Monday, June 08, 2015

Again, it’s clear that the Orthodox rabbinic leadership knew all about Rosenblatt’s tendencies, begged him to stop, tried to limit his contact with boys and young men, but never publicly rebuked him for public, repeated transgressions of Halacha that were highly damaging to his victims....

The rabbi in the bath house is unsuited by definition

Why is it that when a rabbi or religious leader in our community is caught red-handed in a series of despicable acts, our community attempts to lower its cone of silence and leaves the matter to civil authorities? Sometimes those authorities investigate, convict, and incarcerate. Sometimes they determine that no civil law has been broken, despite the odiousness of the behavior.

While we, as a people who live in many lands and under many codes of law, are commanded to give deference to the civil law in nearly all matters, we are also commanded to live as a “mamlechet kohanim and goy kadosh,” a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

This week we are again witnessing communal ostrich-like behavior and deference to the DA in the context of a rabbi with a 30 year track record of odious and unhalachic behavior towards defenseless boys and young men. Jonathan Rosenblatt will certainly sit on the bimah of his synagogue this Shabbat.

 He may even be called to the Torah in “solidarity.” Where is the rabbinic and halachic outrage? If this rabbi brought shrimp to Kiddush (or maybe just a bottle of non-mevushal wine), he would immediately become the target of nationwide rabbinic opprobrium. Yet, if Rosenblatt committed criminal acts, if he follows his colleague from Washington, DC to prison (a perfect study partner), he will likely do so with title “Rabbi” still resting on his shoulders.

 The Yeshiva that ordained him would never think of publicly rebuking him and revoking his ordination. The boards of rabbis who have venerated him will never consider publicly rebuking him and banishing him. His community will almost certainly not put him in cherem (publicly shun him). Rather, the ball will be passed to the district attorney, while all of those who should be upholding the standards of the community will cloak themselves in the excuse that they cannot comment while the criminal justice system is conducting its process.

At the back end of the system, whether it leads to incarceration or acquittal, those same community leaders will insist on welcoming the return of the now-reformed offender on the grounds that he will have “paid his debt.”

Why do I care?

 What is my standing to comment on other people’s problems? Because I distinctly remember a conversation at age 12 when Stanley Rosenfeld, my Jewish Day School principal (now a convicted sex offender in Rhode Island) tried to convince my parents to allow me to join a canoe trip where we would first paddle and then “rent a motel room so that we could shower before returning home.”

 I felt deprived of the adventure and was far too young to understand that it was the showering that concerned my parents more than the canoeing. I only began to realize that my parents were protecting me rather than depriving me when I went to his house on a Shabbat afternoon for a “torah lesson” and he answered the door in his underwear. Rosenfeld was quietly passed from the Westchester Day School, to Ramaz, to SAR, before Jewish day schools finally let one another know not to hire him, but never publicly outed him.

 Many pedophiles and sex offenders have followed his path.

 The most distinguished modern Orthodox rabbis of our generation knew of Rosenfeld’s behavior in explicit detail, paid for counseling of and settlements to some of his victims, and warned one another, but not the community.

I care because Barry Freundel, now convicted and awaiting incarceration in Washington, DC defiled the home in Jerusalem I lent him for Torah study with some of his unhalachic acts and then had the chutzpa to publicly pronounce the Orthodox shul where I daven to be “treif” because it was not under the hashgacha of his vaad. Again, it’s clear that the rabbinic leadership knew a great deal about Freundel’s transgressions long before the DA was brought in.

 I care because rabbi Rosenblatt has worn his holiness on his sleeve for a decade while doing everything in his power to block the careers of those associated with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah or anyone else who might bring a fresh wind to the Jewish world.

 Again, it’s clear that the Orthodox rabbinic leadership knew all about Rosenblatt’s tendencies, begged him to stop, tried to limit his contact with boys and young men, but never publicly rebuked him for public, repeated transgressions of Halacha that were highly damaging to his victims.

Whether or not Rosenblatt violated the laws of New York State with his gawking, he has most certainly violated Halacha deliberately, repeatedly, and unrepentantly, for more than 30 years.

 From an halachic perspective, we don’t need to ask whether Rosenblatt’s naked bath house sessions with boys, young men, and rabbinic interns were sex offenses in a civil or criminal context. There’s no need to examine motivation or discuss whether the touching involved was sexual or innocent. The Torah makes it clear that we are forbidden to uncover the nakedness of our parents. Rabbinic law makes it equally clear that this prohibition is extended to rabbis and teachers. The Halacha is absolutely clear and stated succinctly by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in his public comment on the matter:

Pesachim 51a: “ A student may not enter into a bathhouse with his teacher. If the teacher needs assistance then it is permitted.” This law is codified in Rambam, Talmud Torah 5:6.

Shulchan Aruch 242:16 writes: “A student should not enter into a bathhouse with his teacher unless the teacher needs assistance.” Rema adds: “If the student was in the bathhouse before the teacher and then the teacher enters, then the student does not need to leave. And all this only applies in a case where the practice is to walk naked in the bathhouse. But in a place where the practice is to walk around in pants in the bathhouse then it is permitted. “

As to the notion that the bathhouse is somehow a place for a teacher and student to banter about important life issues, according to the Talmud, this is clearly inappropriate behavior. Avodah Zarah 3:4 says: [“Proklos, son of Plosphos asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18), ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshippers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bathhouse.”].

I’m no tzaddik. Nobody could accuse me of rigorously keeping all the laws of Shabbat. I violate a significant number of the 613 mitzvot on a regular basis. However, I carefully limit my acts of transgression to those which affect me alone. It’s those acts of halachic transgression that harm others – in this case scar them for life — that our community must rebuke publicly. When such acts are committed by leaders who draw their authority from the community, especially after those leaders have been afforded multiple chances to cease and desist, the community must either remove those leaders or lose its legitimacy and risk losing the respect of a generation of Jews.

There’s an old joke about the small town rabbi who runs afoul of his board and loses his contract. As he is packing up, the local minister drops by to commiserate and asks, “Rabbi, what happened? Were you defrocked?” The rabbi answers, “No, I vas just unsuited.” Rabbis Rosenblatt, Freundel, and a host of others “in the bath house,” were clearly unsuited, both physically and spiritually. It’s high time for the community to rise up and defrock them as well.

Jonathan Javitt The author is a physician, policy expert, and thought leader in healthcare transformation and digital health.