In his pre-Rosh Hashana Editor’s Note, Baltimore Jewish Times editor Neil Rubin reflected on what he learned in the wake of breaking the story about rampant sexual abuse in the Baltimore community. In particular, Rubin and his paper were criticized for printing the name of one alleged serial offender, the revered, deceased Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro, and accusing him of molesting dozens of boys over the course of a couple decades.
The story rocked Baltimore and the entire Jewish community, but it didn’t start there and it doesn’t end there. Numerous other cases of serial sexual abuse by rabbis have emerged in the last few years. Many of these incidents involve the molestation of children, but several—two in particular that have been in the news lately—involve the alleged abuse of adult women by rabbis who, the women claim, used their status as rabbis-to-be-trusted to manipulate them into having a sexual relationship.
The shock and devastation that always comes when one hears about people one trusts doing horrific things is compounded by the fact that these offenders carry the title rabbi. Because by virtue of having this title, these men would seem to have the Jewish establishment’s stamp of spiritual approval, as it were, and in their showing themselves to be wholly unfit—spiritually and morally—that stamp would seem to have been the invalidated. It is enough to call one’s faith in Judaism into question, and no doubt has done so for many of those who have been personally abused. But if there is a bright side to these scandals coming to light, it is that they remind us of the true nature of rabbis – that they are people, too, just like the rest of us.
In this day and age, bearing the title “rabbi” simply means one has acquired a certain body of knowledge, not that he or she is inherently any more spiritual, purer, or closer to God than someone who doesn’t bear that title.
Sure, it’s not just a degree, the way a medical doctor is not just the holder of an M.D. Just as we hold our doctors to a certain standard of decorum, we expect that rabbis should conform to a certain moral code. But by Jewish law, we are all subject to that same moral code. And we all have the potential to acquire the same knowledge, and rise to the same spiritual level that we expect from a “rabbi.” In fact, Jewish rituals do not require rabbis, just educated Jews. Rabbis are not necessary to our spiritual endeavors as Jews; they are supplementary.
I’m not saying we should not respect our rabbis or that we should not trust them. Rather, we should remember that they, like the rest of us, are fallible human beings, that they, too, can succumb to the corruptions of power—and of the flesh, and that respectfully questioning authority—whether it be of rabbis, doctors, professors, parents, etc.—is a healthy thing to do.
For more information about rabbi abuse and what you can do about it, check out the Awarewess Center, www.theawarenesscenter.org
–Rebecca Honig Friedman