'Trust, but check,' our sages tell us

The sordid affair surrounding Rabbi Mordechai Elon should teach us that no one is immune to temptation.

Rabbi Mordechai Elon 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Rabbi Mordechai Elon 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Just when we thought we had reached the pinnacle of cynicism, that we had seen it all regarding the dubious behavior of public figures, that nothing could shock us anymore, comes the dramatic allegations of sexual “impropriety and harassment” swirling around Rabbi Mordechai Elon. The “golden boy” of religious Zionism – once arguably the most popular rabbi in the State of Israel – now finds himself at the center of a scandal almost too impossible to believe.
As the revelations begin to trickle in, and clarity seeks to overcome confusion, the battle lines between the defenders and accusers are already being drawn. Soon, the public will once more be asked to choose between the tongue of gold and the feet of clay.
Just four years ago, Rav Elon seemed to be on top of the world. A scion of one religious Zionism’s most prestigious families, he was the head of arguably the most famous yeshiva in Jerusalem, the star of the crocheted-kippa generation. He attracted huge crowds of young people to his innovative classes on Torah and Talmud, held on campuses or classrooms throughout the land. A master at media, his words resonated through our TV sets, our radios and our newspapers. He was sought after as a speaker and officiating rabbi at weddings and funerals alike, and was even approached – in vain – to become the leader and savior of a struggling National Religious Party (which later disbanded and was resurrected as Habayit Hayehudi).
And then, suddenly, without warning, he disappeared from the limelight. The classes and lectures and public appearances vanished overnight, without a trace or an explanation. Was he sick with an incurable disease? Did he have a nervous breakdown? Or had he suffered classic burn-out, and needed to be left alone in the wilderness to recharge his batteries?
Now, an answer to the question finally emerges. According to Takana – the religious forum set up to discreetly deal with delicate sexual issues within the religious educational system – Rav Elon was “asked” to distance himself from his students, after certain claims were made regarding his inappropriate behavior with at least one young man. After he violated the terms of his agreement, the forum was forced to reveal its decision, in order to protect the public.
I do not know if the rabbi is guilty or innocent. I pray that the latter is true, for the man has boundless energy and talent, and is a unique wellspring of spirituality so desperately needed in today’s society. Heroes are in short supply, and we can hardly afford to lose one more. I am torn between the moral maxim of “a person is innocent until proven guilty”; and the folksy wisdom of the adage “where there is smoke, there is fire.” I want to avoid violating the rabbinic injunction against “suspecting those who are kosher,” while adhering to the commandment “not to stand idly by my brother’s blood.” My mind and my heart are locked in mortal combat and, like so many others, I wait for the truth to emerge, as it inevitably will.
BUT EVEN before a verdict is announced, there are several lessons we should be learning from this whole sordid affair.
First, let us realize that nothing is impossible. No person, regardless of his or her title or training, is impervious or immune to temptation. This is particularly true regarding sexual conduct. We have seen presidents – here and abroad – risk, even lose, their careers over peccadilloes with women not their wives. Scandals in the religious community are far from unknown; youth leaders and teachers who abuse their students, rabbis who get way too “close” with converts under their direction are well-known to us all. It can happen to anyone – even those we deemed invulnerable to immorality.
The Talmud long ago made this crystal clear: “Said Rav Yehuda [in Ethics of the Fathers]: When any litigant stands before you, consider him as if he may surely be guilty.” Said the Sage Hillel: “Do not trust yourself until the day that you die.” And perhaps the “bottom line” on the subject: “There is no absolute guardianship over sexual behavior.” It can happen to anyone, for after all, we all are only human, and, unlike God, human beings are not perfect.
Secondly, our first and foremost concern must always be for the victim. Societies today may be so focused on securing the rights and privileges of the accused that they neglect the suffering of those who are harmed in the first place. More than one community, having detected a sexual predator in its midst, has simply transferred the criminal to another, unsuspecting community so as to avoid a legal battle and all the negative publicity that comes along with it. Meanwhile, the victims are denied their right to justice and the fox is now transferred to a new hen-house, where he may continue his deviant behavior on new victims.
How often do we read that sexual criminals have fled from Melbourne, Brooklyn or Golders Green to the sweet shores of Israel, where they might escape responsibility for past sins while perpetrating new ones?
Takana claims that it acted as it did because complainants refused to press charges (as often happens in these cases); but any ad-hoc vigilance committee must see its first responsibility as being to the public at large.
Finally, incidents such as these must cause each and every one of us to examine our own behavior. Are we careful to maintain high standards of moral behavior, disciplining ourselves to avoid doing anything which crosses the line between friendship and over-familiarity?
In the informal, touchy-feely world of today, what we send as a gesture of affection may be received as an inappropriate action.
And are we on guard for signs of breakdowns in communal life? Is there the child who exhibits unusual, anti-social behavior and may be the victim of abuse by a teacher, counselor or babysitter? Is there a woman we know who suddenly drops out of sight for long periods of time, who seems withdrawn and whose eyes show fear, who may be caught up in an abusive relationship? While we always want to assume the best, and we may be ridiculed for over-reaction, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution and investigate signs of trouble? Don’t we have a responsibility to look out for the other guy? Or is “you mind your own business, I’ll mind mine” the mantra of the day?
The rabbis sum up what our approach must be in their typical and sagelysuccinct style. “Trust, but check!” they urge us. Let us pray thatafter checking, our faith is maintained and our trust is restored.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; jocmtv@netvision.net.il