Empathizing With Rabbi Michael Broyde
Tue, 05/07/2013

When I was in seventh grade I ran for president of our community-wide youth investment club.  Investment clubs were common in the 1950s and `60s in the adult world, and parents encouraged their kids to learn the value of financial investing early.  What I learned from my experience in the club changed me, but not the way my folks intended.

I had never been the president of anything. I deeply wanted the position, but more for the achievement of popularity and less for the goal of making money for my friend and me.  I wanted the presidency so badly that at the closed ballot election my competitor and I “jokingly” agreed to vote for each other.  He voted for me --and I voted for me.  I won by a landslide, but the victory was ash in my mouth. My feeling of guilt for betraying Joey, my opponent, was so deep that I apologized publicly and asked for a re-vote.  But because an overwhelming majority had voted for me anyway, the group let the vote stand.  I served my term and everyone else probably forgot the incident.  But disappointment in my own behavior at the age of 14 and the worthlessness of the victory that resulted has not diminished in nearly 50 years. Whenever I really truly want something I first see Joey’s image. There is nothing worth getting at any cost if the cost is your soul.

Pretty dramatic for a seventh grader.  But some of us, even rabbis and political leaders, aren’t lucky enough to have had this experience as children. Sometimes it happens in adulthood, when the consequences are far more serious.

As I’ve read the news reports about my colleague Rabbi Michael Broyde, former head of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Beit Din -- he has admitted writing academic treatises supportive of his own positions using an assumed identity-- I have been deeply troubled.  Such actions are indefensible in a leader of any kind, let alone a rabbi. 

Yet I can’t help thinking that while some will gloat at the almost silly manner in which he self-destructed, the rest of us face a deeper challenge. I have had the opportunity over the years to be in touch with Rabbi Broyde. I have had differences of opinion with him and have been disappointed in decisions made by his court, particularly those that left serious converts to Judaism bereft of community.

At the same time, there is no doubt in my mind that he remains an excellent scholar of Jewish law with a sharp mind. We rabbis, scholars of Jewish law and laymen committed to the ongoing development of halachah, have to decide if, at least in the case of Rabbi Broyde, his solid legal scholarship is to be henceforth ignored. If it is true that no one was damaged by his behavior other than himself, I propose that Rabbi Broyde’s scholarship should not be dismissed along with his behavior. Surely he has no business in communal leadership. But if Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton could be rehabilitated to leadership after deep-seated moral failures, surely Rabbi Broyde’s halachic work deserves consideration in the world of Jewish law, even if he himself does not.

I am sure that the lessons learned from his fall because of the childish need to be great and right have hit Rabbi Broyde even more deeply than my seventh grade ethical failure hit me.  I hope that once the dust has settled, the scholarly work he has done for the sake of Torah and the Jewish community at large will not be red-lined because of his failure of leadership.

We are told in the fourth chapter of tractate Berachot that Rabbi Nechuniah ben HaKaneh used to say a brief prayer when he entered the House of Study (to teach) and when he left. When queried about its nature he said: “When I enter I pray that no calamity happen at my hand and when I leave I give thanks for my portion.” For Rabbi Broyde, calamity has happened at his hand, hopefully only for himself and no one else.  If so, I pray that we will not compound the calamity by ignoring the positive value of his work.

Rabbi Ronald D. Price is executive vice president emeritus of the Union for Traditional Judaism, and dean emeritus of the Institute of Traditional Judaism.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Comments

When I lived in Atlanta, I went to Rabbi Broyde's shul (Young Israel). He was a great rabbi. I still listen to his online lectures from time to time. I think his offenses are minor, and I don't understand why anyone would say "he has no business in communal leadership."

If we're going to abide by your standard, then you should delete the comments on this article from "Quixote" and "SDK." Those people did not use their real names. So why is Rabbi Broyde required to use his real name to comment when others can comment anonymously? Why?

@ Tsvi -- I would suggest that writing and analysis should not be dismissed simply because you dislike someone's halachic conclusions. Is this not one of the most serious problems in the Jewish world? "Well, obviously this is not worth reading since its writer is a Zionist / AntiZionist / Chasid / Misnagid / Etc." If we applied this same rule to the Talmud or the Rishonim, there would be very little left to read. We do not hold by Shammai, but we retained his opinions and continue to study them.

I read R. Broyde's article on headcovering very recently and found it to be an excellent introduction to the sources for those (like myself) who are not strong enough to study all of them in the original. Reading the article helps to make intelligible the many varieties of headcovering one sees in the Orthodox Jewish world. Each group -- from those women who shave their heads to those who do not cover their hair -- has a halachic position upon which to rely. The importance of this work is not that it draws a liberal conclusion, but that it clearly lays out the breadth of sources on the topic and allows one to pursue further study. As a liberal Jew, with no day to day horse in this race, I came away from the article with a deep appreciation for this mitzvah, which I had previously dismissed as a mere custom.

How we treat Rabbi Broyde should depend not on what he did nor on what he wrote nor on how he judged but on the quality of his teshuvah. This is how you judge repentance -- by the behavior of the person who repents. Since his damage was done publicly, his repentance should have a public element. It is by his behavior *now*, not his behavior in the past, that we will learn how to see and understand him and whether to trust him again.

Elisha ben Abuyah became a heretic, but his valid teachings and opinions were still transmitted. There is no reason to dismiss Rabbi Broyde's valid writings and certainly no reason to dismiss the man himself. The Gate of Teshuvah is open to all. When he walks through that gate definitively and without apology or excuse, we should be there to welcome him.

What, Rabbi Price, not a word about the abominable prosecution of Raphael Golb in NYC for using colorful pseudonyms and satire to defend his father and blog about the Dead Sea Scrolls controversy on the Internet? Is this freedom in America? Should we send Rabbi Broyde to jail too, because he "used the name of another" to obtain the intangible "benefit" of "promoting a theory"? Are you ignorant of the Raphael Golb prosecution? If so, perhaps you should do your homework and study the documentation of the trial and ongoing appeal at:

http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

And, while you claim to have empathy for Rabbi Broyde and confess to your own minor wrongdoing as an adolescent, you also seem to have defamed Rabbi Broyde, because his Internet writings were not "academic treatises." Perhaps you do not understand the difference between an online comment and an "academic treatise"?

If, on the other hand, you are referring to the Tradition episode, which Broyde has not "admitted," then again, do you think he should be prosecuted and jailed, like Raphael Golb? Why not a word from you about the question of Mesira in the prosecution of Raphael Golb? Why so selective in your writings? See the discussion of all these issues on the Jewish Channel site at:

http://newsdesk.tjctv.com/2013/04/investigation-reveals-additional-questionable-identity-with-connections-to-broydes-scholarship/

I think that Rabbi Price has the gist of the issue well explained BUT neglects to mention that from a scholarly point of view talking up his own writings is a minor issue. Inventing stories about great rabbis and quoting conversations which may or may not have taken place, described by imaginary witnesses does invalid any legal opinion. A judge who rules on the basis of testimony he invented has all his rulings dismissed. And frankly, a rabbi whose magnum opus is a treatise on religious women who do not wish to cover their hair after marriage cannot be taken too seriously, nor can a professor whose cv at the university website emphasizes his accomplishments in his second career.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.