The Simple Neglected Solution to Preventing Rabbinic Scandals

After yet another Rabbinic colleague’s unrabbinic behavior makes headline news, the Jewish web once again finds itself flooded with indignation, recriminations, and general critiques of Orthodox Judaism – if not thinly veiled dissertations on the evils of religion and power. If the predictable pattern continues, in due time we will inevitably be about systemic changes which need to be made to revamp the entire religious society. This sound and fury of righteous indignation will produce little more than perpetuating already deeply held resentments, produce even less by way of substantive change, while mostly benefiting the loudest remaining survivors on the battle of the moral high ground.

I cannot speak for my Rabbinic colleagues, but each scandal (and subsequent backlash) is something I cannot help but take personally. I do not mean that I am in any way a victim, nor am I pleading for sympathy or understanding. It’s personal for me in the sense that I have spent much thought, time, energy, and effort into perfecting the craft of being a pulpit Rabbi. This comes from years of growing up in a Rabbinic household as well as a brief but intense tenure at The Stanton St. Shul. To this day I still engage with colleagues and mentors about issues and strategies, not because I have immediate expectations to return to the Rabbinate, but because I take personal pride in the professional pulpit.

With this in mind, my interest today is not to defend the Rabbinate, but to improve it. To do so I would like to revisit one of my greatest grievances of the professional Rabbiante, about which I even devoted a class years ago. Specifically, in my opinion one of the most unconscionable oversights in Rabbinic education is the complete lack of attention and concern for the halakhic ethics of Religious leadership.

For professions with an inherent risk of abuse, many professional educational bodies offer, sometimes require, course work in professional ethics. The most obvious examples would be areas such as legal ethics, medical ethics, and even business ethics. Even before professional organizations dictate codes of conduct, individuals are exposed to the ethical considerations and challenges of their careers while still at the formative stages of their professional development.

By shocking contrast, despite the inherently obvious, and by now well-documented, potential for scandal and abuse, Rabbinical schools on the whole neither require nor even offer course work dedicated to professional ethics of the Rabbinate. Consider the following collection of requirements, curriculum, or course offerings from major and smaller Rabbinical ordination programs across the denominational spectrum: 1

While several institutions offer some “ethics” classes, these are relegated to the historical or philosophical, not professional. In fact the only institution I have seen offering such a class is the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) (PDF) whose course catalogue contains the two-credit class, “Foundations of Rabbinic Relationships and Ethics.” 7

Regardless of one’s denominational or religious inclinations, this ought to be utterly appalling. For the more liberal denominations where “ethics” is the authentic expression of Judaism, one would hope that their institutions would emphasize proper professional conduct in their leadership training. Denominations which accentuate adherence to Jewish law carry an additional burden in that the conduct of a religious leader is not merely a matter of ethics but is intrinsic to halakhah itself. I cited several sources from Rabbinic literature in my Introduction to Rabbinic Ethics, though one need only skim Maimonides’ Laws of Talmud Torah or Yoreh Deah 242-246 to see that the “professional ethics” of the Rabbinate are no less matters of Jewish law than Kashrut or Shabbat. While observant communities teach at length about kavod harav – the honor due to a Rabbinic figure – they are on the whole ignorant regarding the reciprocal halakhic obligations the religious leadership has towards the community.

R. Moshe Tendler once taught in class that the reason we have so many problems in the Jewish community is because our educational system has the wrong priorities. Specifically, kids are taught not to touch the Shabbat candles – as if that’s the most important part of Judaism – but aren’t taught not to touch their neighbor’s property or their neighbor’s wife. That rabbinical schools do not teach the halakhot of professional ethics does not imply ignorance, but it does indicate an apathetic attitude we can no long afford to perpetuate.

I am not naively suggesting that required course work guarantees the prevention of future malfeasance; there are countless legal, medical, and business scandals to demonstrate otherwise. However, I suggest that the introduction, if not prioritization, of this nearly universally neglected corner of Torah to the highest levels of learning can, over time, help repair the distrust between the religous leadership and its laity. After all, if the religious leadership cannot commit itself to following the Torah in its entirety, how can it expect the same from Jewish people it purports to serve?

Notes:

  1. My list focuses only on Jewish ordination, but I would find it fascinating to compare with ordination programs for other religions.
  2. Ordination is achieved after passing a series of national exams. Students for these exams may be enrolled at any number of Yeshivot which may add to the standard curriculum. However, there is no exam required by the Chief Rabbinate on the halakhot of religious leadership.
  3. Offers “Special weeklong seminars” dedicated to “End of Life Medical Ethics” and “Beginning of Life Medical Ethics,” there is no professional ethics requirement or halakhic treatment of leadership.
  4. Offers “Jewish Ethics” and “Jewish Bioethics,” no professional ethics requirement.
  5. AJR lists Bio-Ethics and an “Ethics Elective,” though these are classified under “Philosophy.”
  6. Offers a class on “The Ethics of Leadership: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel,” classified under “Tanach” / Bible study.
  7. Not having attended RRC, I cannot speak for the syllabus or content this course.