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Ethics of the Rabbi – Shoftim

Sermon by Rabbi James Prosnit – August, 2018

Ethics of the Rabbi — Shoftim

I used to joke that the only thing that could get me kicked out of the CCAR was my failure to pay my dues.  I’m pleased that that changed a few years back when the ethics committee of the CCAR brought forward a very strong Code of Ethical behavior – especially in terms of rabbis who have crossed certain sexual boundary lines – from infidelity to harassment, abuse to predatory actions. 

While the CCAR does not have the power to “defrock” or remove someone’s rabbinic title or status, it can expel a person and make it clear that such person is unfit to serve as a rabbi.  To date there have been about a dozen Reform rabbis listed on the CCAR website as expelled – and while certainly a far cry from the scandals of the Catholic church, such behaviors diminish us all. 

There was some discussion at a recent conference about the appropriateness of publically revealing the names of those expelled – but an overwhelmingly number of CCAR members felt that it was important to make a public statement to help prevent a rabbi from moving to another locale and starting to work for an unsuspecting congregation.  That reality is certainly something that has haunted the Catholic bishops as was revealed again this week as known priest pedophiles were shuffled around from community to community. 

Certainly all streams of Judaism have experienced ethical failings among rabbis and it is good that most rabbinic organizations have learned not to look the other way when sinful behavior is brought forward. In certain cases there is a process for making teshuvah (repenting and seeking forgiveness) to avoid expulsion but for some other extreme transgressions that is not possible.

But a question remains. And here I’m not talking about the clearly illegal acts of pedophiles.  If rabbis, and priests and ministers are human, shouldn’t they be allowed the same indiscretions and errors that other people make?  When it comes to marital fidelity or other less than appropriate but not necessarily illegal offenses should religious leaders be held to higher standards than others?  Is to do so fair?  Is that right?

While today’s Torah portion, shoftim, does not know from rabbis (the rabbinical role came about long after the Torah came to be) there is a strong acknowledgment in the beginning of our portion that there are a set of rules for authority figures that may not pertain to everyone else.  

The appointment of honorable judges and magistrates is the theme and their proper behavior was essential if the people were to dwell in the land that God was giving them.  As eventually one of the primary roles of the rabbis was to serve as a judge, evolving tradition understood that the responsibility of the rabbi to reflect a higher ethic was to be expected.  There was an understanding that sinning rabbis discredit the Torah and give other Jews an excuse for not taking their actions seriously.

In the main, I am leery of putting rabbis on pedestals and holding me and my colleagues up as more godly or holy than the lay people we teach and lead.  We are not priests and, therefore, are not intermediaries for one’s religious life.  As a Reform rabbi, when it comes to the practice of many of the mitzvot I don’t think there should be expectations of me that are not held out as expectations for you.  We all should strive for lives of holiness and my title need not dictate a higher level of behavior.

But – I get it.  When anyone sins, someone usually suffers, but when a rabbi fails to embody certain commandments by cheating on a spouse, mistreating children; harassing co-workers or violating business ethics then not only is a particular rabbi stripped of authenticity in the eyes of the community, but his or her actions are reflective of something larger.  Like it or not we are as Rabbi Jack Bloom would say, symbolic exemplars and we as symbolic of Torah represent the failure not just of a Jew but of Judaism.

The church has learned this – as many, many Catholics have turned away not just from a particular parish, but from faith in general.    

The portion we read this morning is a reminder to all – but especially to those of us who choose to lead “He should have a copy of the Teaching written on a scroll by his side.  Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God to observe faithfully the words of the teaching … thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellow or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.”