Focus on crimes involving religious Jews sparks debate

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NEW YORK — Is it right to expect more moral behavior from those who present themselves as religious Jews than from those who do not?

The answer depends on which rabbi you ask.

The question arises in the wake of the indictment on sex crime charges of an aide to a prominent Chassidic rabbi and several instances of alleged breaches of ethical behavior by Jews who call themselves religious.

Among those whose morality has been called into question is a Reform rabbi, who has been the focus of community suspicion in the murder of his wife, though he has neither been arrested nor formally ruled out as a suspect.

On the other end of the religious spectrum are two leaders of a Chassidic community, who were arrested on charges of sexually molesting a teenage girl, and an Orthodox district attorney, whose financial abuses of his office and marital infidelities were recently exposed.

Such crimes are not limited to members of the rabbinate and Orthodox world, of course, but there is much greater interest in such cases when these individuals are involved.

Recognizing that even rabbis need explicit guidance about behaving ethically in financial and sexual matters in complicated times, the Reform movement updated its rabbinic ethics policy in 1991.

And a few months ago, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly adopted its own rabbinic ethics policy on similar matters.

The Conservative movement has no formal policy, though its rules for filing and dealing with a complaint against a rabbi are in the process of being clarified, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the movement's Rabbinical Assembly.

For the mainstream Orthodox rabbinical group, the Rabbinical Council of America, the ethics policy is "the laws of the Torah," said Rabbi Steven Dworken, the group's executive vice president.

"We presuppose that an Orthodox rabbi doesn't need more of a policy than that," he said.

But the current case involving allegations that a rabbi of the Pupa Chassidic sect and his assistant sexually abused a teenage girl while flying from Australia to Los Angeles suggests that not every Orthodox Jew follows the Torah closely.

Rabbi Israel Grunwald, the leader of Congregation Toldos Yakov Yosef in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, was charged with the federal crime of sexually touching a minor, while his assistant, Yehudah Friedlander, was indicted for sexual abuse.

The court was told the rabbi had admitted to federal agents that he had committed some of the acts, which the girl said included forcing his hand under her clothing and repeatedly touching her breast and her vagina despite her pleas not to, according to news reports.

Friedlander reportedly pleaded guilty in 1991 to the charge of third-degree sexual abuse in a Monticello, N.Y., case.

A federal magistrate, in initially denying bail, called Friedlander "a danger to the entire community." The rabbis' attorney told reporters that both denied the charges.

The case is clearly getting more attention in the media than it would have had the alleged assailants been non-religious.

Rabbis of several denominations interviewed said the attention is justified.

According to one Orthodox rabbi, Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, "It is legitimate to expect more" moral behavior from the observant. Still, "no system, no matter how good, will not have individual failures."

That Friedlander had allegedly pleaded guilty to sexual abuse several years earlier, yet retained a position of importance within his community, was also cause for concern, said Greenberg.

"Was that behavior treated with the seriousness it deserves, or did the `oldboys' close ranks behind him? It raises that question," said Greenberg, president of CLAL — the Jewish Institute for Learning and Leadership.

"In the Orthodox community there is too much closing ranks and a `no one rock the boat' mentality. There is authoritarian leadership, and dissent is not tolerated. Criticism is seen as disloyalty," he said.

The spokesman for an ultra-reglious group, Agudath Israel of America, said he was not so certain that the focus on religious Jews' failings is legitimate.

"The attention paid to them because they're Chassidim is understandable but lamentable," said Rabbi Avi Shafran.

"What results from it is the reinforcement of the stereotype that Chassidim are hypocrites. The overwhelming majority of the observant world is people determined to keep to the stringencies of their faith," he added.

"For people to think Chassidim are this way, hiding a darker self, is embarrassing to all of us who wear beards and yarmulkes."

In another high-profile New York case, Rockland County District Attorney Kenneth Gribetz, an Orthodox Jew, quit his post last month shortly before pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of defrauding the government in a deal he worked out with the U.S. Attorney.

Although married, a father and grandfather, Gribetz was partly done in by his former mistress, who went to the media with information about him. Gribetz aspired to being a congressman and was admired by many of his area's religious Jews.

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Gribetz's longtime rabbi, said in an interview that he had often cited Gribetz in his speeches to illustrate how a devout Jew can remain faithful to the laws of kashrut and Shabbat while pursuing any career –even in law and politics.

But evidence police collected from Gribetz's ex-lover's home included whips, a dog collar, sex toys and pictures of Gribetz modeling women's clothing. Their three-year affair apparently included trips they took together funded by taxpayers' dollars.

Tendler, who organized a meeting of community rabbis to levy social sanctions against Gribetz just before his breaches became public, described the former politician's behavior as a "chilul haShem," or a desecration of God's name.

His behavior "emasculated our Torah. It reduces or minimizes the claim of Torah, that this is the divine law fit for the human experience. If someone who has been exposed to Torah does these things, what will people say?" said Tendler.

It is the reverse of what a religious Jew is supposed to do, that "the name of God shall be loved by your actions in Kiddush HaShem," said the rabbi,who is also a professor at Yeshiva University and a respected expert on medical ethics.

When a pulpit rabbi is implicated in a breach of ethics, as was the case with Rabbi Fred Neulander, the spiritual leader of Congregation M'kor Shalom, a Reform temple in Cherry Hill, N.J., it can shed light on the congregants' expectations of rabbinic behavior.

Neulander resigned from his position in March, four months after his wife Carol was bludgeoned to death. He has not been arrested, but the police have not ruled him out as a suspect in the ongoing investigation.

In addition, the widespread coverage it has received in the local media "has brought to light Neulander's involvement in marital infidelities," according to the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.

His congregation is reportedly still reeling in shock from the brutal murder and subsequent upheaval.

Should people be more profoundly disappointed by rabbis' failings than those of lay people?

According to Reform Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, "all Jews are expected to behave to a high standard of human conduct."

But "if that's true of all Jews, it's certainly true of clei kodesh," or holy vessels, said Borowitz, meaning that religious Jews have a responsibility for representing the highest ethical standards.

Borowitz is a professor of Jewish religious thought at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's seminary in New York City. He also authored a booktitled, "Reform Jewish Ethics and the Halacha."

Leila Gal Berner, a Reconstructionist rabbi and expert on Jewish ethics, said all religious Jews, and especially rabbis, have to guard against "the hubris that comes with the moral authority that people give them."

"When we allow ourselves to fall into a sense of self-importance, moral lapses can happen. In this situation, those involved could have thought that `no one would believe I would do such a thing,'" said Berner, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

"Part of the baggage that comes with being a rabbi or religious Jew is the kavod [honor] people give you," she added. "It's very nice, but also aburden. With that sense of hubris, then anything goes."