Monday, April 22, 2013

"Should We Forgive?" by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, 5773
Shmuel Herzfeld

Usually I like to give positive Divrei Torah that hopefully will inspire us to come closer to Hashem. 

Today, unfortunately I feel the need to share a painful story that will hopefully be a guide and reference point for others in their life.

There has been a story in the media lately that I am connected with.

The story involves one of the most prominent rabbis in America. This rabbi was even named by Newsweek as one of the top fifty rabbis in America. He was for a while the head of the Beth Din of America, the central rabbinical court of the Modern Orthodox world. He is a law professor and an expert on ethics and Jewish law.

But he did something that everyone acknowledges is wrong.

He created a false identity in order to promote his own work and infiltrate a different rabbinic list serve where using a false identity he spread hurtful things, gained confidential information, undermined the positions of those who he ideologically disagreed with, and attacked people harshly. 

On this rabbinic list serve I was one of the people he attacked most prominently.
After I spoke out strongly in support of Women of the Wall in July 2010, he wrote an email to the members of this list serve using the false identity of a rabbi living in Israel. The email, which went out to more than one hundred rabbis was titled: “Disgust with Shmuel Herzfeld.” The email then stated:

“I think it is disgusting that Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is protesting in front of the Israeli Embassy and not worthy of any sense of "kol hakavod."  What a horrible bad thing for any American Rabbi to do.  Let him come and live here before he protests in the galut against policies of the Israeli government that offend him.


Hershel is a pseudonym: a false identity. At the time the real rabbi who wrote this was living in America.

I want to be very clear. I read the email at the time and I thought it was hurtful and painful. As a result of the email I said I do not want to be a part of this rabbinic group anymore and I left the list serve and basically cut off all contact with this rabbinic group. I felt that this email damaged my ability to have a collegial relationship with members of that rabbinic group.

This person also wrote many damaging things about other people, including against my revered teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss. It was particularly damaging to Rabbi Weiss because he created the impression that Rabbi Weiss was being attacked from within his own group. I know first-hand that this hurt Rabbi Weiss a great deal. It contributed to Rabbi Weiss’ retreat on whether or not he should use the term Rabbah for a female spiritual leader.

When this false identity was discovered, there was a backlash against this rabbi and as a result he was forced to leave the Beth Din of America.

But there are also some voices saying we should forgive him for his mistakes. A couple of voices are saying that since he has to some degree apologized to the community we should forgive him and move on with our lives.

So I want to discuss with you today whether or not I should forgive this rabbi.

Let us leave aside the very significant fact that he has in fact not called me up and asked for forgiveness. 

But lets pretend that he does call me up and ask me to forgive him. Should I then forgive him?

What would you do? 

I thought about this question a lot this week and here is my answer.

There is a verse in this week’s parashah that guides us.

The verse states, “Lo tikom ve lo titor et benei amekhah, we shall not avenge nor bear any grudge against the members of your people” (Leviticus 19:18).

There are two prohibitions in this verse: the prohibition of nekimah, taking vengeance, and netirah, bearing a grudge.

Rashi based upon the Talmud (Yoma 23a) explains the nature of these prohibitions:

[For example:] He says to him, “Lend me your sickle,” and he [the latter] replies, “No!” The next day, he [the latter] says to him, “Lend me your ax.” [If] he says to him, “I will not lend it to you, just as you did not lend to me!” this constitutes revenge [nekimah]. And what constitutes [netirah] “bearing a grudge?” [For example:] he says to him, “Lend me your ax,” and he [the latter] replies, “No!” Then the next day, he [the latter] says to him, “Lend me your sickle.” [Now, if] he says to him, “Here it is for you; I am not like you, who did not lend me!” this constitutes “bearing a grudge,” for he keeps the hatred in his heart, even though he does not take revenge (trans. from Chabad Daily Torah Study).

This would seem to indicate very clearly that one is not allowed to bear any grudge in his heart. But the matter becomes significantly more complicated if we go to the Talmudic source for Rashi’s statement.

The Talmud itself says, that this example that Rashi cites only refers to monetary matters. Another way of saying this is to say that it only refers to insignificant matters that we should not trouble ourselves with. (I know in some circumstances, a monetary matter can be very significant, but the example in Rashi is of an insignificant monetary matter.) But if the matter is of great importance then we must continue to be bothered by it, as the Talmud states on Yoma 23a: “Kol talmid chacham she-eino nokem ve-noteir kenachash eino talmid chacham, any Torah scholar that does not take vengeance and bear a grudge like a snake is not considered a Torah scholar.”

I understand this to mean that if the matter is a matter of larger importance, then we are required to measure our response carefully and we should not jump to forgive. If we offer forgiveness before the larger issue is addressed then we may in face be enabling more damage.

Let me explain why I think that is relevant to this situation.

