Shocked, devastated, pained, violated, outraged, and anxious are just some of the understandable reactions to the despicable scandal that broke last week. As has been pointed out, the mikvah is the most sacred space in a community: a place of purity, vulnerability, and exposure. If the allegations are true, the conduct of the rabbi who is alleged to have placed cameras in his community’s mikvah is not the result of illness, and must not be excused as a rabbi having human fallibility and temptation. Such egregious behavior, premeditated by definition, is evil and wicked, plain and simple, and he must be held accountable for his actions.
The list of those violated as a result of his behavior is long. Obviously, the people videoed are the greatest victims for whom our sympathy and support must know no bounds. The righteous converts who underwent a life transformation under his supervision have suffered unnecessary worry and angst about their status. The members of his Shul, who placed their trust and faith in their Rabbi, have been unfairly drawn into the spotlight and forced to confront an unimaginable, terrible and distasteful scandal concerning their rabbi. More broadly, among those suffering are women everywhere who use the mikvah, many of whom will now hesitate, pause or immerse anxiously and hurriedly and while distracted. And of course, we can’t imagine the pain of his innocent family.
It is incumbent on the Jewish community to use this scandal to motivate us to evaluate our policies and procedures as they relate to mivkah, to review how our mikvaos function, and to identify ways that we can do more to preserve modesty and integrity, and provide comfort and reassurance to those who rely on us. Undoubtedly, there are improvements that can be made and safeguards that can be put in place within our Jewish organizations and institutions and some of them are already being implemented.
As a Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, I am proud of our swift action to unanimously suspend the perpetrator from our organization and to state publicly that “conversions performed by the perpetrator prior to his arrest remain halachically valid and prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.” Moreover, the RCA announced that “every Beit Din assembled under their Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) will appoint a woman (or group of women) to serve as ombudsman to receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.” Additionally, “This week, the RCA will appoint a commission composed of rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals (including men and women) to review the current GPS conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.”
But, there is one more group that has been violated by the unconscionable behavior of the accused rabbi: namely, we his colleagues. His behavior has placed a stain on the rabbinate and given rise to an atmosphere and mood of suspicion and distrust towards rabbis in general.
I understand the pain and I recognize the devastating hurt. I share it. While women are the primary victims, one does not have to be a woman to feel outrage. The suspicion and distrust of leaders, particularly of rabbis that has rapidly swelled is understandable. After all, the perpetrator was trusted, admired and respected. Who would have believed he was capable of what he allegedly did? And therefore, who knows what my rabbi or community leader might be doing as well?
A survey of articles, blog posts, and social media comments reveals an almost wholesale, sweeping condemnation of rabbis, members of rabbinical conversion courts, mikvah caretakers, and, in some cases, all men. The cynicism, skepticism and distrust are understandable. But are they healthy for the Jewish community? Are they fair to its leaders? And will these attitudes ultimately be helpful and productive in fostering the safe environment and positive changes that we all seek?
The Gemora tells us and the Shulchan Aruch quotes: “rov metzuyin eitzel shechita kesheirim heim.” There is a chazaka, an established assumption, that the majority of those that engage in shechita, ritual slaughter, are trustworthy, honorable and faithful. For centuries, the shochet of the community had the confidence of the community. The butcher shop didn’t have supervision or a mashgiach. The butcher unlocked and locked the shop. He wasn’t suspected and his integrity was not challenged.
But that changed. Enough scandals and too many violations caused the global Jewish community to require supervision, checks, balances and oversight. Did the butcher lose his chezkas kashrus, his assumption of trustworthiness? Do we now assume that all butchers are liars and thieves such that we must vigilantly supervise them? No. Their intrinsic and assumed trustworthiness remains, but circumstances require us to take precautions and institute reasonable safeguards in order to eliminate and protect the community from the rare individuals who seek to perpetrate fraud.
The behavior of one revealed to be corrupt and immoral, even if it is the exception, can and should motivate us to improve our systems and governance. This improvement does not represent a concession that corruption and immorality are the new status quo and therefore leave anyone justified in slandering and vilifying others.
