A filtered image of Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., where Rabbi Art Green served as the founding dean until 2022. (Photo/Forward-Wikimedia Commons)
A filtered image of Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., where Rabbi Art Green served as the founding dean until 2022. (Photo/Forward-Wikimedia Commons)

Why rabbinic sexual harassment must be dealt with publicly

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Several years ago, a mentor of mine called me. He wanted to know how he could advise a friend of his, a man whom multiple women had accused of sexual harassment, to get back on his feet.

You know how this story goes. For years, it was an open secret that the man sexually harassed his female colleagues at work. Eventually, a newspaper ran an article about it. His next big project, funded by a woman, was scrapped, and institutions cut ties with him.

When my mentor called me, I was not under the impression that his friend was interested in change and growth.

I believed he was simply interested in getting back into society’s good graces.

This is often how it goes: A man in a position of power engages in sexual misconduct against a colleague or subordinate, and denies wrongdoing if he is caught. If he’s really caught, he quickly begins calculating the minimum amount of contrition he can show to quickly return to his position.

On Sunday, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a lengthy story on how Rabbi Arthur Green, the founding dean of Hebrew College’s rabbinical school, was forced into retirement and barred from campus after he acted inappropriately with a former student, now a faculty member. (Allegations of a second incident of misconduct have emerged, which Green has denied.)

RELATED: Rabbi Art Green, prominent scholar of Hasidic Judaism, is barred from Hebrew College following sexual misconduct allegation

Green expressed regret for his actions, which he characterized as “completely inappropriate and out-of-bounds.” But he also told the JTA reporter that he considered himself a “victim of the extreme ‘Me-tooism’ that has come to plague our society.”

“I have communicated with them and sought to repair the harm,” he said, of those directly affected by his actions. “I am committed to ongoing awareness about this matter and exercising extreme caution in the future.”

But the president of Hebrew College, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, seemed at best skeptical of Green’s repentance.

“Rabbi Green’s conduct and communication since the reported incident have not reflected a genuine understanding of the harm he has caused, nor has he undertaken a good faith process of teshuva,” Anisfeld told the JTA reporter, using the Hebrew word for repentance or return.

It was clear whatever contrition Green had shown had not been quite enough. But even if it had been, it’s disheartening to see the same story repeat itself over and over. It makes me hopeless about the future of accountability, and if any of our words have meaning.

We have become very good at ticking off the boxes, saying that we have changed. We know how to say all the right words to make it sound like we take such things very seriously. Employees in New York, where I live, are even required to watch a training video every year in which they are sternly told very obvious things — like that it’s inappropriate to touch someone’s privates in the office, distribute pornography, or blackmail a coworker if they don’t want to sleep with you — and made to repeat the lessons back.

And yet, these awful stories of sexual abuse keep surfacing, again and again. All of our pomp around making changes to our society seems to have done very little to actually change things.

Making amends

I told that mentor who called me — fully knowing that my recommendation was unlikely to be taken seriously — that his friend should read Shaarei Teshuvah, the 700-plus page religious Hebrew tome that documents, in painstaking detail, the process of trying to truly get right with God, and failing. The author, Rabbi Yonah of Gerona, wrote the book after conspiring with Catholics to burn the books of the Jewish scholar Maimonides, with whom he had deep theological differences, in the public square. 

He spent the rest of his life trying in vain to atone.

I do not support the breathless public censure of others for expressing “wrong ideas.” That is half the message I take from Yonah’s saga; he participated in one such censure, and paid for it. I understand why Green would object to the public dimension of his case.

But I bristled at Green’s characterization of the matter. While he claimed to take responsibility for his actions, in a letter he sent to his own distribution list, he seemed to blame the influence of cannabis, his bisexuality, and even his struggle to process the death of his wife for his actions — and “this generation” for his public reckoning. None of these things are an excuse.

Rabbi Art Green, pictured here in 2013, has been accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward at least two people. (Photo/JTA-Wikimedia)
Rabbi Art Green, pictured here in 2013, has been accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward at least two people. (Photo/JTA-Wikimedia)

“I recognize the age in which we live,” Green wrote, frustrated that the research assistant upon whom he’d made an unwanted sexual advance didn’t want to work things out privately. “I belong to a generation that still believes in privacy about such matters.”

Privacy about such matters is what every powerful person caught in such a situation wants, of course. But privacy provides no deterrence from them acting in such a way in the future, and no incentive to change. A society in which the conditions are such that leaders can commit sexual misconduct and feel no great remorse  is not a society that is healthy for any of us.

Because here’s the thing: No one is entitled to a public platform, especially as a religious leader. And no one is entitled to public forgiveness. If someone has abused their position in power, the community deserves to know this, and come to an agreement as to what to do next.

History shows us that many men caught in these positions soon recover some sort of power, even if it’s not what they once had. Within the Jewish community, that’s true even for figures like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a religious leader credibly accused of sexual assault by several women and girls. Although his music is banned in some congregations, his melodies can still be heard in most American synagogues.

I have a bitter taste in my mouth recalling each and every one of these incidents. And I see no reason to believe that Green, like the powerful men who came before him, will ever believe that he is not the real victim here.

Laura E. Adkins
Laura E. Adkins

Laura E. Adkins is a senior director at Jewish Women International and the former opinion editor of the Forward and JTA. Email her or follow her on X.