Good Jews, bad choices Busted rabbis leave us wondering

It’s become pretty rough being a rabbi in New Jersey, where your friends call you to ask whether you have a phone in your cell.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

OK, lame joke, but this is one of the hardest columns I’ve ever written. How do you deal with the images of rabbis on the walk of shame, accused of money laundering and organ trafficking? How do you respond to charges of religious hypocrisy, and answer the unaffiliated Jews who use such outrages as justification for rejecting observance?

I guess you do so humbly. Here are the lessons I have culled.

• Rabbis are human, partly good and partly bad, like anyone else. Judaism recognizes no Jesus figure who is above the struggle between his inner angels and his inner demons.

Rather than any of this serving as an argument against religion, however, the opposite is true. Because men and women gravitate to greed as well as grace, and are prone to corruption as well as correction, we require a framework of law and the sprinklings of holiness to live righteously.

• Our community needs a moral and spiritual renaissance. We are good, law-abiding, generous people, but money is becoming too important to us. We all want nice things and to live in upscale communities, but such wishes must forever bend to the need to live humbly so we can serve as moral exemplars to our children, and to practice charity with our neighbors.

We require a renewed articulation of Judaism’s most important values, and an even firmer resolve to live by its tenets.

• Like everyone, there are two kinds of sins of which we rabbis can be guilty: Sins of commission and sins of omission. Commission involves serious wrongdoing.

But for a rabbi, omission can be even graver, as it can involve a failure to inspire the community to choose the Western Wall over Wall Street and spiritual growth over material acquisition. In this sense, no rabbi is completely innocent.

• The accused rabbis should be judged charitably. They were not Bernie Madoff, who used stolen money to buy a penthouse or a yacht. Several are men with long histories of sacrifice and selflessness.

Running a yeshiva, synagogue or school, with their incessant demands for funds, can be soul-destroying. It’s hard not to feel like a beggar — or to be made to feel like a beggar — as you run from one donor to the next. A friend who runs a successful Jewish day school quoted to me the words of Rivka: “I have come to loathe my very life.”

Not that this could ever justify the accused. It does, however, serve as a sober reminder that many of them were merely looking to fund communal institutions but were tragically compromised in the process. Some say they deserve our contempt. I respond that they deserve our compassion. The exception, of course, is the man accused of trafficking in human organs.

• Those who wish to justify the jettisoning of their faith on these and similar scandals should remember that there’s a difference between hypocrisy and inconsistency. The former involves proclaiming a belief for public consumption that one privately repudiates. The latter involves believing something but not always summoning the courage to live by one’s convictions.

• My dear friend Mark Charendoff, an exemplary leader who heads the Jewish Funders Network, wrote of the rabbis in the Jewish Week of New York: “There is a special place in hell reserved for these individuals. Not only did they play the part of pious clergy while pursuing their criminal paths, but they made religious and charitable institutions into (one hopes unwitting) accomplices.”

Before disagreeing with Mark, in the interests of full disclosure I should reveal that I feel a residue of bitterness at his having bested me in Newsweek’s list of America’s most influential rabbis. As it is, my fragile ego is hanging by a thread.

But hell, the state most distant from God, is surely reserved for people like Hitler and Osama bin Laden — people with no active good in them whatsoever. But these men, who chose community work over more lucrative professions, should still be applauded for the good they have done, even as they should be condemned if they are guilty of the transgressions for which they stand accused.

• Before we give up on rabbis or the Jewish community, let’s keep in mind that many questions remain to be answered. For example, how many rabbis were approached who turned down the FBI informant? And as far as the Syrian community is concerned, remember that few are as renowned for their generosity, philanthropy and devotion to the needy.

I have spent my life trying to bring Jewish values to the public. I know how much damage is done to that cause when rabbis are led away in handcuffs. Indeed, when I contemplate my own imperfections, I question whether I always do justice to the title myself.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of 20 books and the founder of This World: the Values Network. This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.