Our reaction to this horrific revelation must be swift, strong and unwavering. But it also must be thoughtful and nuanced. In our pursuit of justice we must be just towards those whose presumption of innocence and whose integrity remain.
To be clear – this scandalous behavior did not happen because the perpetrator was a rabbi or a man. It happened because the perpetrator is an immoral, depraved pervert. This crime could have been committed by a female mikvah attendant, a corrupt rebbetzin, or a degenerate maintenance man. It could have happened in the women’s bathroom in shul, in the changing room at the “frum” women’s clothing store, or in the locker room at the women’s only gym.
Calls for safeguards, improved supervision, and greater input and leadership by women are important and welcomed. However, sweeping indictments of rabbis and promoting a culture of suspicion towards all leaders is an unfair and counterproductive injustice. Opportunistic calls promoting various agendas that in truth are totally disconnected from this scandal are distracting from the real changes and unifying efforts that we need to be working on together.
Rabbis are not perfect, not above the law, and in need of feedback, supervision, and accountability. But make no mistake, this scandal did not happen because rabbis form the batei din of conversion or because rabbis hold the “keys to the mikvah” or because rabbis don’t have annual reviews. It happened because a disturbed individual behaved in a deplorable and unforgivable manner. It is fair to explore what safeguards can prevent such behavior in the future. However, it is not fair to impugn the reputation of rabbis everywhere, many of whom work tirelessly, selflessly, and at great personal sacrifice with integrity, honesty and sensitivity.
In July, Johns Hopkins Hospital agreed to pay $190 million to 8,000 patients of a gynecologist who worked for them and was found to have been recording his patients with a spy pen. It was found that the doctor often did not have a nurse in the room during examinations, something that should be done consistently. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned for the medical community from this episode. But would it be reasonable or responsible to suggest that all male doctors are somehow suspect or that only women should be ob-gyns, with no men in that specialty at all?
Our tradition teaches us, hevei mesunim b’din, be cautious and careful when issuing judgments. Understand the ramifications and unintended consequences of how we react when a scandal breaks and the damage we may cause to those who don’t deserve it.
Above all, I pray that those victimized find healing, comfort, and the strength to maintain faith in leaders, and in the beauty of Judaism, Torah, community, and Mikvah.
I pray that my colleagues and I will all have the courage, commitment, integrity and conviction to evaluate how we can improve our institutions, organizations, Shuls, communities, and mikvaos, because we can always get better, without having to accept guilt for something we have not done.
And I pray that all of our responses and reactions, in print, on the internet and around our Shabbos tables, be nuanced, thoughtful, fair and just.
This past Sunday of Chol HaMoed, owing to the great generosity of the Kohlhagen family, our Boca Raton Synagogue community had the distinct honor of welcoming two Sifrei Torah into our collection. While all Torah scrolls are sacred and worthy of our love and affection, the extraordinary story of one of these Sifrei Torah in particular makes me look forward with added excitement to dancing with it on Simchas Torah in just a few days from now.
While most modern Sifrei Torah have 42 lines per column, this very large scroll has 67 lines. It was written in Spain and has been carbon-dated to over 600 years placing it prior to the Spanish Inquisition. From Spain it was moved to Horinghausen, Germany, where it resided for decades. It was later moved to Kassel, Germany, before our member Steven Kolhagen’s great, great, great-grandfather Marcus brought it to his hometown of Korbach, Germany.
When Hitler rose to power, Steven’s grandfather, Arthur, prepared to leave Germany and removed the klaf of the Torah from its atzei chaim. Only by hiding the klaf in a mattress was he able to smuggle it to the United States where it found a home in a Shul in Washington Heights. In the late 1950s thirteen families, including the Kohlhagens, formed the first orthodox Shul in Teaneck, NJ, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun—something I personally appreciate: I grew up davening in Bnai Yeshurun and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah and Aufruf there—where they used this Torah until 1967.
That year, Arthur suffered a heart attack and was unable to walk the long distance from his home in Bergenfield to Bnai Yeshurun. With the direct assistance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l, Arthur opened a new Shul in his home that grew to become Congregation Beth Abraham, which now boasts many hundreds of families.
