Monday, June 22, 2015

What Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz and Charles Kimball Teach us About Religion and our Leaders

In the most recent Orthodox Union magazine of Summer 5775, Jewish Action, a great deal of attention is devoted to a recent hurtful chapter of betrayal and abuse of Rabbinic power and authority in the life of North American Orthodox Jewry. The title of the article and the very issue is “When Leaders Fall.” The lead article was written by a scholar and Rav for whom I have great respect and is truly one of my favorite Jewish leaders today, not that I agree or have to agree with everything he says. Rabbi Breitowitz uses his unique and wonderful combination of scholarship, Jewish knowledge, erudite articulation, and most important compassion and maintaining a strong sense of humanity to explore what elements in our social and cultural context may lead our leaders to fail. He begins by advising us to not condemn the Torah and Jewish Law for the failings of mere mortals. As I often say, it is too easy, in this instance to throw the baby away with the bath water and we as individuals have to remain reasonable about who we all are as humans and what we can reasonably expect from leaders and when we have to take action in difficult situations.

A second point that he speaks about is how people may expect too much from their leaders; and how leaders can fall into the position of power that such expectations can engender. We must always work carefully and purposefully to protect ourselves from the failings of others – insuring that individuals are safe, spaces are not exclusive and individuals in positions of authority do not take on more power than is theirs to take. People who are harmed must be able to speak and not be intimidated by self-serving authority. It is our responsibility collectively to insure that no one individual’s safety is compromised for the sake of the position or authority of another.

Of course, all of this makes so much sense in terms of Jewish teachings, what we hold to be true as civilized human beings, and with respect to common sense! There is so much in Jewish Law that insures this safety and protection of the potentially vulnerable. Yet, unfortunately we too often hear about those who take advantage of women who cannot get a divorce, converts, and others in such positions. In Pesachim 114b there is a most curious teaching that converts and servants like each other, because they are both in a lowly position and do not expect much from each other. This is within the context of a larger discussion about honorable behaviors and those that are not so honorable and how leaders can think that they can “do it all” and it is these leaders that are to be avoided. Essentially, we would not want to use the least common denominator in our expectations of others; but rather, work so that we all try to be the best we can be and ask the same of others.

How do we as members of our community hold onto our own agency and act with confidence and expecting the most of each other possible; while simultaneously have a more realistic set of expectations regarding our leaders? How do we allow our leaders to lead but not abuse that leadership? This is indeed a tricky question that has sparked many conversations on the part of scholars, social scientists and all of us who are part of social and religious institutions. In a day and age where practically every authoritative religious agency or representatives of them are under scrutiny because of the misdeeds and abuse of position among others who have been found guilty, not to mention the terrible harm done to the victims of these abuses, one must wonder who is minding the store, so to speak, in these bodies?

Years ago I became an avid fan of Charles Kimball when I read his book When Religion Becomes Evil. He speaks at length about Absolute Truth Claims and Blind Obedience, two of his markers for when religion does not function in the protective, embracing, instructive and supportive way it is supposed to in our lives as human beings in need of the big answers (or approaches) to the big questions. It is these two characteristics, I believe, that are taken on by the Rav/Rabbi (or any comparable religious leader in any community) who says “Don’t question me; I KNOW the truth,” and the member of the community who is embarrassed by such chastisement and ends up blindly following for fear of sanction. What flawed person in this flawed collection of human beings is of such a level that they are not to be questioned by others! Even the most recently appointed Pope is loved for his humanity and his desire to engage in dialogue with others. When did religious leadership in ANY of our traditions become such an elevated position that one cannot challenge those in its ranks in any way? This is clearly NOT allowed in Jewish law on any level; and yet, we are still dealing with far too much collateral damage including generations of NCSY’ers who were victimized by their head; converts who were taken advantage of; students in Yeshivot who were sexually, physically or emotionally abused; agunot (women who cannot attain a divorce) because of complicit Batei Din (Rabbinic courts); children who are abused by parents and cannot complain because it would go against Shalom Bayit (a peaceful home) and so on. THIS IS NOT THE JUDAISM OF OUR TORAH AND OUR TREASURED HERITAGE and yet it is happening.

What can we do? So here is just one thought to consider in engaging this potentially ongoing discussion. We are taught Aseh Lecha Rav, or find for your self a Rabbi. In other words, we are to take responsibility for finding and designating a leader we can respect and is appropriate for us. Our leader that we go to is NOT dictated, but rather should be chosen by us.

I will draw a quick analogy. I have dealt with some ongoing health challenges throughout my life. I am blessed to have been successful in this endeavor and here is one of my secrets. At points when my health was compromised, I would ONLY go to a doctor I could respect, a doctor who would discuss options with me, one who would share the findings in the PDR with me, one who would allow and encourage, even ask, that I be a participating partner in my health care. In this fashion, I have been blessed with wonderful doctors along the way.

Years ago, the village where one lived was where one’s Rabbi was located. Maybe, we have to challenge this with so much that has changed in our lives. We must each CHOOSE intelligently and intentionally the one that we will go to as our Rabbinic authority. Maybe then, the voice of those that do use the humility that is to come with leadership will be heard more than those who claim to know all the truths and demand blind leadership. WE HAVE TO DO OUR PART in choosing wisely! Our tradition asks that of us; our humanity demands it!

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