Prisons of Thought
By Joshua Cypess
Promised the land of milk of honey, in parshat Shelach the Jews reject God after hearing the evil report of the ten spies. How could the Jewish people favor the negative report of the spies over the prophecies of God? If we understand why the spies were so convincing we can make sense of this betrayal. When God commanded Moshe to send a man from each tribe, God stipulated that “each one be a nasi,” a prince (Bem. 13:2). The spies were not your James Bond-style professional spies. They were princes, heads of the nation.
The book of Bemidbar is suffused with details about the tribes, their numbers, and their leaders. From our Moses-centric perspective these details seem extraneous. But to the people let out of Egypt the tribal leaders were the key to survival during years of bondage. These men kept the nation structured and sustained. In the eyes of an ordinary Jew the character of the nation rested upon the character of the princes.
When the Jewish people heard the negative report of their princes, they were struck by a conundrum: if the leaders were wrong in the present, then they were also wrong in the past! If the leaders were failures and frauds, then the followers who trusted them were as well! The Jewish people reconciled this conflict by doing the absurd. They could not admit to the shortcomings of their leaders and instead chose to stand by their leaders at all costs. They rejected God’s testimony in order to cling to a false view of themselves.
The Orthodox world has been rocked by allegations that an NCSY rabbi and leader inflicted physical, sexual and emotional abuse upon countless children over the past 25 years.
Unfortunately we have become jaded to the concept that a youth leader could be this kind of predator. What confounds us more are allegations that superiors of the youth leader turned a deaf ear to the complaints of the children.
Whether the allegations in this case are correct or not — and we pray that they are not, we are compelled to examine their general implications. When a Torah scholar is accused of immoral behavior, we run up against the deeply ingrained belief that Torah scholars are also moral leaders. Our first recourse is to discredit the leader’s Torah learning. But sometimes that is not possible. Sometimes one accused of inappropriate conduct is indeed a talmid hakaham. In such cases, the only solution left to those who do not wish to admit that Torah scholars can go astray is to claim that the leader in question did not really sin.
It is especially easy to deny accusations when those lodging complaints against a Torah scholar are children. While we love our kids, we entrust professionals to take care of them…and out of sight, out of mind. The complaints of children may be even less forceful when the children are girls. If we don’t listen to women, when are we going to listen to girls?
If we consider allegations against a Torah scholar seriously enough to investigate them, how then do we reconcile the dissonance between Torah learning and morality? We must recognize that the definition of a talmid hakham must be as complex as any human personality. It is possible — but precarious — for us to acknowledge that Torah learning is not inextricably linked to morality. Pirkei Avot reminds us of this by suggesting that one’s learning can exceed one’s fear of sin (3:11), and that Torah can be perverted into “an ornament for self-glory” (4:7). It is precarious because we thrive on simple equations. Complexity is hard to maintain as a mass movement.
How then do we demand from our leaders both Torah knowledge and moral judgement? We must enforce these qualities in ourselves. We must ensure that we ourselves are knowledgeable in Torah so that our self-perceptions are not shattered by the notion of a sinning sage. We must ensure that we ourselves are morally upright so that we do not hide from the misdeeds of others. Coming to terms with the sins of our leaders means coming to terms with our own fallibility. If we are distraught at the failure of our leaders, then we must be ready to work against our own prisons of thought when we are confronted with immoral stances that benefit ourselves at the expense of others. The sin of the spies was the desire to remain in the desert and accept the familiar satisfactions of slavery over the unknown challenges of liberation. To this day we are cursed by that sin and faced with that choice. The generation of the spies accepted the absurd to avoid admitting their own failures. We must not do the same.
Joshua Cypess is a rabbinic assistant at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and teaches Bible at the Drisha Institute and at Stern College for Women. He is a graduate of Princeton University in anthropology and is completing his ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan