of this Shakespeare play actually sounds better in Hebrew than in English: Rov
Mehuma Al Lo Me’uma
(רוב מהומה על לא מאומה
and it summarizes the latest rabbinical “scandal” eagerly reported in a New
York Times “expose
and just as eagerly picked up by The
It was reported that
Jonathan Rosenblatt, the rabbi of long standing at Riverdale Jewish Center, a
prominent Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, had played squash and racquetball
with young male congregants, then showered with them naked (that’s how men
usually shower) and sat with them in a sauna or steam room, naked or wrapped in
a robe (as men usually are when they use saunas and steam rooms).
This had gone on for decades and reporters at
both publications had known about it for decades, but did not report it until
now because only now was one person
man enough to speak for
Plenty of others were ready
to bad-mouth the rabbi, but only behind a veil of anonymity.
Among the words
used to describe Rabbi Rosenblatt’s conduct are “disturbing,” “inappropriate,”
“unusual,” and words of that ilk.
“illegal” or “criminal.”
By all accounts
there was no sexual touching or other sexual misconduct, as occurred in other
well-publicized sex scandals involving rabbis.
The New York Times article itself states that “parsing [the rabbi’s
conduct] is an exercise in ambiguity.”
If so, and given Rabbi Rosenblatt’s stature, are we not required to be דן לכף זכות
, to give the rabbi the benefit of the
Up until the
middle of the 19th
century it was unusual for any observant Jew to
play organized sports.
consciousness began to be raised by the Zionist movement and men such as Max Nordau
Young Jewish men, first secular and then
observant, began seeing their bodies and minds as an integrated whole, each
feeding off the other.
however, remained the black-suited, black-hatted purveyors of scholarship and
dared not step out of that realm, except maybe to escort congregants to Soviet
Jewry demonstrations or Salute to Israel (now Celebrate Israel) parades.
Rabbi Rosenblatt, it seems, was the first to
think and act outside of that box, and more power to him.
Several years ago the chief rabbi of Warsaw
was attacked and beaten by anti-Semitic Polish hoodlums.
Just imagine if he had been able to give
those goons a proper rabbinical butt whooping.
It would have been a tremendous kiddush
a veritable earthquake, with aftershocks rippling with his muscles
through the length and breadth of Poland.
No more would the few Jews left in Poland be seen as easy marks.
One of the
anonymous complaints concerned the rabbi lingering in a post-workout shower
with the boys and young men with whom he was bonding; there was no rush.
Why should there have been a rush?
Were they expecting a trainload of Jews
arriving and having to use the shower?
shower after a hard fulfilling workout may be routine for others who take their
physicality for granted, but for us it is a mystical experience of supernal
coming out of
those shower heads, not gas.
water with joy from the wells of salvation (see Is. 12:3).
Take as long as you want.
Sing, whoop and holler if you feel like
Savor the experience as you would
I remember running races in
the summer heat and makeshift showers would be set up along the course.
I’d pump my fist in the air, run through and
shout “l’chaim” – to life.
drugs when you can get high on pure Jewish joy?
It is said that at the entrance to the gas
chamber at Auschwitz hung a sign reading
זה השער לה' צדיקים יבאו בו
- This is the
gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter it (Ps. 118:20).
Perhaps the showers of gyms at yeshivot
and Jewish community centers should have signs reading יבואו בו זה השער
לגאולה חזקים –
This is the gate of redemption; the
strong shall enter it.
I remember taking
showers in school after gym or swimming, naked with my classmates in full view
of one another, and thinking nothing of it.
I don’t remember if the teachers showered with us, but if they had it
would have been no big deal.
The person who
apparently was leading the charge against Rabbi Rosenblatt is female and, not
surprisingly, knows nothing about male bonding and male fellowship.
She does not understand why the rabbi “didn’t
his alleged judgment error.
Actually, it is she that “doesn’t get it.”
We men need to be with one another where
females are absent, to be “out with the boys.”
Time was when construction workers,
longshoremen (those brawny fellows who unloaded ships before modern containerization)
and such working in Lower Manhattan would, after a hard day’s work, repair to McSorley’s Ale
and enjoy some salty man talk in one another’s company over a pint or
Since 1970 McSorley’s must, per court order,
be open to women.
