthodox’s RCA said it did not know of any cases of rabbinic sexual misconduct.
Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the Orthodox rabbi accused of sexually harassing and molesting scores of youth in the Orthodox Union’s youth group, was not a member of the RCA, which is composed primarily of congregational rabbis.
Some do worry that the movements’ guidelines may be so stringent that rabbis and other Jewish professionals may not be able to do their jobs.
“At my son’s camp, the counselors weren’t allowed to check them for ticks after they come back from hikes,” said Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein, assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school.
“Where’s the line? We’re in a world where touching is so dangerous that people are lonely,” Dickstein said.
Another difficulty in preventing misconduct is identifying the type of personality prone to overstepping the boundaries.
“Confidence, willingness to reach out to people — all the things that make people good rabbis also make them susceptible to inappropriate behavior,” Dickstein said.
“When you realize how much power you have with vulnerable people, sometimes you might be tempted to take advantage.”
The added scrutiny on the rabbinate, and the fear that one misstep can ruin one’s career and reputation, may add more pressures to an already demanding career.
“You have to be so many things to so many people — what I call the multifarious P’s: pastor, preacher, pedagogue, politician, public relations expert, pronouncer, priest, prophet and pal,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, spiritual leader of the Community Synagogue of Port Washington on Long Island, N.Y., and author of a recent book on Jewish masculinity.
Salkin, who is Reform, urges his colleagues to seek regular therapy and speak more openly with each other about the issues they face.
“I think rabbis stray because they need intimacy, they need affirmation and more than that, it’s what Judaism calls the ‘yetzer hara,’ the not-so-good inclination that’s within us.”
Rabbi Jacob Staub, vice president for academic affairs at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said most rabbis and prospective rabbis think that “this is someone else’s problem — you have to be bad. But you can be operating from the noblest of motives and from what you think are the best of values, and you still could be tripped up.”
What most rabbis fall into is not “what we’d call pathological or criminal” — sexual harassment, sexual molestation or nonconsensual sex — “but human foible,” said Staub, who coordinates RRC seminars that deal with these issues.
Like the RRC, other rabbinical schools also now offer some seminars in which sexual misconduct and other related issues are addressed.
Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer, a law professor and spiritual leader of two Los Angeles-area congregations who has written extensively on issues of rabbinic misconduct, would like to see more.
“We need programs at seminaries and out in the field to remind them that sex and power and excitement are very real. And if you do any counseling at all, emotions are going to be there and, like therapists, we need to be aware of what’s happening and ensure that synagogues remain safe places.”