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Sunday, 9 March 2014

How long should we suspend him for?

Sukkah 33

Some time ago, a prominent rabbinic figure was revealed to be using pseudonyms and creating false identities online in an effort to surreptitiously promote his publications.  The world was aghast at his behaviour and he was disbarred from his positions of authority in the Jewish community.

Let’s say this individual is remorseful of his past misdeeds and vows never to commit such indiscretions again.  How long should his suspension from public Jewish life be?

The Mishnah states: If the top of the myrtle branch is cut off, it is invalid for use together with the lulav and etrog.  Ula bar Chinena teaches that if in spite of the clipped head, there were berries growing on the branch, it would be kosher.  How about if the top was clipped and it was berry-less when you plucked the branch, but lo and behold the next day it had sprouted berries?

The Talmud concludes that we may never permanently reject mitzvos.   Even if it was previously invalid for use, we assess its validity based on its current status.  Despite the fact that yesterday when I plucked the branch the myrtle was invalid, since today there are berries its status is revalidated and we may use it to fulfill the mitzvah. markets itself as the antidote to the single unsatisfied customer who has complained online and is turning away business from your company.  How does it work?  You can’t erase stuff from the internet.  Instead of erasing the scathing information, it buries it on page ten of google by overloading the search engine with positive information about your company.

But why would consumers listen to that one piece of negative feedback?  If most customers have been happy with your service, wouldn’t any rational, intelligent person simply dismiss that one damaging remark?  Sadly, most people are swayed by negativity.  Even if the undesirable exchange took place years ago, we still judge the company by that disparaging comment.  And similarly, unfortunately when we investigate individuals online, there might be something that occurred years in the past, but that colours our judgment of the person today.

If we are prohibited, however, from permanently rejecting a simple myrtle twig, then how much more so must we avoid falling into the human nature trap of permanently rejecting a human being!  The Talmud tells us that if a known sinner betroths a lady “on condition that I am perfectly righteous,” the marriage takes effect, because we don’t know what went through his mind right at that moment.  Maybe he experienced an unbelievable spiritual awakening and vowed to turn his life around!

There was a time not long ago when one could repent for past misdeeds and regain his reputation and standing in the community.  That is near impossible in the age of the internet.  Now we have extremely long, unforgiving memories. 

I have no personal relationship with said rabbi.  I did meet him once at a simcha but that was the only interaction I have ever had with him.  And yet I would have to take a long hard look inside my soul if I were ever faced with the question of rehiring him for a position of prominence in the community.  I hope I would be able to do the right thing. 

One of the greatest challenges of our generation is to never permanently repudiate mitzvos, let alone people.  Belief in the power of teshuvah (repentance) is a tenet of our faith, and at some point we must reassess a person’s ability to serve the community based upon their current merits, not past indiscretions.

This challenge faces us throughout our lives, not only in the realm of public service.  We are forbidden to permanently reject anyone from our lives.  Are you prepared to forgive people if they have done teshuvah?   Are you able to accept people for who they are today?  Are you willing to look beyond reports from years ago that refuse to go away online?  


  1. Great post and makes a lot of sense but sometimes we can't know if the person changed or not and where he/she might be holding now. Does the fact that this person was found out mean that he/she has now changed? No. I specifically have in mind someone who was found to be a child molester. It's not like a myrtle branch that clearly was not valid yesterday and today it is clearly valid. Naturally, we should be cautious around such an individual but when can we know the past is history as far as being more accepting of the individual?

    1. You bring up an important question. Firstly, we need to draw the distinction between forgiveness and trust. While I must strive to forgive an offender who appears to be remorseful, they still need to re-earn my trust. This might take years of good behaviour.

      Secondly, in terms of your example of the child molester, some people have proclivities towards bad/criminal behaviour. Such individuals should not be placed into situations where they may re-offend. We have a duty to protect everyone from any potential crime. In my example above, the offender did not fail in his public rabbinic duties per se, he failed us in other areas of his life.