QUESTION: If a rabbi leaves office because of any type of misconduct, does the synagogue have a public duty to explain what happened or can there be a justification for letting him (or her) go quietly.
Rabbi Brawer: The question is, what was the nature of the misconduct?
If it was a criminal offence, one must, without the slightest hesitation, inform the authorities, and this alone is likely to draw publicity.
If the misconduct does not involve a criminal offence but is nonetheless a violation of a moral or ethical nature, there is no obligation to publicise the violation. However, a synagogue would do well to be transparent about the reason for its rabbi’s dismissal.
This is for two reasons. Firstly, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is almost impossible to contain information of this sort. Details, real or imagined, invariably leak and once the rumour mill starts churning, there is no stopping it. Being transparent early on takes all the oxygen out of would-be gossip and innuendo. It allows the synagogue to communicate the facts and the facts alone. Secondly, it is rare that a rabbi (or any employee for that matter) perpetrates a misconduct in a vacuum. While the rabbi must be held fully accountable for his or her own actions, such a situation calls into question the wider environment and culture in which the rabbi operated.
A financial crime should raise questions about the nature of financial controls in place. Inappropriate sexual misconduct should raise questions about the kind of policies that exist in the synagogue and how they are enforced. These systemic audits are ineffectual if they are held in secret.
It needs to be stated that while most rabbis are decent and ethical, the way in which some congregations place their rabbi on a pedestal can create the kind of conditions that make it easier for some to violate the community’s trust.
Ideally, one wants to strike a balance between respecting the office that the rabbi represents, while at the same time recognising that the rabbi is a human being like any other human being, with human foibles and weaknesses. Recognising that rabbis are flawed human beings like everyone else helps to level the potential imbalance of power that lends itself to exploitation.
Finally, the argument often levelled against publicising a rabbinical wrongdoing is that it is a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) and reflects poorly on Judaism and the Jewish community. This is misleading. The responsibility for discrediting the community rests entirely with the perpetrator, not with those who bravely bring such actions to light.
Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University
Rabbi Romain: People always want to know “why?”. Why has the train suddenly stopped? Why has a local shop closed? Why has someone we know died?
It is inevitable, therefore, that when someone leaves a job unexpectedly — from the person behind the counter to a chief executive — we want to know what happened, whether the reasons be positive (a new post elsewhere) or negative (some misdemeanour).
That applies also to a rabbi who departs out of the blue, except even more so, as he or she is often the centrifugal force in the synagogue, and their absence has an impact on congregational life.
It is also human nature not to like a vacuum and to try to fill it with explanations, but the danger is that they could be entirely wrong ones. So if a failing is suspected, the guesses as to what it was could be much more lurid than the actual fault itself.
There is also the danger that, if the misconduct was deemed to be sexual, popular imagination may extend to mistakenly identifying who was the other party, with the result that a totally innocent person is maligned and their family feels unfairly tarnished.
Of course, rumour-mongering and lashon hara are strictly forbidden — most famously in Leviticus 19.16 — and which the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1839-1933), reinforced by writing an entire book on the subject.
It means there are many practical reasons for spelling out why a dismissal has occurred, be it of a rabbi or anyone else. If it is argued that it is punishment enough to lose one’s position and income without being publicly shamed, then that ignores two aspects.
First, embarrassment is part of the penalty for stealing from funds, committing adultery, bullying staff or whatever happened. If we cover it up, we lose much of the deterrent.
Second, the cause of the sacking will affect the relationship others have with that person afterwards, or the type of job they next obtain. An affair will elicit one response, falling out with the chair will lead to another and paedophile activities will have a very different one.
It should be stressed, though, that it is important the person has a chance to defend themselves, including legal representation, before any decision to fire them. Transparency and fairness are essential both for a person accused of wrongdoing, and for a board that has to make a difficult decision.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue
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