Earlier this week, Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda wrote about the Thanksgiving concerns all rabbis must address with their congregants and the backstory behind the book they wrote, The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. Rachel and Michelle have been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
Recently, prominent Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, was suspended from his Hillel International speaking tour and then resigned from Ha’artez following accusations of sexual harassment of fellow journalists.
A few years ago, Rabbi Barry Freundel, a noted scholar and Washington, D.C. community leader, was found to have violated the trust of female congregants by abusing potential converts and indulging his voyeuristic inclinations by placing cameras in the changing area of the ritual bathhouse.
A few decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, an internationally famous composer of religious music, was surrounded by stories of inappropriate groping and sexual misconduct with adoring congregants.
There is no shortage of such accounts. They each touch the same raw nerve and evoke the same questions: Why do people who have earned our respect and admiration, to whom we look for inspiration and guidance, show such poor judgement, and worse, exploit their power in morally repugnant ways? How much does this type of unacceptable behavior on the part of leaders invalidate their artistic, academic, and spiritual productions? Should we be reading My Promised Land, studying Freundel’s religious insights, or praying to Carlebach tunes? How should we think about these issues?
The first question requires a brief discussion of narcissism. While a robust sense of personal esteem is important to self-worth, narcissism can hypertrophy in highly successful people. People who achieve positions of power and leadership may succumb to poor judgment that leads to crass behavior as a result of inflated self-esteem. Pathological narcissists have an hyper-exaggerated belief in their own self-importance, as well as a bottomless need for admiration. Such people feel that they have unlimited power, wisdom, and entitlement, and are prone to boundary-crossing, particularly in the arena of sexual exploitation. Pathological narcissists resort to serial sexual conquest to pump up their fragile egos and prevent themselves from facing their own deep insecurities. The narcissist is not concerned with damage caused by these seductions, and may feel that their talent or elevated status places them above conventions designed for ordinary people. The narcissist may feel that bestowing a sexual touch is a gift to admiring fans.
An attendant issue is the devastating impact that revelation of inappropriate behavior has on the public. Some members of the affected community feel shock, outrage and disgust while others rise to defend their inspirational leader, either minimizing, excuse or just plain denying his offenses.
Mental health has a good model for describing personality disorders, such as pathological narcissism, but does not always have the moral answers to help us understand what our reaction to their legitimate contributions should be. Ethicists have debated whether science should utilize findings gleaned from horrific Nazi experiments. But does this extreme comparison help answer the question of whether people should allow themselves to enjoy, learn from, and even be inspired by the creativity of charismatic figures who also exploited their power in demeaning and hurtful but not lethal ways? Can we throw out the bathwater and keep the baby?
Here is where communities encounter some of their strongest divisions. Some people feel that the sins of the artist carry over and besmirch the product; they will no longer read Shavit’s works or listen to Carlebach songs. Others feel that the artistic merits of the work stand separate from the flaws of their creators. Perhaps such folks will include a disclaimer at a conference on Carlebach’s life, but they unabashedly dance at weddings to his tunes.
Jewish spiritual leaders such as rabbis and educators confront both of these questions on a regular basis. Congregants, students, and colleagues turn to them for guidance with this dilemma. At best, the guidance should acknowledge that this moral struggle is a positive one. Our rabbis, teachers, and lay leaders need to encourage and facilitate respectful dialogue on such matters. They must institute checks and balances and set up policies and procedures to address allegations of corruption, abuses of power, and misconduct. While resolution of each case will differ depending on community culture and individual needs, the fact that we struggle with these issues enlarges our moral sensitivities and makes us capable of the right choice.
Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.
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