Rabbinic ethics – Spots on the clothing, specks on the soul

When the individuals accused of misconduct are politicians, it’s presumably par for the course. Politics is a dirty business and always was. But tragically, some of those accused include rabbis.

August 8, 2016 20:56
RUMORS OF corruption are a problem rabbis must face

RUMORS OF corruption are a problem rabbis must face. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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There are two points of view about the shenanigans that have brought a bevy of Israeli leaders into trouble with the law. One view is that when leaders are suspected or convicted of wrongdoing it brings Israel no credit; from the time of Moses onwards, Jewish history has expected leaders to be firm in their morality.

From another point of view, it is a good sign when Israel as a people stands up for principles and pursues those suspected of not acting correctly. In that sense, Israel shows that its inner decency is sound.

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When the individuals accused of misconduct are politicians, it’s presumably par for the course. Politics is a dirty business and always was. But tragically, some of those accused include rabbis. There have been unsavory episodes of rabbinic misconduct in the United States and other parts of the Diaspora in the recent past. Even in Israel. The secularists and anti-clericalists have always had a poor opinion of rabbis. That poor opinion is now being shared in religious circles. It’s time to talk about rabbinic ethics.

In a Diaspora country where I served for many years, the hazzan (cantor) in my synagogue once asked me, “Do you know what people say about you?” “I don’t think so,” I replied rather hesitantly.

He said, “They say you can’t buy Rabbi Apple.”

What a compliment. What a problem, too. If one rabbi is praised because he can’t be bought, it implies that others can be. Sometimes it may be best not to inquire too much.

Let me tell you another story. Whether it is true or not I have no idea. It is said that a rosh yeshiva called in a certain student. “Bochur,” he said, “what’s this about you looking at girls?” “Rebbe,” said the boy, “It’s not true – it’s only a rumor!” “A rumor? Isn’t it bad enough that there’s a rumor?” said the rosh yeshiva.

The moral of the story? If rabbis are even rumored to be less than tov veyashar (good and upright), isn’t that bad enough? The context in which such rumors arise is sometimes halachic. A rumor spreads that, though something may not really be kosher, greasing a certain rabbinic palm might make a difference. Something will miraculously become kosher, a conversion will suddenly be endorsed.

The tragedy is that some rabbis apparently think that they need not be above such things. Otherwise no-one would ever entertain the thought that there might be a rabbi somewhere who would be prepared to besmirch himself with bribery and corruption. Rumors can arise in quite a different way, when members of the community accuse the rabbi – often quite gratuitously – of wrongdoing. Maybe the rumor-monger has a grudge against the rabbi and wants to see him out, or hurt, or both. Maybe it’s just nastiness. There is a famous case in Australian history in which one of my predecessors was accused of something and was totally cleared by the court, leading to a public event in which all the heads of churches publicly affirmed their confidence in the rabbi.

This is why I always felt that a congregation should have a bench of senior “statesmen” who could quietly handle any problems involving the rabbi. But woe unto the rabbi whose own senior statesmen turn against him! Sometimes the best thing a rabbi can do is to resign, even if he is in the right. Hanging on and dragging himself, his family and the community through the courts hurts them all and rarely achieves anything. I personally negotiated between several rabbis and their congregations, and have to say I didn’t always take the rabbi’s side, though I always tried to keep the discussions dignified.

Money is an area where rabbis need to be particularly circumspect. The sages warn against making the Torah “a spade to dig with” (Avot 4:5). This means that a scholar should not make a living out of Torah knowledge, a principle that worked till about the 14th century when rabbis began to be paid salaries. Regardless, rabbis should not use their learning or title to feather their own nests, if one may mix metaphors.

The Talmud rebukes a talmid hacham (Torah scholar) who has a speck of dirt on his clothing (Shabbat 114a).

Such specks can be symbolic. They don’t only reflect on the person but on his parents, on his wife, who may have tried to say something to him, on his teachers, his colleagues, his Torah.

Another story, though not from Jewish sources: A clergyman was once pulled over for speeding.

“Reverend,” said the policeman, “I’m sorry, but you’ve broken the law, and it carries a $150 fine.”

“150?” said the clergyman. “That’s a bit steep. I’m only a poor preacher!” “So I’ve noticed,” replied the policeman.

When a rabbi is poor in a financial sense, it can be good in ethical terms. There are congregations where rabbis get very comfortable salaries (I was never so lucky), but the size of the salary is no guarantee that the recipient is a tzaddik. Whatever the salary, the rabbi – and his family – should always live modestly and keep out of questionable ventures. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work like this. I remember from my time in the rabbinate in Britain that a certain suburban rabbi was written up in the newspapers for owning premises of an inappropriate kind. I actually heard that particular rabbi unveil (and attempt to justify) his financial affairs in the course of a hesped (eulogy) at a shiva, though what it had to do with the Maariv prayers in a house of mourning I could never work out.

My hazzan in Sydney – a fine man whose character, piety and sense of propriety were beyond debate – used to say about himself, “What’s wrong with me? I don’t own any property, I’m an oreme mensch (a pauper).”

I used to reply, “On the contrary, you are really a rich man – you have a wonderful wife, fine children, good health and a good name, and you’re a sameach behelko (happy with your portion).”

How can any rabbi speak in the name of the Torah and judge (or even criticize) the debatable activities of some of his community, if people can and do say, “But you’re no better than anyone else! Who made you a judge over us, mi samcha le’ish sar veshofet alenu?” I don’t know if politicians are beyond redemption; my main priority is the rabbis. Every rabbi needs mechila (pardon) for things he may have done or left undone.

But a rabbi bears an extra responsibility of avoiding spots on his clothing, specks on his soul and rumors on his record.

The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.

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