Criticizing the Rabbi: Beha’alotekha 5775

במדבר פרק יב, א-ב

  • וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל־אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי־אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח: (ב) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֲרַק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק הֲלֹא גַּם־בָּנוּ דִבֵּר וַיִּשְׁמַע יְקֹוָק:

Of all of the siblings in the Torah, the children of Amram and Yocheved seem to have the most solid relationships. Miriam is responsible for saving the life of Moses, and Aaron provides crucial support for his kid brother. Even in challenging times such as the golden calf incident, and then the death of Nadav and Avihu, Moses and Aaron are able to acknowledge mistakes and learn from one another. As such, it is quite jarring that Miriam and Aaron are reported this week to have spoken out against Moses regarding his wife in a manner harsh enough to provoke divine censure. This is a complicated and opaque story, and the Torah doesn’t give us enough information to determine whether there was any merit to their criticism. God reacts to the second part of their statement by defending the faithfulness and humility of Moses. Fair enough, but what about the substance of their first critique? At least one midrash understands Miriam’s motivation to be noble—she is trying to protect her sister in law from being neglected (see quote from Sifre BeMidbar below)—but the second verse of the story makes the intervention of the older siblings sound self-serving and destructive.

Especially since the complaint concerns an intimate aspect of Moses’s life—his relationship with his wife—this incident is highly charged. Let’s say that there was merit to the criticism, and Miriam had some legitimate guidance to offer her younger brother. Could she have raised this with him more effectively? Perhaps it wasn’t possible to get his attention in private, or he was ignoring her, so the only avenue left was more public in nature. How to decide whether a public confrontation is worth the humiliation that it might cause? How to anticipate the reactions of the person being criticized, the community, and even of God? Did Moses learn anything from this event? Did Miriam and Aaron?

All of these questions swirl around the story, and very little is resolved. Yes, the Torah makes clear that Miriam and Aaron erred either in part or altogether. But we don’t know what Moses thought of the incident, what Aaron’s role was, and whether Miriam’s punishment was a total repudiation of her critique.  Here are some features of the story which strike me as relevant to challenging incidents in our day as well:

  1. The incident involves the intimate life of a dominant religious leader.
  2. Essential facts of the incident are unknown or obscured from view.
  3. The motives of those who report the incident are questionable—are they bigoted, jealous, or legitimately concerned? All three?
  4. The accused (Moses) never directly responds to the charges, but others (God, actually) defend his character.
  5. The fall-out from this event—God’s defense of Moses, Miriam’s punishment, and Moses’ prayer—is very dramatic, but does not fully resolve the story.

All of this feels very familiar. In the past year the American Jewish community has been rocked by a series of scandals involving the sexual behavior of prominent rabbis, some in the Orthodox world, but others involving our own colleagues and alumni. Each incident is unique, and I certainly am not saying that Moses acted as badly as these rabbis are accused (and in one case at least, convicted) of acting. Some of these recent stories involve behavior which is obviously criminal, while others involve conduct that can be called unseemly and disturbing. In all of these cases there were warning signs that led to an awkward dynamic—people who had some disturbing information but not the entire picture struggled to respond. At what point does one decide to go public?

These are exceedingly painful stories, and the rabbis involved have done enormous harm to their victims, their communities, their own families and also to the faith that they had so rigorously represented. Whatever their psychological struggles, they owed it to themselves and to their communities to seek counsel and to control their yetzer hara before it led them to harm others. I have read many articles on these painful incidents, but none as sensitive, insightful and helpful as that published by our own colleague and teacher, Rabbi Laura Gold. I ask you all to read it, and even to keep it on file to reread over the years so that her wisdom can help us all live lives of goodness and integrity, שלא נבוש לעולם ועד.

ספרי במדבר פרשת בהעלותך פיסקא צט

ותדבר מרים ואהרן במשה, מנין היתה מרים יודעת שפירש משה מפריה ורביה אלא שראת את צפורה שאינה מתקשטת בתכשיטי נשים אמרה לה מה לך שאין את מתקשטת בתכשיטי נשים אמרה לה אין אחיך מקפיד בדבר לכך ידעה מרים ואמרה לאחיה ושניהם דברו בו [ר’ נתן אומר מרים היתה בצד צפורה בשעה שנא’ וירץ הנער כיון ששמעה צפורה אמרה אוי לנשותיהם של אלו בכך ידעה מרים ואמרה לאחיה ושניהם דברו בו] והרי דברים ק”ו ומה מרים שלא נתכוונה לדבר באחיה לגניי אלא לשבח ולא למעט מפריה ורביה אלא לרבות ובינה לבין עצמה כך נענשה המתכוון לדבר בחבירו לגניי ולא לשבח ולמעט מפריה ורביה ולא לרבות ובינו לבין אחרים ולא בינו לבין עצמו עאכ”ו והרי דברים ק”ו ומה עוזיה המלך שלא נתכוון ליטול לו גדולה בשביל כבוד עצמו אלא בשביל קונו כך נענש המתכוון ליטול לו גדולה בשביל כבוד עצמו ולא בשביל קונו עאכ”ו.


