Spots on the clothing, specks on the soul

Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, is time to talk about rabbinic ethics.

A RABBI speaks to his congregation. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A RABBI speaks to his congregation.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every day’s news reports the fall of the mighty.
Corruption and improbity are suspected in the holders of public office and bring them into trouble with the law. We feel diminished and ashamed to have leaders involved in wrongdoing. I suppose we can also feel proud that the nation will not allow people in high places to get away with dubious actions.
When those accused of misconduct are politicians, it sounds like par for the course; politics is a dirty business. But some of the perpetrators are rabbis. We read of unsavory episodes of rabbinic misconduct in the Diaspora, and it happens even in Israel. The secularists and anti-clericalists have always had a poor opinion of rabbis.
That poor opinion is now shared in religious circles. Rabbinic shenanigans bring Torah into disrepute.
Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, is time to talk about rabbinic ethics.
The 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.”
A compliment; a problem too.
If one rabbi is praised because he can’t be bought, it implies that others can be.
Another story (whether it is true I have no idea): The 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?” said the rosh yeshiva, “Isn’t it bad enough that there’s a rumor?” The moral of the story? If there are rumors about rabbis, isn’t that bad enough? The context is sometimes halachic.
Rumor spreads that, though something isn’t really kosher, greasing a rabbinic palm might make a difference: something will miraculously become kosher, a conversion will suddenly be endorsed. The tragedy is that some rabbis seem to think they needn’t be above such things.
Otherwise no-one would ever entertain the thought that there might be a rabbi somewhere who is prepared to besmirch himself with bribery and corruption.
True, rumors can be unfair, 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. In Australia one of my predecessors was accused of misconduct and was cleared by a court, leading to a public event in which all the heads of churches publicly affirmed their confidence in the rabbi.
At the very least a congregation should have a bench of “senior statesmen” who can quietly handle any problems involving the rabbi.
Sometimes the best thing a rabbi can do is to resign, even if he thinks he is right and above board. Hanging on and dragging himself, his family and the community through the courts hurts them all and rarely achieves anything.
Rabbis are not always right.
I personally negotiated between several rabbis and their congregations, and I didn’t always take the rabbi’s side.
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 until about the 14th century when rabbis began to be paid salaries. Regardless, rabbis should not use their learning or their 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 don’t only reflect on the person but on his parents, on his wife, his teachers, his colleagues, his Torah.
A further story, though not from Jewish sources: A clergyman was driving along the road and was pulled aside 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.
It is better for a rabbi to be poor in a financial sense than to be considered a crook. 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 the rabbinic family – should always live modestly and keep out of questionable ventures.
Unfortunately it doesn’t always work like this. In Britain a certain rabbi was written up in the papers for owning premises of an inappropriate kind. I heard that particular rabbi unveil (and attempt to justify) his financial affairs in the course of a eulogy, though what it had to do with prayers in a house of mourning I could never work out.
My cantor in Sydney – a fine man whose character, piety and sense of propriety were beyond debate – used to say of himself, “There must be something 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 such 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! How can you purport to be a judge over us – mi samcha le’ish sar veshofet alenu (Ex. 2:14)?” I was once asked by a rabbinic organization to draft a code of rabbinic ethics. I knew I was no saint, but my colleagues apparently thought I was respect-worthy for reasons other than chronological seniority. I duly drafted the document and then it got buried in an archive somewhere.
I must look for the draft in my files. After that I might have a go at a document on political ethics.
I don’t know if the politicians are beyond redemption. My main priority is the rabbis. Every rabbi needs divine mehilah (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 president of the Rabbinical Council of America Israel Region.