The Kohlhagen family now lives in Florida and we are incredibly proud and honored to be the latest stop on the remarkable journey of this Torah. As we sang and danced the Torah from their home to BRS, I couldn’t help but think that this Torah, in many ways, embodies the very story of our people. It came into being many years ago, but almost since its inception has been on the run, fleeing from persecution and oppression. Yet, while the Inquisitors and Nazis, yemach shemam v’zichram, are relics of history, this Torah has not only survived, but it continues to teach, inform, inspire, and uplift as much now as the day it was completed.
One can only imagine what this Torah has witnessed and experienced, the stories it could tell, and the places it has been. It has touched lives in Spain, Germany, New York, New Jersey, and now Florida. Over the last six-hundred years, countless have received Aliyos from it, many Bar Mitzvah boys celebrated coming of age with it, others marked their Aufruf with Maftir from it, communities danced with it, and it is still strong, beautiful, kosher, and stands ready for whomever will be called up next to it.
The simple truth about this six-century-old Torah, like all Torah scrolls, is that more than we have lifted and carried the Torah, the Torah has lifted and carried us. That sense of lift is what we recognize, celebrate, and strive for on Simchas Torah as we affectionately and lovingly dance for hours with all of our Sifrei Torah, new and old, Ashkenazi, Sefardic and Nusach Ari, simple and ornate alike. The history of our Sifrei Torah must inform, inspire, and strengthen our future commitment to them and all that they represent.
In his Pachad Yitzchak (Sukkos #57), Rav Hutner quotes a story from the first Gerrer Rebbe, the great Chiddushei Ha’Rim. Once year on Simchas Torah, the Chiddushei Ha’Rim was observing two of his followers, both great Torah scholars, dancing fervently and enthusiastically. The Rebbe turned to the person next to him and predicted which of the two would tire first, and so it was.
When asked how he knew, the Rebbe explained that the one student was dancing in celebration of all the Torah he had learned the previous year while the other student directed his energy to dance in anticipation and excitement for the Torah he would learn in the coming year. What we have already learned, said the Rebbe, is finite, complete and has limits. What we can yet learn, though, is not defined and therefore our strength for it is greater.
Our Sifrei Torah have illustrious histories, but it is up to us to give them meaningful and distinguished futures.
As we eagerly anticipate Simchas Torah, it is worthwhile to hear the story of a remarkable hachnasas Sefer Torah that Rabbi Paysach Krohn described:
A number of years ago in Flatbush, New York, a very private, soft-spoken gentleman, who always sat near the back of the shul, told his rav that he wanted to donate a Sefer Torahto the congregation. The gentleman, Mr. Shimshon Blau (a pseudonym), told the rabbi that he had commissioned a soferto write the Sefer Torah for him and now the job was nearly complete. The rabbi was incredulous. Mr. Blau was not known to have substantial funds and the cost of a new Sefer Torah was more than $30,000.
The rabbi spoke to the sofer and learned that Mr. Blau had indeed been paying small sums of money over the years and recently had made the last payment. The Sefer Torah would be finished in a few days.
On Shabbos the rabbi announced the good news to his congregants and everyone went over to Mr. Blau to wish him “mazel tov” and thank him for his generous gift to the shul. Plans were made for the Hachnasas Sefer Torah, the public dedication and welcoming ceremony.
A few weeks later on a bright Sunday afternoon, the community gathered at Mr. Blau’s home and escorted him as he carried the Sefer Torah from his home to the street where he walked under a chupah to bring the Torah to the shul. Dancing and singing accompanied those who took turns carrying the Torah, and a special meal was tendered in the shul in honor of the occasion. A few days later, a neighbor asked Mr. Blau if there was a particular reason he decided to have the Sefer Torah written. At first he was hesitant to talk about it, but eventually he relented and told his heartbreaking story.
When I called Mr. Blau to hear the story directly from him, he said, “Rabbi, please don’t make me tell the story again. I haven’t slept a full night in the last fifty-five years.” I wasn’t going to press the issue, but then, of his own volition, he began reliving the episode. It is one of the most moving stories I have ever heard. People literally gasp when they first hear it. It is hard not to be moved to tears.