Rabbis Can Watch Out For Trouble By Looking Inward

Tue, 06/02/2015 by Laura Gold, Special To The Jewish Week

Laura Gold

Recently, prominent Washington, D.C. Rabbi Barry Freundel received a 6 1/2-year prison sentence for spying on women immersing in the mikveh, the ritual bath. And just last week, The New York Times published an expose on Riverdale Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt’s longstanding habit of bringing teenage boys and young men whom he was mentoring to sit with him naked in a sauna.

With every new rabbinical scandal, after the initial shock and concern and denominational finger-pointing, people tend to breathe a sigh of relief and feel reassured that whatever flaws their rabbi may have, at least he or she isn’t an out-and-out sociopath. The rabbis who make headlines for abusive criminal behavior tell us more about the entwining of psychopathology with power than about the rabbinate, per se.

Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all rabbis are vulnerable to the possibility of misusing their power. For this reason, all rabbis should be encouraged to consider the personal psychological pitfalls that may trip them up. One bad rabbinic apple may not treif up the whole bunch, but it can remind the other apples to look carefully at themselves, not for purposes of preening but for pruning.

As a clinical psychologist and rabbi consulting to clergy across the country, as well as teaching rabbinical students, I find that they often ask me whom to be wary of “out there”: In other words, which congregants pose the greatest danger to the rabbi by way of their excessive neediness or narcissism or other diagnostic warning signals. But rabbis occupy a position that requires turning their scrutiny inward as well. They are professionally remiss if they are not routinely asking themselves: Is there something about myself that I ought to be worried about?

I’d like to describe some of the instances when a rabbi’s situational factors and behaviors should raise red flags (for both rabbis and those who care about them). I’d also like to suggest steps that rabbis — indeed all clergy — might take before potential problems turn into harmful scenarios.

Congregational leadership can be tremendously rewarding, but it is also frequently stressful, and if a rabbi is under inordinate personal pressure, it leaves her more vulnerable to making mistakes in the area of boundaries. Is she contending with serious conflict with a significant other? Separation or divorce? Worrisome illness or the death of a loved one? Rabbis spend the bulk of their time taking care of others; if a congregant exhibits kindness and generosity of spirit when a rabbi is particularly needy, he is more likely to view the source as especially appealing. For the rabbi in distress who experiences the role reversal of receiving emotional support from a congregant, the line between tender gratitude and eroticized feelings can easily be blurred. The move from expressing appreciation to behaving sexually can suddenly feel like a small but powerfully compelling step.

And what kind of behavior should prompt a rabbi to ask himself whether he is drawing too close to a critical line? Perhaps he is breaking his own rules and standards when providing pastoral care; he may be meeting in an unusual setting (e.g., in a café or sauna instead of in his office, or at an unusual time of day or night). There may be a perfectly legitimate reason for him to be making exceptions for a particular congregant — but the rabbi should observe that he is making atypical decisions and ought to ask himself what latent meaning those atypical decisions may point to.

Perhaps most importantly, if a rabbi is keeping secrets with regard to the performance of her rabbinic duties, something is seriously amiss. When she hesitates about letting her administrative assistant know about an appointment that she’s made, or misleads her partner or spouse about where she has been, or, when reviewing with a colleague a pastoral counseling session, omits mention of the hug that ended the session, beware: rabbi is likely skating on thin ice.

I have no doubt that the majority of rabbis are routinely thoughtful about their choices and deeply committed to being of service to others. What, then, should a rabbi do when he is aware that his behavior is off-kilter? Such behaviors are not necessarily indications of imminent harm. But it is not enough merely to hold an internal conversation with oneself; we rabbis, like everyone else, fool ourselves and justify our problematic behavior too easily.  Contemplating our actions in solitude is likely to entail at least as much skilled self-deception as honest self-reflection.

It is precisely because the challenging thoughts and feelings that arise in rabbinic work may be embarrassing or shameful or scary for the rabbi to discuss with another person that the rabbi should — indeed, must — discuss them with someone else. Speaking about them with another person makes the issues real, and only then can they be thoroughly addressed, assessed and, if necessary, redressed. That other person may well be a therapist but other people can also serve in the capacity of trusted conversational partner, such as a peer, a close friend or a senior mentoring colleague. For those rabbis who have a spouse or partner, that person may be a helpful sounding board, but there could be some issues (like being sexually attracted to a congregant) that the rabbi is better off discussing with someone else. Some rabbis join together (or with clergy of other faiths) for peer supervision or to meet with a clinical supervisor who can provide guidance through thorny situations.

Through intentional self-awareness and being in conversation with another person regarding areas of vulnerability, rabbis are more likely to maintain crucial professional boundaries. Such boundaries help rabbis protect themselves from inadvertently stepping into professional quicksand. But just as importantly, good boundaries provide rabbis with the essential capacity to protect their relationships with others, and it is through the power of relationships that rabbis have the greatest opportunity to inspire others and strengthen the role of Judaism in people’s lives.

Laura J. Gold is a clinical psychologist and rabbi. She is an adjunct assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and adjunct clinical associate at theCity College of New York.