By Gerard Leval
In 1927, Sinclair Lewis had his fictional evangelical minister, Elmer Gantry, declare to a congregant with self-righteous bombast and hypocritical indignation: “I have here in my pocket — and thank heaven you can’t see them — lewd, dirty, obscene, and I’m ashamed to say this: French postcards.”
Gantry is, of course, a caricature of corrupt clergy. And yet, sadly, there is more than a kernel of truth to the character that Lewis created – and not just in the Protestant evangelical community. The consummate hypocrite, the cynical, snide moralizer, the bigger than life narcissist, seems to epitomize only too many members of the clergy, including our rabbis.
The Jewish community has been shaken by the recent arrest of Barry Freundel, the rabbi at Kesher Israel in Georgetown, on the charge that he has been spying on women in the community’s mikvah, many of them women seeking conversion under his auspices.
And, there have been so many other recent examples of reprehensible behavior by clergy. Such occurrences have transcended denominational differences. The Catholic Church has had to address countless accusations of pedophilia by its priests. The Protestant churches have encountered various sexual and financial misdeeds by their ministers. Jewish congregations of all types, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, have faced rabbinic problems — charges of plagiarism, embezzlement, infidelity and, most recently, voyeurism have been asserted.
The widespread presence of these kinds of occurrences requires that we try to find the root causes of the failings of our clergy. Why is it that individuals to whom we ascribe special moral standing fail to live up to the standards that we have set for them?
Perhaps, the answer lies in the question itself. The very notion that any individual can be imbued with a higher level of morality or spirituality than the average member of his or her community creates a situation that has embedded within it the seeds of arrogance, hypocrisy and misbehavior. It also ascribes to the clergy such an elevated status that, by its very existence, the construct establishes a precarious and potentially dangerous interpersonal relationship between the clergy and the congregant.
Investing anyone with the presumption of moral superiority promotes an asymmetry that, by definition, limits the usual controls that govern interpersonal relationships. With our peers, we are all prepared to make usual and customary judgments. We do not hesitate to judge others by comparison to ourselves. When doubts respecting conduct seep into our evaluation of a peer, we are not usually reluctant to take measures intended to correct misbehavior. However, when confronted by an individual perceived to be our moral superior, we alter our presumptions. We demonstrate a very understandable reluctance to respond to misdeeds, because we assume that we are not qualified to judge those we believe to be better than we are.
In the case of the Georgetown rabbi, it is rather obvious that a well-cultivated posture of superiority in religious knowledge and comportment served to create a kind of moral moat between the rabbi and his congregation. That separation may have provided a psychological distance that made defects, even very apparent defects, harder to see and assuredly much harder to criticize. It may even have caused congregants to avert their eyes from apparent and disqualifying defects.
By placing a religious leader on a lofty pedestal, the congregational flock may become unable to see flaws as readily as if the individual stood in their midst, at their level. It is also much more difficult to persuade fellow congregants of the need to topple the leader from his pedestal. The very act of challenging the elevated religious leader becomes much more traumatic and consequential and, therefore, much riskier, than the act of challenging an ordinary fellow human.
The formula whereby we formally install individuals to assist, or even control, us in our relationship with the Divinity — perhaps, a valid construct in an age of general lack of education and sophistication — seems outdated. Today, when we have achieved unparallel levels of education and much more religious sophistication, such religious agents may be anachronistic. This is not to suggest that having experts on issues of Halacha is no longer necessary. Rather, it is to emphasize that the need for professional holy men (or women) seems rather antiquated. It is to propose that the congregational model of the last several hundred years, with dominating professional clergy and passive and submissive congregations, may simply have been bypassed by the evolution of society at large. Another less hierarchical model needs to be developed.
The Psalmist (Psalm 118) reminds us that: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to rely on any man.” Our religious communities of today would do well to heed this reminder and, in the pursuit of religious solace, to rely on faith in God rather than faith in any individual, no matter how brilliant that individual, no matter how seemingly righteous.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, DC law firm of Arent Fox LLP. He has attended services at Kesher Israel Congregation-The Georgetown Synagogue for more than 32 years.