July 28, 2008

Not Rabbis

A New York court has decided that a rabbi who has had a sexual affair with a congregant cannot be sued for betraying his professional standards, because rabbis are not proper professionals!!

In a unanimous verdict, judges dealing with a claim against an Orthodox rabbi for sexual abuse said that rabbis do not have a fiduciary duty as with professions such as therapists or lawyers. Despite the fact that this rabbi abused his position to counsel sexual therapy involving himself, and that there have been other complaints, they refused to allow the woman to sue the rabbi. Most professions forbid sexual relations between professionals and clients where vulnerability is an issue. It seems that a job involving "reverential deference", in which one treats the clergy with particular trust, allows them to mess with adults, who ought to know better! (Thankfully, this does not apply to children, who do not. Hence, child abusers are now being more rigorously prosecuted and sued.)

In another situation, The Jewish Week played a part in uncovering serial sexual abuse by a charismatic American-born rabbi who was dismissed from his post at Bayit Chadash in Tel Aviv, after several congregants lodged complaints with the police. He actually issued a statement apologizing and said he needed treatment and disappeared. Now he has set himself up in Colorado as a New Age rabbinic guru. That in itself would not be a problem; after all, we allow Teshuva ("repentance"). But when he declares that his apology was given under duress and these things never happened, he seems to be in dangerous denial and therefore likely to abuse again.

I cannot tell you how many cases of rabbis misusing their position in sexually inappropriate ways I have encountered over the years of my ministry. Most were unsatisfactorily settled in the way the Catholic Church once dealt with its pedophiles--move them on and keep quiet. And as with rape, it is very difficult to get a conviction.

So what is a rabbi then? Some sort of exploiter of the vulnerable who can get away with it because he has no professional standing?

Outside of the rabbinate, they try to differentiate between a doctor-patient relationship after hours as opposed to within, or university lecturers after graduation. The whole issue of "unequal power" in relationships is an important emerging issue in thinking circles, where one party uses his position or power to take advantage of a weaker subordinate.

But where we are dealing with consenting adults I question whether one can legislate for this. The fact is that marriage in general is and has always so often been between "unequals", either in financial, power, age, beauty, or otherwise. (Didn't Kissinger once declare that power was a great aphrodisiac?) One upon a time most rabbis were married and stayed that way. Nowadays this is less and less the case. So why not marry a congregant? What is appropriate?

I have seen the boundaries transgressed, in every denomination, and tremendous emotional damage has resulted. With experience I am convinced it must be absolutely forbidden, if not by law then by convention, for a clergyman to engage in sexual relations with someone he is counseling, whether in hours or after. It is too dangerous, both because of the situation and the consequences. There is a lot of abuse of varying types and degrees going on and something needs to be done. But what?

Many American state courts have ruled differently than the New York judges, but I think their judgment raises an important issue. You see, in practice nowadays, a rabbi is anyone who says he is. Most rabbis, certainly most Orthodox ones, have no professional training. It was one thing when rabbis were simply scholars who knew the laws and you referred to for an opinion on Jewish Law, and in the main they were all self-employed and financially self-sufficient. Then there were miracle workers, mystics, Baalei Shem, rebbes, whose expertise was not the sort you could legislate for. Somewhere along the line, rabbis began to imitate Christian clergy and morph into counselors, confessors, and a cheap alternative to therapists, as well as congregational functionaries who took it up as a paid career. That was where professionalism should have appeared on the halachic radar.

There are no universal professional standards for rabbis, even though there are now colleges which do give some training in counseling and pastoral affairs. Therefore, all I can say is Caveat Emptor.

In previous eras it might not have been relevant to legislate halachically for professional standards. Now it is. There has been too much monkey business. Instead of spending all their time and energies legislating for minutiae, I would like to see more religious authorities tackle the issue of professional conduct in the rabbinate. At the moment it seems to me that anything goes, and I do not only refer to sex.

If Judaism does not deal with this issue and in keeping quiet allows some rabbis to tarnish God's name, it will come back to haunt us. We already have a general term for this. It is called Chillul HaShem, the Desecration of God's "good" Name. It needs to be applied specifically.

4 Comments:

At 6:30 PM , Anonymous graham said...

Reading the link - one wonders if the defendant is/was a rational adult. That the rabbi concerned has misused the position which he held with those whe saw him as a "professional" is beyond dispute.

What jars with me is that this cannot be compared to the known cases of evil Xtian RC priests who "abuse" childen - where the latter's intellect & ability to discern are undeveloped and whose fear of adult persons of authority is predominant

The (adult) defendant in this matter swallowed the Rabbi's "line" hook-line & sinker, though she was not subject to violence - and she seems to have entered into this "relationship" willingly.

so... what sort of "Wertsch├Ątzung" does the term/title RABBI have - that leads otherwise reasoning adults (of both genders) to be duped so 'willingly'?

The rabbi - a bad apple....
the lady - there is one born every minute...

Graham

ps. When does counsellimg commence? is it when scripture is not referred to?

 
At 4:10 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Indeed, that's the point. No one, let alone a pulpit rabbi, should take advantage of anyone, regardless of legislation, simply on the basis of basic religious law. And, on the other hand, should not put himself in a position where he might be taken advantage of.

 
At 7:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trivial footnote. He did NOT go to Colorado. Rather, he seems to be operating from the Salt Lake City, Utah, area. Check it.

 
At 11:26 PM , Blogger ss said...

As Jeremy's online editor, I appreciate your pointing out that mistake. It appears you are correct; Jewish Week reports that Gafni's most recent "resurfacing" was in Salt Lake (http://tinyurl.com/5hkp6h).

However, two years ago The New York Post (http://tinyurl.com/6rdlz5) reported him as fleeing to Colorado or Massachusetts (places where he had spent previous parts of his life), which is where the confusion came in, I think. We try hard to catch all factual errors before a piece is posted, but occasionally something slips through!

Gafni's website (http://www.marcgafni.com/) is amazing, by the way, as is this quote from the former mayor of Salt Lake City which appeared in the lengthy article about R' Gafni that ran in their local New Age magazine:

"Rabbi Marc Gafni has been a victim of a spiraling abandonment of responsibility. After emails from women with whom he had relationships were deleted from his computer, complaints were made by the women that make it appear they were helpless, obtuse, easily fooled victims of a man who took advantage of them. The emails were recovered from Gafni's computer hard-drive. Reading them, it appears clear that those relationships actually had been the product of mutual consent and honest, loving disclosure." (http://tinyurl.com/5stgcw)

Shoshana

 

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