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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