End This Personality Cult

By Miriam Shaviv (The Jewish Chronicle)
May 2, 2013

It has been a bad year so far for Orthodox rabbis. Across the channel, French chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim quit after admitting plagiarising texts and faking his academic credentials while, last weekend, similar charges were levelled by Maariv against the Israeli chief rabbi, Yonah Metzger.

Across the pond, a modern Orthodox religious judge, Michael Broyde, has just admitted using an alias, "Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser", to promote himself in print and online and access the email list of a rival rabbinic organisation. This fictional character was even thanked in Lord Sacks's Koren siddur - together with Rabbi Broyde - for his "invaluable suggestions and corrections" while "David Weissman", another alias that has been linked to him, sent out emails to the Times of Israel last year touting Broyde's candidacy for the British chief rabbinate.

What could explain such a string of rabbinic scandals? Defenders of some of these gentlemen, in particular of Rabbi Broyde, have rushed to assert that to err is only human. The implication is not only that we should forgive misdeeds (if they are proven) but that rabbis cannot be expected to behave any better than anyone else.

This is wrong and dangerous. Religious leaders must be people of unimpeachable personal and moral integrity who elevate Torah, not debase it. If they cannot practise what they preach, their scholarship and speaking skills are irrelevant.

Yet we also should not be surprised when some rabbis steeped in learning behave abominably. It is in inevitable in the peculiar rabbinic culture we have created.

Before the modern era, the authority of most rabbis was confined to their own little shtetl. Nowadays, a successful rabbi can command a significant following nationally and even internationally, by publishing, lecturing, blogging and making media appearances. Rabbis within the top tier has a voice both in Jewish and wider cultural debates.

They also exert considerable influence on the private lives of individuals. In the past few decades, Orthodox society has come to treat its "star" rabbis like Chasidic rebbes, creating a cult of personality around them.

It is no longer enough to go to rabbis for halachic advice. Now many people ask whom they should marry, where they should live and what mortgage they should take. in effect, rabbis are treated as holy life coaches.

It is inevitable, then, that among the great majority of sincere and honest rabbis, there are a few who see the opportunity for irresistible self-aggrandisement, or to take advantage of others, sexually and otherwise.

Not only may they be difficult to spot, they may be the exact type bound to succeed. Very often, the charisma that marks an individual out for leadership can mask more problematic personality traits, such as egocentricity and a desire to manipulate.

But success comes with its own risks. For the true rabbinic superstars, there must be enormous pressure to maintain a high profile, and some - such as, it seems, rabbis Bernheim and Broyde - may feel the need to cheat. Others are finally in a position to exploit their followers, and get caught.

Perhaps the main problem is the temptation for these rabbis to believe their own press. If you treat rabbis like megastars, some of them are going to believe that they are infallible and behave in inappropriate and unethical ways, convinced they are not subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

Misguided supporters who plead for their rabbis to be given a second chance only reinforce this delusion.

So while every individual is responsible for their own behaviour, blaming the recent spate of scandals on human nature is too easy. The global Orthodox community has put its rabbis on pedestals, and must share the blame when they topple.