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Friday, 24 October 2014

The Stain on the Rabbinate

Daf Yomi Yevamos 20

Recent events surrounding the shocking conduct of a prominent rabbi, who abused his authority and unfettered access into his victims’ personal space, both physically and emotionally, have been a source of pain to us all.   Let me take this opportunity to comfort the victims, both personal and congregational.  Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.

Many have lashed out at rabbinic power and its abuse and potential abuse.   Is abuse of rabbinic power indeed the issue?  Should it be curtailed or regulated?

The Mishnah states: They said a general rule when it comes to the law of the levirate marriage.  Any relationship that would be forbidden between the widow and the brother is automatically dissolved – they do not require the levirate marriage (yibum) or its annulment (chalitzah).  Regarding a relationship prohibited due to a mitzvah or sanctity, they should annual the union and not proceed with the levirate marriage.

What is the meaning of a mitzvah prohibition?  Secondary relationships, which are rabbinically forbidden.  Sanctity prohibition?  A widow to the high priest, a divorcee or one who has been annulled from the levirate marriage (chalutzah) to an ordinary cohen, a bastard or Nesin (descendant of the fake Gibeonite converts) to a regular Jew, or a Jewess to a bastard or Nesin.

The Gemara asks: Why is it called a mitzvah prohibition?  Abaye answers: It is a mitzvah to heed the words of the Sages.
Why are they called sanctity prohibition?   For the Torah states (concerning priestly relationships), “They shall be holy to their G-d.”

The Beraisa states: Rabbi Judah reversed the terms.  A mitzvah prohibition refers to the forbidden relationship between a widow and the high priest or a divorcee or chalutzah and an ordinary cohen.  And why is it called a mitzvah prohibition?  For the Torah states concerning the priestly obligations, “These are the mitzvot.”  

Sanctity prohibition (according to Rabbi Judah) refers to secondary relationships which are rabbinically forbidden.  And why are they called sanctity prohibition?  Abaye taught: Anyone who fulfils the words of the Sages is called holy.  Rava asked: And anyone who does not fulfil the words of the Sages not only is he not called holy, is he not also called wicked?!?  Rather, teaches Rava: We are enjoined to sanctify ourselves with that which is permitted.

The Torah grants enormous power to the Rabbis.  It is a biblical mitzvah to heed the words of the Rabbis!  This power has been challenged and disdained over the centuries by many opponents of traditional Judaism.  In fact, the Karaites went so far as to call those who adhered to tradition, ‘Rabbinic Jews.’  They claimed, in distinction, that everyone should have the right to interpret the text as they saw fit, hence their name from the word ‘kara,’ meaning ‘read’ or ‘text.’

But the Talmud here gives us guidelines to know when the Rabbis are acting biblically and when they are acting, G-d forbid, out of line.  The role of the rabbi is to increase the holiness of our people.  That means teaching us how to remain pure and holy in a world that aims to tear us away from holiness.  It means teaching us how to sanctify ourselves in that which is permitted – even in our ordinary mundane lives.  When you come into shul, the rabbi’s job is to give you the energy and passion to infuse into your day-to-day life, making it meaningful and spiritual. 

The job of the rabbi is not just to lay down the law.  That’s not what the Talmud says.  It’s about imbuing the people with holiness.  It’s about leading the way in holiness.  And it’s about the congregational relationships that create the positive energy that moves people to holiness.   When the rabbi is distant from his congregants, it is a red flag that something is amiss.  When he is not bringing positive energy into the shul, something’s not quite right. 

And when horrendous information comes to light as did in recent events, it is a clear indication that said person was not a real rabbi.  It’s not a reflection of rabbinic power or its abuse; it’s a sign that someone was put in place that should not have been there to begin with, and sadly nobody said anything sooner to curtail the terrible damage.  Once a rabbi is failing to infuse the people with inspiration, positive energy, and holiness, he is no longer fulfilling his role. 


This man was one bad apple that should have been spotted years ago.  Let’s not allow one stain to undermine our entire system of tradition.  ‘Rabbinic’ Judaism has kept our nation alive for thousands of years!