Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lessons from Masechet Yoma about Moral Corruption of our Leaders

So here we are again with yet another controversy surrounding questionable and problematic practices of a highly respected Rabbinic leader in our larger Jewish community, with potentially devastating consequences for members of our Jewish community and converts who have come into that entity, expecting the high moral standards that we like to think we represent. Before going any further, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that in many if not most cases, this is indeed a fair and appropriate expectation.

That being said, here we are again with the complex moral quandary guided by Halacha in how do we balance NOT turning a blind eye to those who have been harmed and not perpetuating the misdeeds by ignoring them, while also not judging prematurely and giving the benefit of the doubt to the one suspected of misdeeds? Clearly, I am writing in obtuse terms for just this set of reasons and out of a sensibility that ALL who have felt the impact of events recently brought to light must be protected. I found out about this recent situation under the cloak of the protection of the last days of Chag this past week – definitely exemplifying the principle of “HaPares Sukkat Shalomecha” – the notion that we ask for G-d’s protective cloak of peace and well-being to be upon us. To say I was shocked and deeply saddened about the evidence that was mounting up against the Rabbinic leader in question is an understatement. It did cast a pall on my celebration and observance, as I pondered the impact of this “matzav” or situation regarding someone I know to be so highly respected in a part of the Jewish ideological spectrum that is so often under attack – namely the Modern Orthodox world.

Finally, Motzei Shabbat, I checked news sources and the gravity of what was going on began to truly set in. Then on Monday morning, when I resumed my daily Gemara study, lo and behold I am learning Dapim 9a nd 9b of Masechet Yoma. The topic that just glared out at me?! Corruption of leadership! On these dapim, there is a discussion of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the reasons given for the destruction of the First Temple (idol worship, sexual improprieties, and taking of life) and the Second Temple (hurtful and harmful speech that destroys, which is set as even more serious than all of the previous misdeeds stated in terms of its endless impact). Further, there is discussion about the pervasive harm of the leaders of the Jewish people who did indeed engage in behaviors that then spread and negatively influenced all. Eli’s sons are cited for their idol worship and sexual immorality, and of course the many ways we “spill blood” by such negative actions. These actions poison the sanctity of the community and ultimately will lead to their negatively altered existence.

In one statement of protest in the Talmudic discussion, it is posited that the sons of Eli and others did not “miss the mark” or commit a sin (chet) but rather a mistake was made in thinking this the case. Here we have a problem, precisely the problem many of us are confronting at this moment in time. Do we just say “a mistake was made” and go on; or do we understand and come to terms with the serious nature of what is being revealed about what has happened and call people who need to be held accountable to that standard of accountability? Are all “mistakes” of equal value? What happens when leaders who set the tone (and standards!) for our community engage in behaviors that are absolutely forbidden and harmful, be they mistakes or a “chet?”

We LIKE to think we do not have misconduct of leaders in our community. We LIKE to think there is not bullying in our Jewish lives. We LIKE to think that Halacha guarantees living by a higher standard of correctitude. However, what we LIKE to think and what the reality is – are not always the same thing! For the reality MUST take into consideration the human factor – the notion that we are always dealing with human beings that are fraught with frailties and weaknesses and faults. This is precisely why we ask for forgiveness DAILY and why we have just gone through this pensive time of Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim, reminding us of our frail nature as mere “beings of flesh and blood.” The irony of timing of this situation is not lost on anyone, having occurred so soon after this time of serious consideration – and right at the time of Hoshanah Rabbah, the point at which the final gate, we are told, closes as G-d continues the role of Judge of all of us.

As a human being, I am pained by the misuse and abuse of human beings by other members of this human family of which we are all part. As a Jew, I am particularly hurt when members of our Jewish family use their positions of leadership for ill-gotten gains in terms of benefits to them and/or hurt to others. As a Modern Orthodox Jew who often “gets slammed” from both/all sides of the ideological spectrum, I am particularly devastated when one who has stood for so much in terms of the morality and ethics of Jewish life has succumbed to one’s own weaknesses and misused the position of leadership entrusted to him. We should all remember, however, that it is not the system that is broken, but rather we are reminded that no system is impervious to the weaknesses and faults of the human beings who oversee its operation. The phrase that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” must be invoked here as we remember that all of us, LEADERS included, must hold onto the humility that reminds us of our limits and that ALL OF US are answerable to Ribbonu shel Olam for all of our actions!

