Even in the Talmud rabbis could find it hard to resist temptation

It is right to deal with rabbinic scandals discreetly


Rabbinic scandals shock our communities. People who trust their rabbi, and follow his teachings feel betrayed when they discover that while they were striving to become better Jews, their rabbi was otherwise engaged. 

While most rabbis lead with integrity, uphold the highest standards and make great personal sacrifices for their communities, there will always be some who cannot control themselves. The Mishnah warns that since we all have our dark sides, no one should be complacent about their own behaviour until their dying day (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4). As my grandmother, Maie Silvert used to tell us, “It’s much easier to fall off the rails than to stay on”.

The Talmud is not prudish. In colourful stories, and with self-deprecating humour, it tells how even the most devout are subject to temptation. 
Rabbi Amram the pious was charged with protecting female prisoners of war. He acted with perfect integrity until, catching a glimpse of one beautiful woman, temptation overcame him. He took an enormous ladder, heaved it over to where the women were and began his sensual ascent.  When he’d clambered half-way up the ladder, his conscience kicked in. Still eager to reach the women, but desperate to save himself from sin, he clung on to the ladder and screamed, “There’s a fire in Rav Amram’s house”.

 His colleagues rushed to the scene, where they were astonished to find their rabbi in such awkward circumstances. The embarrassed scholar explained that this was all that he could do to save himself. “Better to have a moment of shame in this world than eternal humiliation in the world to come” he said (Kiddushin 81b).

Another story portrays a religious Jew on the brink of an encounter with a prostitute. Just as he was about to sin, his tzitzit brushed against his face. The startled man tumbled off the top of a bunk bed, landed with a bump on the floor and announced the end of the liaison. His companion was bewildered by her client’s bizarre behaviour. 

On hearing his explanation, she was so impressed by his spiritual awakening that she insisted on meeting his rabbi and converting to Judaism. In a happy-ever-after moment, we’re told that the bedding that was laid out for sin became the setting for a romantic wedding night of this pious, penitent couple (Menachot 44a).

The third and most disturbing tale concerns Rabbi Hiya Bar Ashi. He was a pious scholar who regularly prayed to be saved from temptation. His wife was curious about these fervent supplications. He had shown no interest in marital intimacy for a long time, so she decided to investigate. While he sat studying in the garden, she disguised herself as a prostitute, and paraded in front of him. Her hapless husband soon fell into the trap. 

Later that evening, as he watched his wife preparing the wooden stove, he was covered with guilt. He confessed his affair to her and dived into the stove. We don’t know how badly burned he was, but, even after his wife proved that the prostitute was in fact her, so no sin had been committed, he remained inconsolable. He lived out the rest of his days racked by guilt (Kiddushin 81a).

The tales of the temptations of talmudic teachers make shocking reading. Yet, great rabbis have their limits. None of the stories ends in an act of adultery. Temptation is real and unavoidable, but it was unconscionable that a scholar would have an affair.

Today approaches to adultery vary. In 2015, an estimated 39 million people from 53 countries registered with Ashley Madison, which offers discreet relationships for what it euphemistically calls “married dating”. Lest any potential clients are put off by the stigma of adultery, the website reassures them that there is no need to be embarrassed, since the group is “judgment free”. These soothing words mask the fact that infidelity is not just a mild self-indulgence. It rips apart homes, devastates families, and wrecks lives.

If secularism has brought us this cruel indulgence, other religions also struggle to respond appropriately. Some Islamic countries still whip or stone adulterers to enforce their strict moral codes, while the Catholic Church struggles to regain control of some of its oversexed, “celibate clergy”. 

Jewish communities everywhere rightfully demand the highest halachic and moral standards of our rabbis. We want them to set an example and when they let us down in any way, we feel anger, disappointment, grief for our own loss of innocence and empathy for the victims of their misconduct. 

Yet, in grieving, we should also be proud that our leadership handles its scandals responsibly. So long as no crime has been committed, it’s right to deal with matters discreetly, avoiding unhelpful gossip, shielding the victims and allowing our wounded communities the space to recover.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi

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