August 22, 2019

When a rabbi fails

When I first saw the synagogue letterhead, I was consumed by curiosity. 

The words had the same kind of shock-and-awe effect as the news that Brad and Angelina were divorcing. But this matter was heavier, closer. The dissolution of a different kind of fairy tale, between Jews and their leader. 

The flash of excitement caused by epic gossip quickly gave way to heartache and grief.

“Dear Friends,” the letter began. “With the high holy days a month away, I write to share some painful news …”

It came from the president of the Miami congregation I grew up in, telling us our longtime senior rabbi had self-reported to the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) that he had engaged in “moral failures” during his service.

Because of this, he is now required to undergo an intensive teshuvah process and has been suspended indefinitely “from the practice of the rabbinate in any institution.” 

There are emotions we feel at moments in our lives that are indescribable. For me, this was one of them. And it was compounded by the fact that this was not about my private feelings alone, it was an event that shook our entire community. Most especially, it hurt my rabbi’s family — his four amazing sons and his former wife, a true eshet chayil and balabusta, if ever I’ve met one. For many people, the fallout from this quake will endure.

I first met my rabbi when I was in sixth grade and a student in the synagogue’s day school. We became fast friends when, at 12, I told him he was destroying our community with his plans to remodel our campus and build a new sanctuary. He reported to my mother that I was “petulant.” I took it as a compliment — proud that my personality inspired a word I had to look up in the dictionary.

I still remember the 30 minutes I got to spend with him while preparing for my bat mitzvah. I was mesmerized by the way he opened up the possibilities of Torah and made it a book I wanted to read. I still remember our conversation, how excited I was to write and deliver my drash. In just one meeting, he had awakened me to the essence of Jewish tradition and created in me a craving for Torah that lives to this day. He did the same for my mother, who grew up in a Christian home after her own mother died, inspiring her to re-engage her Judaism as an adult and create a Shabbat experience for her family. 

Over the years, my rabbi became a kind of father figure to me. I can’t recount how many times I sat in his study, sharing my struggles and dreams, and seeking his wisdom, which he offered unreservedly. He encouraged me to make the most important decision of my young life — to move to California — and in doing so, helped me become an adult.   

Part of me understands why he faltered. That he had a burning need to explore parts of himself and his dreams that had long been prohibited by his circumscribed life as a religious leader. I can imagine the strain he must have felt with all that responsibility — to take on the problems of the world, the politics of a community, the private pain of individual congregants, the needs of a growing family — and how all that left very little space for himself.  

But another part of me is disappointed and hurt. He was supposed to be the model of morality, not the transgressor. He was supposed to do better than everyone else. 

In the weeks since I read the letter, I’ve wrestled with a central question: Is it unreasonable to expect that our spiritual leaders (and, dare I say, political leaders) should behave better than we do?   

Years ago, a young rabbi that I knew told me that, sometimes, what he most craved was “the opposite of responsibility.”

“Any rabbi worth their salt knows they are one step away from a fall from grace,” another recently told me. “And anyone who doesn’t know that is not self-aware.”

I know that some members of my Miami community will gloat over this. My rabbi was at times a polarizing figure, a strong, fiercely intelligent, willful leader. He had foes, and he sometimes made people angry and turned them off. But to others, he was a champion, a natural leader who could play many of the roles God plays in the Bible — at times an omniscient ruler, at other times a protector, provider, teacher and, for many, including myself, a healer of shattered hearts.

The one role hardest for a rabbi to play, however, is human being. So much is projected upon them. But if there’s anything I’ve learned after a lifetime in the Jewish community and 10 years in Jewish journalism, it’s that they’re all human beings. All rabbis are flawed; some even have dark sides, which are revealed from time to time. Part of the problem is that often their humanity gets masked by their outsized charisma, talent, brilliance and authority. As congregants, we prefer to dwell in the glow of the symbolic exemplar; we need to believe our rabbis are an embodiment of God in the world. Otherwise, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I’m not sure what my rabbi will have to do during his teshuvah process. But I am sure he will encounter wounds he cannot repair. I ache for my community, whose sacred trust in their leader was betrayed. And for the temple’s new rabbi, who has a mess of brokenness to clean up. I ache for the family my rabbi let down, because short of death or illness, there is no greater pain for a child than a parent who falls from grace. Parents are supposed to be the heroes; so are our rabbis.

And I am deeply heartbroken for my rabbi, himself. This transgression will stain an otherwise remarkable legacy as a pulpit rabbi, author, counselor, movement leader and visionary. 

During this year’s Yamim Noraim, holy days, I will bear in mind that just because our rabbis lead us in repentance does not mean that they do not repent themselves. The tradition exempts no one in our community from this holy task. After all, the rabbis created these rituals because they apply to them, too. Only God is perfect. 

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, my rabbi sent a letter to the congregation asking for forgiveness. I hope he knows that he has mine.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.