May Ribbonu shel Olam continue to spread the protective covering of peace and well-being on all of Israel and help each and every one of us to continue to find our way and hold all members of our leadership accountable in appropriate ways.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Families of Faith, Please Stand Up and Be Counted!

As we continue our Chagim, we think about the Torah cycle of readings, for which we will celebrate both the completion and the beginning on Simchat Torah in a few days. At that point, we will finish up with the final words of Moshe of reminder, caution and consideration of who and what we are as the inheritors of the traditions and teachings of Torah. Immediately after that we will begin with the story of Creation of all things by the Creator of all things in the first chapters of Bereshit, the very beginning of our story as the human family we are. Within the first chapters in that first weekly reading, we begin with narratives of family dysfunction and flawed individuals – that is the telling of how we survive our own shortcomings and personality deficits. On one hand, we might wonder what is the point of these stories? On the other hand, there is a very important underlying story of continuity here – namely that of the influence of our families on us and on our journeys in this world of which we are all part.

While none of our patriarchs or matriarchs are flawless, that is precisely the point! There is something bigger carrying them through the ramifications and consequences of their own actions and misdeeds. That something bigger is the FAITH to which they all hold on in the most difficult and confusing of times. So it is with us as well. While it is easy to believe and proclaim to have faith when things are going well, it is specifically when the going gets tough, that we find ourselves having to be tough in faith instead of fulfilling the second part of the statement, as we know it… the tough get going. Instead we hold on for dear life and reaffirm our faith, in our own self, in G-d, and yes, in our families and those that surround us.

We hear so much talk about individuals of faith and faith communities, so I want us to think for a moment about families of faith and whether or not we are setting the stage for this phenomenon in our lives. All studies show that the most powerful element in a person’s life is not camp, school, peer group or any other group affiliation though all of these are indeed capable of and do make lasting impacts. The number one influential unit to which we all belong is FAMILY!

So what does this mean practically? We know that our family units are so foundational to our identity and that it is within those units that we have the most available option to teach our youngest members and confirm for our older members what it means to be family – to care about another, to share, to put the other first, to love the other as one loves one self and so much more. It is in our families that we get to teach our children to be strong and to stand up for what they believe. We are often taught that the primary gathering place in which Judaism occurs daily is the home, even called Mikdash Katan (the smaller replica of the Hallowed Temple).

Yes, to be sure, as in the case with the generational narrative of Bereshit, there is a multitude of challenges in our families, but the point of family is that we do not walk away. Jacob DOES come back to meet Esau in spite of everything; Abraham DOES send EACH and EVERY ONE OF HIS CHILDREN away with something meaningful, the brothers and YOSEPH do come back together. Why? Would not one think that their fractured relationships were beyond repair? Yes, in many ways they were just so and with understandable reason. That being said, Yishmael and Yitzchak came back together to bury their father and Yoseph is reunited with the very family that left him deserted so many years earlier. There are tears of reconciliation, coming to terms with differences and acceptance of inherent inequities that mark families for generations in Bereshit. Many of our commentators talk at considerable length about foreknowledge, belief in G-d and the trials and tests of faith that mark the narratives of these Patriarchs and Matriarchs that are our ancestors.

As we move past Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Repentance and so much talk about ourselves, as individuals, and our communities, let us remember the very important place in the equation of who we are that is played by our families. It is not easy to be a family of faith and praxis, but to do so enriches our lives immeasurably. As we continue to read about these families and their misdeeds and coming to terms with their shortcomings and less than idea relationships, let us consider that maybe, just maybe, they understood how pivotal their role as units would be to the continuation of the people who actually even carry the very name of Children of Israel, the name that was attributed to Yaakov.

As we share these stories and their personae with our friends, children and family, let us remember to look at them realistically and NOT to whitewash what they did that was not ideal. The only way we will learn from them is to look and see who they were in reality – as individuals and as families. May we all continue to have and pass on to future generations this most precious gift that we can actualize and share in our families, that of faith and belief in so much about ourselves individually and collectively, through both our successes and our derailments.