WHEN SACRED TRUST IS BREACHED: Responses to Rabbinic Sexual Misconduct

By Esther Altmann

From afar, we have witnessed public outrage over the long history of clergy misconduct in the Catholic Church. The church’s egregious denial and calculated covering up of priests’ sexual abuse of congregants and children was staggering in its scope, the blanket of silence over its victims unfathomable. How much harder is it for us to focus our lens closer to home and acknowledge the sexual misconduct of our own esteemed leaders and rabbis?

This article frames the conversation about the impact of rabbinic sexual misconduct by highlighting concerns from three perspectives: first and foremost, that of the victims who have been violated; second, that of a rabbi in the aftermath of a colleague’s transgression, and third, that of the congregations whose rabbinic leaders have betrayed them.

Breach of Trust—Effect on the Victims

By the very nature of their mandates, rabbis are privileged to encounter congregants in their most vulnerable moments. This sacred trust should imbue rabbis with deep humility as they witness profound suffering and the darkest moments of human experience. How much greater, then, is the sense of violation when this trust is manipulated or betrayed? Perhaps the damage is comparable to the heightened impact of a sexual assault perpetrated by a family member over that of an attack by a stranger. Familial sexual violations are among the most psychologically devastating experiences because they occur in the context of presumed love, trust, and protection. So, too, do rabbinic sexual violations rend asunder people’s core assumptions about their religious leaders and the role of faith in their lives.

Sexual predators are most adept at targeting the vulnerable among us. In recent times, foremost in our awareness has been the vulnerability of converts. However, life’s vicissitudes create innumerable moments of vulnerability for us all. It is precisely at these junctures that we are most likely to approach our rabbinic leaders for sustenance. Although the vast majority of rabbis conduct themselves with integrity and in accordance with halakhic principles, the record of rabbinic sexual violations is significant and unacceptable.

The meaning and impact of a rabbinic sexual violation are unique to each victim. The psychological sequelae are a function of many factors: the nature of the assault, the victim’s personal history, individual strengths and weaknesses, stage of life, physical and mental health, and the social support of family, friends, and community, to name but a few. Individuals who have a blueprint of loving, empathic parents and of respectful, kind relationships with rabbinic figures prior to the breach will be more likely to compartmentalize and contextualize the incident and heal from the betrayal. And, remarkably, even individuals who emerge from troubled families frequently demonstrate feats of extraordinary spirit and resilience. However, as noted previously, perpetrators are most adept at targeting individuals with vulnerabilities. In the painful words of one victim, “We told him how we had been abused sexually, and then he abused us sexually.”

A common resonant theme expressed by victims of rabbinic sexual violations is that rabbinic power is not innate or predetermined but rather is a power that is granted to the rabbi by the religious community. “We give them the power,” said one victim. Sexually exploitive relationships are almost always in the context of a differential power hierarchy. It takes great courage for victims of rabbinic abuse to step forward. The transgressions of particular rabbis are their personal transgressions with which they must wrestle. To be fully accountable, however, Orthodox institutions must also examine the problematic dynamics that ensue from the larger context of hierarchical male rabbinic power.

Effects on Colleagues of the Offender

As one might expect, the discovery of sexual misbehavior is deeply troubling for the friends and colleagues of the offender. Rabbis may experience a range of intense emotions not dissimilar to that of victims when confronted by a colleague’s misconduct. The psychological impact on rabbis can be profound. Feelings of anger, sadness, betrayal, shock, and disbelief are common reactions. When a colleague behaves in an abhorrent manner, it may be difficult for rabbis to acknowledge that the status of the rabbinate has been sullied and that there has been a violation of the very core Jewish tenets that they are responsible to model and uphold.

Because most rabbis are not formally trained to monitor themselves and to analyze their own feelings, they may react defensively and with a sense of incredulity that a violation has occurred. Denial, minimization, rationalization of inappropriate behavior, or an overidentification with an accused colleague can cause great additional harm to the victim. Defensive responses from the rabbinate may deepen the victim’s sense of alienation and betrayal and hinder the potential for healing and reconciliation for both the victim and the congregation.

Precisely because the violation has been of a sexual nature, rabbis may shy away from approaching victims for fear of invading their privacy or overstepping a boundary. Understandably, they may worry that asking specific questions may feel voyeuristic or precipitate a reenactment of the trauma. They may also fear being the object of displaced anger and may worry about managing their own intense feelings of pain and anger as details unfold.

Thus, they may delegate the work of healing too readily to the domain of psychotherapists. Although psychotherapy may be essential in helping a victim process the trauma and move forward, the role of rabbinic figures in the healing process is also essential. Rabbis cannot do this work without appropriate training and a safe place to discuss their doubts, anxieties, and reactions. Their hesitancy to meet with victims is for a good reason, yet their distance may leave victims further alienated and more likely to abandon congregational or religious life.

