August 22, 2019

Talmud as Tabloid: How Scandal is Treated in Rabbinic Literature

“Rabbinic scandals shock our communities. People who trust their rabbi, and follow his teachings feel betrayed when they discover that while they were striving to become better Jews, their rabbi was otherwise engaged.

While most rabbis lead with integrity, uphold the highest standards and make great personal sacrifices for their communities, there will always be some who cannot control themselves. The Mishnah warns that since we all have our dark sides, no one should be complacent about their own behaviour until their dying day (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4). As my grandmother, Maie Silvert used to tell us, “It’s much easier to fall off the rails than to stay on”.

The Talmud is not prudish. In colourful stories, and with self-deprecating humour, it tells how even the most devout are subject to temptation.
Rabbi Amram the pious was charged with protecting female prisoners of war. He acted with perfect integrity until, catching a glimpse of one beautiful woman, temptation overcame him. He took an enormous ladder, heaved it over to where the women were and began his sensual ascent. When he’d clambered half-way up the ladder, his conscience kicked in. Still eager to reach the women, but desperate to save himself from sin, he clung on to the ladder and screamed, “There’s a fire in Rav Amram’s house”.”

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