Shimshon Blau was only 16 years old when the Nazis took him, his parents, and his sisters from Lodz, their hometown in Poland, to one of the notorious concentration camps. Shortly after their arrival the parents were separated from the children and Shimshon never heard from them again. He was placed in a slave labor barracks and suffered humiliation and heartache every day.
One night as he was lying in bed, a Nazi soldier came in to check on the prisoners. He walked from bed to bed—and then he saw Shimshon. Suddenly he lunged at Shimshon’s feet, grabbed his leather boots and yelled, “Those boots are now mine.”
Shimshon was shocked. The leather boots had been given to him by his parents shortly before the family had been captured by the Nazis. Shimshon treasured them because they were his last connection to his beloved parents. He had no pictures, no letters, no memento that he could hold onto in a private moment for strength and rejuvenation. The gift of the boots had become a precious memory.
Shimshon cried uncontrollably. This cruel act by the Nazi was the axe that severed the last tangible bond with his parents. It was devastating. Shimshon cried for hours. Eventually he fell asleep.
The next morning he went out of his barracks barefoot and found the soldier who had taken his boots. In desperation he ran over to him and begged, “Please give me a pair of shoes. I have nothing to wear on my feet. I’ll freeze to death.” He did not dare to antagonize the soldier by asking for his own boots back.
Much to Shimshon’s surprise, the soldier told him. “Wait here, I’ll be back in five minutes with some shoes for you.”
Shimshon shuddered in the cold as he waited for the soldier to return. In a few minutes the Nazi came back with a pair of shoes and gave them to the startled but grateful teenager.
Shimshon went back to his barracks and sat on his bed to put on his new shoes. He looked them over carefully. They were made of wood, but he knew he would have to wear them regardless of what they were made of or how uncomfortable they would be. As he was about to put his foot into the shoe, he looked into its instep and gasped. The instep was a piece of parchment from a Sefer Torah!
Shimshon froze in terror. How could the Nazis be so heartless? How could he step down on the words that the Creator Himself had told Moses to write for all generations?
But he knew he had no choice. There was nothing else to wear on his feet and it was either these shoes or frostbite and death. Hesitant with guilt, he put them on uneasily.
Now, years later, Shimshon said, “With every step I took, I felt I was trampling on the Creator’s Sefer Torah. I swore to myself then that if I ever got out of the camps alive, no matter how rich or poor I was, someday I would have a Sefer Torah written and give back to the Creator the honor that I took from Him by trampling on His Torah. That’s why I gave the shul a Sefer Torah.”
Rabbi Krohn concludes: “In his sincerity, Shimshon felt he was trampling on the Creator’s Torah. Who could blame him? But what about us? We must ask ourselves, “Are we in any way trampling on the Creator’s Torah? Do we, unwillingly and sometimes even willingly, violate basic precepts of His Torah, which is in essence trampling on His words? Shimshon Blau surely rectified his “misdeed.” We should do no less.”
It is fifteen years later and I still vividly remember how offended and insulted I felt. In my second year studying at YU’s Gruss Kollel in Israel, I joined a separate program twice a week that focused on training outreach professionals. I was the one YU guy among an otherwise homogenous group of “Yeshivish” young men. The classes focused on halachik challenges in outreach, how to speak to a secular audience, how to articulate compelling positions on contemporary issues and responding to difficult questions like why do bad things happen to good people.
One day, while giving a talk on halachik methodology, one of the Rebbeim, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva and noted Talmid Chacham said to our group (I remember it almost verbatim): “Do you know why the Modern Orthodox seem so lax in halachik observance? For them, being observant is incredibly challenging and burdensome and it is often incompatible with other aspects of their lifestyle. For them” he continued, “being frum is a sha’as hadchack, an emergency situation and therefore, one can rely on leniencies and minority opinions. The Modern Orthodox,” he concluded, “aren’t abandoning halacha, they simply see their whole lives as b’dieved, extenuating circumstances that allow laxity in halacha.