There are larger issues at stake here than simply whether or not my reputation was damaged.

I offer these next words in the spirit of a Rashbam that was shown to me this week by my friend Natan. 

Rashbam comments on the verse, “Lo tisnah et achicha bilvavekha, hocheiach tochiach et amitakha, do not hate your brother in your hear, you must rebuke your brother” (Leviticus 19:17).

Rashbam writes that this means that if your neighbor does something bad to you, you should not pretend that everything is ok while harboring anger in your heart. Instead you must share your disapproval so that as a result there can eventually be peace.

In this context, I wrote a letter of concern this week to the President of Beth Din of America and to the President of the Rabbinical Council of America expressing my overriding concern in two areas:

First, I wanted to know what the Beth Din of America is doing to further investigate this matter as it relates to people who were potentially wronged by this powerful Dayan. Just this week alone, I received six separate communications from six independent people who shared with me in an unsolicited manner how this Dayan was inappropriate and emotionally abusive (like for example, berating a potential convert who came before him.) I know that requests have been made in the past to investigate this Dayan and they were ignored. Separate from that I know that after a person named Mordechai Twersky came forward and said that he brought an allegation of sexual abuse to this Dayan and that the Dayan flippantly dismissed him, I myself asked the Beth Din of America to investigate this allegation. I was told that this Dayan is a person of the highest level of integrity and that a formal investigation was not necessary. Well now, that the facts are different and we know that he is not a person of integrity, it would be inappropriate to forgive until a full, independent review is conducted of this Dayan’s past cases and behavior. For the sake of the vulnerable and the wronged it is now time for the powerful and important Beth Din of America to review its past assumptions about this Dayan. 

Second, I think the actions of this Dayan force us to confront a major, central question about the structure of the Orthodox community. 

If it were not for a courageous journalist this matter would still be unknown and despite our serious concerns about him the Dayan would still be deciding issues of critical importance. I think it is appropriate to ask the question: To whom does the Beth Din of America answer? Were it not for courageous journalism, this man would still be acting as a Dayan today. But what are we going to learn from this in order to make sure it does not happen again? What reviews will be established to make sure that the Beth Din of America truly serves as a beacon of justice and light amongst the nations, and not God forbid, something else?

The easy way is to say, lets all forgive and move on with our lives.

Every Yom Kippur I remind our congregation that if we want Hashem to forgive us, we need to be prepared to forgive others. 

But sometimes it is not that simple. Sometimes to forgive without real repentance is more damaging than good.

Think of a person who is a chronic physical abuser of his family, and then the next day after he abuses, he comes back and begs for forgiveness. Should his family forgive him right away? For the family to forgive without any real change in the person’s behavior is extremely dangerous, and perhaps life threatening. To forgive under those circumstances may run the risk of both endangering one’s own life and also of enabling abusive behavior.

Sometimes the more merciful approach is not to forgive. Sometimes by not forgiving right away we can make sure that there will be real changes for the better: real changes to the person and real changes to our community.

This is why the great Rabbi Moshe Isserles rules in the Shulchan Aruch as follows:

One whose forgiveness is sought should not be cruel when it comes to forgiving unless it is for the benefit of the one who is seeking forgiveness (le-tovat hamevakesh). And if the sinner has spread bad words (motzi sheim rah) about him then one is not required to forgive. (Orach Chaim 606:1.)

Regarding one who has spread bad words about someone, it is notoriously difficult to do teshuvah. How is one supposed to undo all the damage done by spreading harmful words? 

In this context, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik issued the following suggestion. He ruled that instead of begging for forgiveness from the person you have wronged with lashon harah, it is appropriate to try to undo the damage you have done. That is the appropriate way to beg for forgiveness. (Feldman, The Right and the Good, 150)

I really want to forgive this Dayan. This is not about my pride and my hurt feelings and the damage done to me personally. Just the opposite. From a personal perspective, it is really easy to forgive. From a personal perspective, I don’t walk around with hurt feelings or with a grudge that I need to grind. 

But I do walk around with a sense that this whole story highlights some problems that our community needs to address before we can talk about forgiveness.

In this case, I feel that I, and all of us, have too much responsibility simply to forgive.

Speaking personally, I cannot forgive until I make sure that I know who this Dayan and his Beth Din have harmed so that those people can also have the opportunity to forgive. For me to forgive now would be an injustice for all those people who came to me with their serious concerns about this Dayan.

It is irresponsible for a person in my position and with my platform to forgive. It is my responsibility to use my platform, my pulpit, and the context of this embarrassing situation for our community to do everything I can to prevent it from happening again; it is my responsibility to urge our community to use this case as a call for reform in our community; let there be change before we see more scandals involving powerful rabbis and vulnerable laity. And when that happens then it will be my great pleasure to forgive.

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