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.

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