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Beware the charismatic rabbi

November 24, 2016 22:54

The best comment on the Rav Elon sex scandal comes from Adderabbi, who tries to put it all into context by quoting a passage on charismatic teachers from an absolutely brilliant new book on Jewish education -- written, ahem, by my father, Paul Shaviv, principal of TannenbaumCHAT in Toronto, the largest Jewish high  school, grade-for-grade, in North America (and the largest private day school in Canada).

Much of what he says may be applied to charismatic rabbis in the public sphere, such as Rav Elon:

The ‘Pied-Piper’ is one of the most difficult situations for a Principal to deal with. Many excellent and highly professional teachers have elements of charisma in their personalities.  In the ‘Pied Piper’ situation a powerfully charismatic teacher has exceeded appropriate boundaries. The teacher’s personality has become the centre of the classroom rather than the course content.  A ‘Pied Piper’ will deeply affect and influence some students – but will almost always leave a trail of emotional wreckage in his/her wake.

‘Pied Pipers’ - charismatic teachers who misuse their charisma - are often themselves deeply immature, but their immaturity is emotional, not intellectual, and it is not always obvious.  They can be brilliant in inspiring students to go beyond their wildest expectations, and are often regarded (by their following of students, by parents, and by the Board or the community) as the ‘most important’ or ‘best’ members of staff.  There is always, however, a price to be paid.

One of the effects of charisma is to convince the recipient that he or she is the centre of the charismatic personality’s concern.  A teenage student (or a particular class) may feel as though he, she or they is/are the protégé(s) of the charismatic teacher.  The moment they realize that they are not (sometimes when the teacher ‘moves on to the next’), deep emotions come into play.  Many charismatic teachers will lavish attention on a student or group of students – as long as the student(s) do things the teacher’s way, or accept every piece of advice or “philosophy” or Torah uncritically.  The moment the student shows independence or objectivity – they are dropped.  As soon as they are dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s story.  Deep disillusion sets in.  The student(s) are devastated. Often such students, very hurt, leave the school. 

Whatever brand of identity and loyalty the ‘Pied Piper’ has inculcated – religion, sport, poetry, art, politics – may be abandoned overnight.  The next set of ‘favorites’ takes their place. Tears are a feature of meetings between the abandoned students, their parents, and the Administration.  Mild characteristics of cult leaders may be observed.

Other parents, however, will rave about how their son/daughter “adores” Mr./Ms/ or Rabbi X, and is “learning so much from them”.  Events linked to that teacher will be showcase events, and in the Principal (or Head of Department) will come to be dependent on the teacher.  “We need something special for the prize-giving...or the ground-breaking … or the community event… can you put something together?” The teacher will protest that the time is short, and it’s impossible, but will, of course, accept and do a fabulous job.

The problem is that at core, these are not educational relationships.

The emotional dependency and entanglement between teacher and student leads to boundaries being crossed.  The teacher throws open his/her house to the students.  Teens idolize the teacher, and dangerous fantasies begin to develop.  Boundaries are crossed; the usual rules don’t apply to the Pied Piper, or, sometimes, his/her students. 

For more on how this applies to the current scandal, read our special correspondent Anshel Pfeffer's powerful piece in Haaretz, on the influence Rav Elon had on him during his teens and early 20s.

Another relevant comment from my father's book comes from the opening to the section on teachers behaving inappropriately: 

It is sobering to understand how charm, charisma and talent can mask an altogether more sinister agenda.  It is even more sobering to face the reality of how far people of all ages can be deceived by skilful confidence tricksters, sociopaths and predators – to the extent of maintaining faith in them even after their evil has been exposed. 

Worth keeping in mind in this day and age, when all too many rabbis seem to have turned from halachic arbitrators and community leaders into personal life coaches.

November 24, 2016 22:54

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