In Russia, Eastern Europe
and Turkey the steam bath (and in Scandinavia the sauna) filled the role of
Jewish men coming here from
that part of the world brought the “shvitz
” culture with them, and
passed it on to their progeny.
we have an Orthodox rabbi who worked out with boys and young men, then showered
and spent time in the steam room or sauna with them, discussing matters of
faith and philosophy in a relaxed atmosphere where they could let their guard
Why would any man or boy get
uptight over it?
Mothers did, and that
functions, these male-only get-togethers removed boys, if only temporarily,
from the influence of their overbearing Jewish mothers, taking them out of the
world of women and into the world of men.
That can be traumatic for women who can’t let
go of their little darlings, but for their sons it is liberating and healthy.
To be sure,
there were minor errors in judgment.
Most of them stem from not adhering to a fundamental part of the
masculine mystique in America, dating from the Old West, that exhorts us to
never say behind a man’s back what you would not say to his face.
Interestingly, this echoes a saying of one of
the European ba’alei mussar
of the late 19th
and early 20th
centuries: Don’t talk about
people; talk to
In Israel men are expected to “talk dugri
i.e. direct and to the point.
the young men were uncomfortable with the rabbi’s style, or so they told reporters
years or decades later.
With the passage
of time, memory can play tricks, but it is perfectly reasonable that some
people would be uncomfortable.
societies (but it would seem not in the primitive ones that renowned anthropologist
Margaret Mead visited) puberty and adolescence
is characterized by a great deal of Sturm und Drang
Young people are prone to read into situations
what is not necessarily there.
person experiences as a glance, or even thinks nothing of, can be experienced
by someone else as gawking.
When I was
in high school, a male biology teacher once remarked to a classmate, “those
biceps [mine] are unreal.”
lifting weights for several years,
took it as a compliment, large biceps still being unusual in American yeshiva
boys in the 1960s.
Given the anxieties
teenage boys experience about their sexuality, anxieties not addressed by the limudei
teachers (only one specific act is Biblically prohibited), some
other boy might have experienced the same remark as “creepy.”
The boys and young men who were uncomfortable
with nudity in the shower and/or steam room should have simply told the
Alternatively, they could
have asked him if this was appropriate behavior for a rabbi, perhaps citing
sources if they could.
It could have
opened the door to some interesting and healthy conversation.
One student recalled getting sick in yeshiva
and being driven home by the rabbi, with pleasant conversation in the car.
When they arrived at the student’s home (the
parents were not present), the rabbi suggested the boy might be more comfortable
if he changed into a bathrobe.
not far-fetched; yeshiva clothes can be distinctly uncomfortable, especially
when one is not feeling well to begin with.
The boy did not want to change, and told the rabbi.
According to the boy’s recollection, the
rabbi stayed in the student’s house (is there any yihud
two males?) and persisted in trying to get the boy to change.
With 20/20 hindsight I understand and
sympathize with the boy feeling put in an awkward spot.
Some of the people involved were so put off
that they chose another synagogue to attend.
This too is nothing out of the ordinary; in any community where there is
a choice of synagogues congregants come and congregants go.
Leaving is the best solution when a personality
clash between congregant and rabbi is so deep that remaining together becomes
Others, however, benefited a
good deal from those encounters and are appalled that the rabbi, to their way
of thinking, became the object of a malicious smear campaign (lashon ha-ra
Students in Yeshiva
University kept coming, of their own volition, to do rabbinic internships with
him even when the university stopped sending students his way due to
complaints, some of which were justified.
The power relationships between rabbi and intern could create the appearance
that the scantily clad shvitz
sessions were necessary for the intern’s
could occur between professors and undergraduate or graduate students at a
secular university; today professors assiduously avoid any interaction that can
give any such appearance.
matter seems to have been resolved to most everybody’s satisfaction.
The rabbi will be staying out the few years
remaining on his contract.
resolution was reached after a frank exchange between rabbi and congregants,
accompanied according to press reports by self-flagellation on the part of the
rabbi that I think was unnecessary given that few if any people came to any
I fail to see any hillul
here, nor any reason for the rabbi to feel broken. We all recall
positive and negative interactions with authority figures in our lives,
interactions as inevitable as they are universal.
If there is anybody among us who never committed
errors in judgment, he or she may cast a stone.
The rest of us mortals live in glass houses.
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