Unwed rabbis dating congregants: an ethical miasma

NEW YORK — Should unmarried rabbis date their single congregants?

The Ten Commandments prohibit sexual relationships between rabbis and congregants — or any two people, for that matter — when one or both are married to others.

But whether a single rabbi may have a relationship with an unmarried congregant is now being debated by rabbis and experts studying the issue of clergy sexual misconduct.

It has been quite common historically for rabbis to marry congregants.

The late Rabbi Albert Minda, who served as president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis, married a woman he met while leading her congregation.

Today there is a nascent but growing awareness in American society and in the Jewish community of a spiritual leader's power over congregants, and of ways in which it can be misused. In the last five years, victims of sexual abuse have come forward to accuse Catholic priests and Protestant ministers.

It is "no less common for rabbis to date congregants today than it used to be," said Rabbi Steven Kushner, a member of the Reform rabbinic organization's ethics committee.

The complicated question of rabbi-congregant romance involves both the issue of the power dynamic and the pragmatic realities of a single rabbi's social life.

Psychiatrists, doctors and lawyers tend not to regularly see their patients and clients in social settings.

Much of a rabbi's social life, though, is interwoven with the life of the congregation, so that for both rabbi and congregant, boundaries between professional and social engagements can blur.

Congregants have a "tendency to set the rabbi up on dates," said Conservative Rabbi Debra Orenstein, a senior fellow of the Wilstein Institute in Los Angeles.

Appropriate distance between rabbi and congregant can be "a weird boundary and difficult to define, which is why rabbis have to be especially vigilant," she said.

Some rabbis and experts in clergy sexual misconduct say it is impossible for a rabbi-congregant relationship to survive a romantic relationship, and for that reason rabbis — male and female — should never date congregants.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El said no rabbis should date congregants, with the possible exception of those working in the rural South where so few Jews live, and Pearce does not recommend that single rabbis take jobs there.

"There are too many entanglements," he said.

From his own experience of dating congregants when he was single, Kushner points out that such a relationship inevitably has unexpected complications.

"It's awkward for the people surrounding that relationship. If the woman has parents in the congregation, or children from a previous marriage, they are all involved," said Kushner, who is spiritual leader of Reform Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.

Still, he and many other rabbis say that to completely prohibit romantic involvements with congregants is simply unrealistic, and that it demeans congregants to suggest that they cannot overcome a power imbalance.

"How far does this go? That someone with the title rabbi never dates? Are we talking about arranged marriages for rabbis?" asked Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly.

For Reform Rabbi Howard Jaffe, the issue's complexity became clear when he was at his first pulpit, as a single man in a small Jewish community.

"My social life could not help but be enmeshed with my rabbinic life," said Jaffe, spiritual leader of Temple Har Shalom, in Warren, N.J. He is now married to a woman who was not his congregant.

"I realized that there were times when being a rabbi was more than incidental to the relationship I was having with certain women I was dating."

He realized the power of his position when a woman he was seeing excitedly said, "I can't believe I'm dating the rabbi!"

When he broke up with another congregant, she used reasons she thought were in the Torah in order to defend her desire to keep the relationship afloat.

When it ended anyway, "her anger was so great that she responded to me according to my role, not to me as a human being.

"It was a hard lesson, but an important one. I learned that we have to be cautious not to infantilize our congregants. At the same time, we need to be very conscious of the dynamic," said Jaffe.

"All of us have social relationships with our congregants at one level or another. Some have very intimate ones successfully."

Marie Fortune, a pioneer in the field of clergy abuse, says that, ethically, maintaining boundaries is "the professional person's responsibility. The issues for single rabbis are the same" as for married clergy.

Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister and the founder and director of the Seattle-based Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, said, "My advice is don't do it, because there's always the potential for damage in the congregation if it doesn't work out.

"It's always risky," she said, "but I've seen people handle it responsibly by being very open with the congregation."

Debra Warwick-Sabino, founder and director of the Sacramento-based California Center for Pastoral Counseling, believes it is permissible for rabbis to date congregants under certain conditions.

Factors to be considered include age difference, education, status in the community, economic level, intellectual ability, psychological resources and life experience, said Warwick-Sabino.

Fortune added, "There cannot be any significant counseling relationship prior to pursuing a [sexual] relationship. If there is…a mentor-teaching relationship or spiritual guidance relationship, then [romantic involvement] is off limits."

Under the best of circumstances, rabbi-congregant dating "is problematic," Warwick-Sabino said.

"To do it you have to be able to scrutinize the ethical issues involved, and someone who does that is probably not going to be exploitative."