In the wake of a disturbing event, rabbis may also worry that their own behavior will be unduly scrutinized and, perhaps, misinterpreted. They may become aware of feeling inhibited and self-conscious when they reach out to provide comfort. Similarly, congregants may feel less trusting of communal leaders and may shy away from consulting them. This frosty pastoral environment may pass in time, but it would be better metabolized through communal discourse and planned opportunities for healing.

A Communal Crisis of Faith

Public disclosure of misconduct is disorienting and can create a crisis of faith. Congregational leaders have a significant role to play when their rabbi has acted unethically or illegally. Numbness, shame, and alienation are frequent consequences of sexual abuse. Frank communication about what is alleged to have occurred and what plans have been put in place to manage the consequences is therefore essential. Because sexual exploitation happens in secrecy, it is of paramount importance that leaders convey their efforts for repair publicly, with openness to the range of reactions and emotional attunement to the intense pain and grief that may emerge. Communal activities that bring people together in the aftermath of betrayal can also help circumvent congregational conflict and splintering. Victims’ privacy and needs are also of paramount concern and must be considered. Victims need to be directly encouraged to stay connected and to reach out for help.

Perhaps most challenging for congregational leadership is an internal exploration of whether tacit institutional dynamics may have fostered or supported boundary violations. According to Benyei,1 faith communities led by an authoritarian or strong central figure may have difficulty confronting unacceptable behavior. In such congregations, role definitions may be diffuse with unspoken rules of governance controlled by the rabbi. For example, channels of communication may be chaotic or undefined, and trivial matters may receive much attention while more pressing, serious concerns go untended. In such congregations, new pathways to communal leadership may need to be established and old, unhealthy patterns relinquished.

Challenges to the ‘Afterpastors’

Rabbis who serve congregations in the aftermath of a predecessor’s misconduct assume formidable responsibilities. These “afterpastors” must reinstate the synagogue as a sanctuary for prayer, and for celebrating milestones, mourning losses, and sharing spiritual experiences. The new rabbi will likely be confronted by unique and multiple demands over and above the taxing quotidian functions of a congregational rabbi. These roles may include managing the media, stemming the flow of departing members, mitigating financial losses, restoring organizational management, and absorbing intense feelings of grief, anger, disappointment, and religious disillusionment. An afterpastor may also experience unsettling reactions of distrust, and may feel ignored, disrespected, or sabotaged by congregants and co-workers.2 It is not uncommon for rabbis who assume leadership of betrayed congregations to leave after a brief tenure and for these synagogues to hire a succession of leaders before a new trusting relationship can take root.

The reverberations of rabbinic sexual misconduct span communities and geographical boundaries. Not only are we intertwined and interconnected in complex and meaningful ways, but we are also all responsible for one another (kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh). Guidelines, procedures, and policies need to be put in place in our synagogues and educational institutions before abuse occurs, to protect all individuals and to facilitate timely investigations when misconduct is alleged. For real change to ensue, all religious institutions, especially those with traditional systems of hierarchy and strong male authority, need to go beyond the letter of the law and engage in serious ethical and spiritual reflection for healing and teshuvah, repentance.3

Scandals, like storms, pass. For the victims, the consequences continue. The media directs its attention to new crises, and the Jewish community to its full calendar of holidays, fund raising, and educational initiatives. Malaise and inattention seep back into ourinstitutions. In light of these realities, how do we make an enduring commitment to protect all members of our communities from exploitation and abuse? How do we balance vigilance against abuse with creating safe spaces for engagement between congregants and rabbis? How do we bring violators of our trust to justice and stop them from harming other people while at the same time preserving our capacity to respect rabbis whose wisdom we seek and cherish? These questions require ongoing open discussion, in partnership with rabbinic leaders, Jewish educators, and mental health professionals. Most importantly, we need to give full voice to victims, to listen and learn from them how we can do better to protect the sacred trust we grant our clergy.

Esther Altmann, Ph.D., is the director of pastoral education at Yeshivat Maharat and a psychologist in private practice.


1 Benyei, C. “Systems: Identifying the Roots.” In When a Congregation is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct, Beth Ann Gaede, ed. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2005.

2 Pope-Lance, D. “Afterpastors: Restoring Pastoral Trust.” In When a Congregation is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct, Beth Ann Gaede, ed. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2005. 3 Kula, I. “Memo to Yeshiva U.: No Statute of Limitations on God’s Judgment.” Forward, February 13, 2014.


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