I confess to having contrarian instincts. When the hounds are baying for someone’s blood, my inclination is to wonder if just perhaps the problem is with the hounds. I’ve never had an occasion to write about sexual and financial abuses committed by rabbis, pastors, and priests. With the vast majority of cases, I suppose a member of the public like me simply has to take the accusations at face value and feel appropriately sickened. After all, we entrust these clergy members with our families, our fortunes, our faith.
Yet an additional note needs to be added.
This week’s Torah reading, Behar-Bechukotai
, includes a series of admonitions (Leviticus 26:14-43) delivered by God through Moses to the Jewish people. If the Jews turn away from the Torah, then a series of mounting tragedies will befall them. As Rav S.R. Hirsch explained it long ago, minor deviations of faith are like tiny cracks in a supporting structure. They can spread, grow, widen, finally leading to the collapse of the wall, roof, arch — whatever.
He reads the opening verses of the Admonition as describing the course of “defection” from belief in God’s Word. Citing the midrash Sifra on Leviticus, Hirsch notes an intermediate stage in the defection by unbelievers. It involves chachamim, the wise, the rabbis, “receiv[ing] the full weight of their hatred. In them [the defectors] see the ‘misfortune’ of their race, and the disdain which they feel towards their brethren who remain faithful to the Torah becomes transferred to the spiritual bearers and guardians of the institutions of the Torah.”
Sifra is anywhere up to 1,800 years old
. Hirsch was a contemporary of Darwin. So these are not apologists for contemporary abuses by rabbis or other clergy.
They are telling us that as the condition of religious belief weakens, hatred of the clergy intensifies. Much as we find libels directed against the Torah itself, we should expect to see the same directed at rabbis. Spiritual sickness is like any other disease. As it runs its course, it has stages and symptoms, and this is one of them.
Please understand, I’m not denying that massive widespread abuses have been committed by clergy of various faiths and denominations. Given the power that comes with their jobs, and given the corrosive effects of secular culture with its cynical influence, it’s not so shocking that some clerics would abuse what power they still have over their flocks.
At the same time, a note of caution and skepticism is in order. The case of alleged misconduct by a cleric with which I’m most familiar — not sexual in nature — is absolutely shot through with lies and libels against an innocent man. I know this can happen. I’ve seen how people can be eager, sickeningly so, to believe the worst on the strength of mere rumors. I also know that in this Internet age, standards of reporting are shockingly low, even when the stakes include ruining lives.
It casts no aspersion on victims and their truthfulness to say that there exists a significant public eager, slavering, to hear accounts of abuse.
There are websites that specialize in this — drooling for stories in which rabbis, for example, are shown to be liars, hypocrites and abusers. Anonymous accusations are welcome and believed without further investigation. I know the Jewish sites of this kind best. They are egregious.
There really is tremendous wickedness out there, but it’s not only from abusive clerics.