Rupture and Repair: Responding to Breaches of Trust in Rabbinic Authority

By Michelle Friedman

I was honored to be invited to spend a Shabbat as resident scholar at Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., shortly after that community was catapulted into the Jewish media spotlight. Kesher’s rabbi, Barry Freundel, had been charged with serious allegations that besmirched his role as a spiritual leader and violated the trust of his congregants. The goal of my visit, as a psychiatrist and pastoral counseling teacher, was to help the community process its recent trauma and move forward.

In preparing to meet the community, I focused on pathways from trauma to recovery. My talks and spontaneous one-on-one conversations were informed by my professional background in psychodynamic understanding of human experience, my knowledge of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and my faith in the deep understanding that our Jewish tradition has regarding human conflict and the capacity for resolution. I felt fortunate that Dr. Rachel Yehuda, my good friend and co-author of our forthcoming book on pastoral counseling, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject. Most PTSD research has been gleaned from the aftermath of severe catastrophe. People who experience natural disasters such as floods and fires can experience serious anxiety, nightmares, and physical symptoms. Those who survive human-caused devastation, such as 9/11 or war horrors, suffer even more. Researchers and clinicians know that in addition to providing basic needs for those who live through trauma, it is crucial that victims resume their normal routines and identities. One of the most important roles of aid workers is to validate survivors’ experiences and support their natural resilience.

Diverse Responses

I knew that the Kesher community was dealing with a different kind of trauma. Everyone had shelter and food. Their tsunami was emotional—the trauma that follows the loss of an ideal, the betrayal of trust. My role was to hear congregants’ diverse responses, whether anger, grief or mistrust. Each member had his or her own story and his or her own coping style. Walking into shul on Friday evening, I heard the melodious sound of spirited davening. This vibrancy continued throughout Shabbat. Members of the kehillah, functioning with dignity and competence, led prayer services and facilitated basic functions such as setting up meals and running programs. Clearly, even though Kesher had suffered a major rupture, it was a vibrant, functional community.

My training as a psychoanalyst helped me to frame Kesher’s trauma of rabbinic leadership by using the emotional language of persons who were abused as children. Individuals were struggling with mixed feelings toward Rabbi Freundel. Some had been his congregants for decades, others for a much shorter time. These included mature ba’alei batim who had grown up frum, people who were not particular acolytes of his, as well as younger members and certainly those who came into Judaism as converts or ba’alei teshuva under his influence. For some, the rupture created a sense of shakiness with their spiritual foundations and doubt as to the authenticity of their religious practice. I suggested an analogy to the experience of growing up with an abusive parent. Even when there is great pain, that parent is still the only mother or father the abused person has known. The child associates security, love, and comfort with that parent, as well as cruelty or other misuse. The takeaway for Kesher was to extend compassion to one another for all kinds of feelings that might arise. People might feel furious with Rabbi Freundel but also inspired by the Torah they had learned with him. They might feel betrayed but also grateful for kindnesses he had extended in the past.

An especially poignant question was: “What should we call him now?” That meant how to refer to him in e-mails and conversations with one another. Some people felt uncomfortable using the honored title “rabbi,” whereas others felt that using only his given name was not something they had done in the past and did not feel right now. I suggested that Kesher congregants continue to say or write “Rabbi Freundel.” I analogized that when physicians lose their license or lawyers are disbarred, they lose the right to practice, but not the acknowledgment of their education or professional experience. I felt that this was a way to honor congregants’ past and current relationships to their religious lives, of which Rabbi Freundel was one guide, albeit a deeply disappointing one. The flow of Jewish life goes beyond the power of one individual. Furthermore, avoidance of the title “rabbi,” in situations where it would have been used in the past, feeds into the myth that “real” rabbis are immune to heinous behavior. The point that I was making was that Rabbi Freundel was and is a “real” rabbi, and that a certain percentage of all people, even clergy, have a preexisting problem, get into bad places, fall into temptation, and abuse their power. I anticipated that Kesher congregants might feel besieged by questions doubting their own judgment, such as, “Didn’t you see anything wrong?” or “How could this happen?” We talked about various responses to these feelings.

Looking toward the Future

At the same time, in keeping with trauma recovery, I urged the congregants to recognize the importance of continuing their normal routines and reclaiming activities and spaces that might feel tainted. This especially applied to conversion processes and to the mikveh, about which so much has been written.

Looking toward the future, I encouraged the community to use their painful experiences to inform the process of selecting a new spiritual leader. They would need to query applicants closely and to feel that candidates have psychological sensitivity, in addition to rigorous learning, and are well trained in pastoral counseling.

I was fortunate to visit Kesher Israel on the Shabbat of Parashat Vayishlah. The parasha is replete with stories of conflict and resolution. On Shabbat morning I focused on the narratives of Yaakov and Eisav and of Dina and Shechem. Here, among many other messages, the Torah teaches us how the inherent turbulence of human conflict wells up into every facet of life, until some kind of resolution is achieved. I closed my d’var Torah by looking forward to the story of Yehuda and Tamar, when Yehuda puts an end to the earlier cycle of violence by taking responsibility for his own actions and hasty misjudgments.

Kesher Israel will heal and go forward. May other ruptures of rabbinic authority be met similarly with community humility, compassion, and competence. May we choose our spiritual leaders wisely and support their service to klal Yisrael.

Michelle Friedman, M.D., is director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.


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