As he spoke, my blood was boiling. His generalization was grossly unfair. How could he make such a sweeping statement about all Modern Orthodox? Here I was learning in the flagship Modern Orthodox Yeshiva’s Kollel with a group of highly devoted, scrupulous, and rigorously committed friends being told that our “movement” lives b’dieved, suboptimal lives.
Looking back now, while I still feel his statement was an unfair over-generalization and was an inaccurate analysis of significant parts of the Modern Orthodox world, I realize that it is spot-on for other parts of it. It was once controversially said, “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachik way.” That significantly problematic statement can now be amended to read, “where there is anyone with internet access’s will, there is a halachik way.”
The recent introduction of a “Shabbos App” is only the most recent development in a string of controversies in the Modern Orthodox world this year in which it seems to me there has been a greater desire to make halacha conform to lifestyle, rather than make lifestyle conform to halacha. The app purports to employ complicated halachik tools like grama to supposedly allow permissible texting on Shabbos. While some claim to have spoken to the programmers of the app and attest that it is both real and represents a “holy” effort, others believe it is a hoax designed to stir up discussion and garner attention.
Either way, according to experts, its premise is halachikly ludicrous and if it is real it will yield wholly unholy results for that which has kept the Jews more than the Jews have kept it – our precious Shabbos. I have no interest in giving the app attention other than to say that the interest surrounding it sadly justifies what that Rosh Yeshiva said to our group that day.
A Shabbos app can only exist in the imagination of someone for whom not texting on Shabbos is a sha’as hadchak, an emergency situation in which creative legal loopholes should be investigated and employed. In the mind of those for whom Shabbos includes l’chatchila liberating ourselves from the shackles of technology, such an app would never be imagined or desired.
As technology figures more prominently in our lives and as the conflicts between aspects of a secular lifestyle become incompatible with halacha, we will be forced to ultimately make a decision about what takes precedence and prominence in our lives and choices.
“U’lekachtem lachem ba’yom ha’rishon pri eitz hadar, anaf eitz avos, kapos temarim, take for yourself on the first day a fruit of a beautiful citrus tree.” This week, Jews around the world will universally take the exact same four species. Whether of Ashkenazic or Sephardic descent, both from North America, South America, the Eastern hemisphere or Western hemisphere, all Jews take the same pri eitz ha’dar an esrog. But how do we know that a pri etz hadar, a “beautiful citrus fruit,” is an esrog? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of citrus fruit – oranges, grapefruits, lemons, pumellos, tangerines, and the list goes on.
The Gemara (Sukka 25a) draws the conclusion that a pri eitz ha’dar is an esrog by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, ha’dar. They conclude it is the esrog tree because the word “hadar” in truth has two meanings: beautiful and to dwell. They therefore interpret the pasuk to be referring to a fruit which is dar ba’ilan, “dwells continuously all year on the tree.” The esrog alone fulfills the requirement of constant dwelling. While most other fruits are seasonal, the esrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons. It braves the cold, withstands the heat, remains firm and upright in the wind and stubbornly persists in surviving the storm. The esrog is truly dar, it dwells consistently and constantly. In fact, the Hebrew word dar is very similar to the French word duree or the English word endure.
The beauty of the esrog is its endurance, its ability to withstand the elements, and to triumph over the prevailing winds. The esrog tree is determined, steadfast and unwavering and thereby produces fruit that the Torah calls beautiful.
As we spent technology-free time this holiday with our friends and family sitting in our Sukkahs and waving our four species including our beautiful esrog, let’s remember how fortunate and blessed we are to have been given the tools to disengage from the world. Like the esrog tree, let’s be strong, determined, and steadfast in our commitment to halacha and we too will produce beautiful fruit. Let’s embrace halacha l’chatchila, as nothing short of an ideal way of life.
I am pleased to share with you a collection of my sermons from Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur of this year. It includes the incredible story of my wife’s grandfather, the remarkable discovery of Dr. James Fallon, a response to the recent article of Dr. Emmanuel “Why I Want to Die at 75″ and more.
Perhaps you will find this digest useful and meaningful over the coming days.