Sex scandal shows risk of rabbi-worship

By Shmuel Rosner, February 25, 2010
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Supporters of Rabbi Elon pray at the kotel in his honour, after he was accused of abusing male students

Supporters of Rabbi Elon pray at the kotel in his honour, after he was accused of abusing male students

The main story which roiled Israel last week is not, in itself, an important one. It involved one rabbi whose private life did not quite measure up to the standards he was preaching in public. He is not the first and is probably not the last.

Rabbi Moti Elon will never be able to regain his status as the promising next leader of the religious Zionist faction after it was revealed that he was engaged in sexual misconduct with young men asking him for advice.

Those who still refuse to believe - and some followers of this charismatic, bright, original, magnetic rabbi still refuse to believe - should be forgiven for their lack of imagination. Eventually, for most people, the truth will sink in. They will be forced into accepting that the members of Takana, the rabbinical voluntary organisation exposing Rabbi Elon's misconduct, had proof and solid evidence.

Thus, the only important - really important - effect this story might have in the coming weeks and months and years of "aftermath"; the only debate worth having with Rabbi Elon's followers and enthusiasts, and with those less supportive of him to begin with, is the one related to rabbinical authority in the world of modern Orthodoxy.

It is the debate about how a once rational, pragmatic, cynical (in a good way) group of Israelis became a herd which followed their rabbis with no trace of healthy scepticism.

One could see it in their reaction when the story broke out. A religious woman commentator compared this affair to the one of false messiah Sabbatai Zevi. A yeshivah student said that it amounts to "crisis of faith". A rabbi talked about "emotional disaster", while a 17-year-old boy said "he can't get out of bed" because of depression.

All these, and many other such testimonies, point in one direction. This generation of modern-Orthodox religious-Zionists behave more like a Charedi group in terms of the trust they put in their rabbinical leaders.

That is why the leaders of their political parties no longer have real impact on the behaviour of young settlers. That is why some of them have difficulty understanding that going into military service means that the orders of officers should now be more meaningful than the sermons of rabbis.

But tabbis are essentially no different to most other human beings. Some are smart and some stupid, some are knowledgeable and some ignorant, some are mature, some are childish.

If you understand this, you will be able to recognise that the Elon story is no different to any other story involving sexual harassment. It can be a teacher, or a bus driver, or the boss - and it can be the rabbi.

But if you put your rabbi on a pedestal, the fall becomes a crash.

So this unimportant story can, after all, be very important to the young generation of religious-Zionist Israelis. It can be important if they use it wisely, if they draw the right conclusion and make this devastating crash of one rabbi into a new beginning.

Maybe the Elon affair will guide them back to the world of reason, and away from the world of the short-sighted devotee of spiritual leaders. Maybe it will give them a reason to re-declare their independence from rabbis, to regain their autonomy.

If this happens, the Elon affair can be remembered as a sad story from which some good emerged. If this happens, the next Elon-like affair will be almost negligible in its public impact. Like it should have been.

Shmuel Rosner blogs at Rosner’s Domain

    Last updated: 3:35pm, June 3 2010

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