Clericalism? If the shoe fits ...

Img0034Anyone out there in GetReligion reader land who wants to read a truly depressing A1 feature story? That's what the Baltimore Sun gave us the other day and, truth be told, I have a sense that there is much more to this story than made it into the newspaper -- but I don't think there is much that reporter Nick Madigan could have done about that (with one or two exceptions). The headline tells us right where we are going, like it or not: "Women tell of abuse by rabbi -- Long silence broken with accounts of mistreatment by synogogue's founder."

Are you ready?

For more than half a century, Rabbi Jacob A. Max was a dominant figure in Baltimore's Jewish community, founder of one of its most important synagogues, an influential leader who officiated at countless cycle-of-life rituals of the faith. A man, it seemed from afar, above reproach. But Max's reputation disintegrated earlier this year after he was convicted of sexually molesting a woman half his age in a Reisterstown funeral home.

It marked the only time a woman had sought a legal remedy against the rabbi, even though murmurs had long rippled through Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation that his behavior toward some of the females in his flock was anything but appropriate.

The hushed accusations of Max's penchant for groping and fondling -- which some women say he accompanied with a smirk and an excuse about his being a "bad rabbi" -- appear to have been tolerated without inquiry for decades because of his standing and authority in the tightly knit religious community. Girls who complained to their mothers about his conduct say they were ignored.

So, last April, the rabbi ended up being convicted of second-degree assault and a fourth-degree sex offense after standing before a judge at Baltimore County's District Court. The 85-year-old rabbi was given a suspended one-year prison term and a year of unsupervised probation. The congregation he founded took his name off its stone sign and revoked his rabbi emeritus privileges.

Clearly this story has been in the works for a long, long time. In the end, it was built on the private testimonies of women who felt that they could tell their stories to the Sun, after years of silence (to one degree or another). The rabbi declined to be interviewed. The rabbi's lawyer said he is innocent, a stance affirmed by the elderly leader's supporters.

Here's the summary material that points to the heart of the story:

The women said news of the conviction impelled them to come forward because they believe their charges about Max's behavior deserve to be disclosed, no matter how long ago the events occurred.

The case also spurred Max's defenders to come forward, saying the rabbi remains a respectable figure who has been unfairly maligned. Informed of the women's allegations, Max's lawyer, David B. Irwin, said his client was innocent. "If anyone took a friendly gesture the wrong way, as far as he's concerned, he's sorry," Irwin said. "But he never intentionally molested or inappropriately touched anyone." ...

None of the five women had spoken publicly before the criminal case, because, they say, it was understood that members of the modern Orthodox Jewish community -- especially young ones -- did not divulge errors by its leaders, let alone accuse them of impropriety.

Hey reporters, does any of this sound familiar to you?

The story is describing a word that has become common in the context of the three-decades of scandal in Catholicism about sexual abuse by clergy -- "clericalism." Does the term deserve to be used in this Jewish context, in the context of a hierarchy that consists of a single powerful congregation and its niche in a larger religious community? Read the story and decide for yourself if this particular shoe fits.

After you read the story, you may have questions pop into your mind. Here are a few of mine: * The rabbi is 85, but has been married for 25 years, meaning he married at age 60. Was this his first marriage?

* What is "modern" Orthodox Judaism and how does it differ, in terms of doctrine and practice, from traditional Orthodox Judaism? In particular, what are its teachings on the role and status of women and men? Is this branch of Judaism more lenient when it comes to divorce and sexual morality in general? Readers need to know a few facts, since this rabbi was clearly a leader in this movement.

* The allegations all focus on abuse. Are there any allegations about sexual affairs? Did the rabbi have a line in his own mind that he never crossed?

_images_High-Heel-MenorahI will not linger on the stories of abuse, which are very consistent and told in a way that is detailed, but not overly graphic. Here is one typical example:

"He came up behind me, pressed himself against me, kissed me on my cheek, and put his hands down my sweater," said Judy Flax-Gerstein, 54, who was newly divorced a decade ago and working as a secretary in the office of Max's temple, where her family had long worshiped. "I was in shock. I pushed him away and screamed."

Max was impervious to complaints about his behavior, Flax-Gerstein said. "He got away with it for years because no one spoke up," she said. "You just did what the authority figure said. I told my mother and she said, 'Everyone knows his reputation.' "

Clearly, this could not have been an easy story to report in a fair and accurate manner. Any veteran reporter knows the frustration of dealing with a hot-button story in which only one side is anxious to share its point of view and the other side remains silent, hoping to prevent publication of a news report.

In this case, the Sun team had to make solid use of a candid sermon by the congregation's current rabbi (click here for .pdf) as well as snippets from published news reports, columns and letters inside the city's powerful and historic Jewish community. The leadership at Moses Montefiore insists that it is now trying to listen to the voices that were ignored for so long.

But it's clear that loyal people tried to protect a beloved leader. I found this section of the story about Kathleen Cahill, the lawyer who handled the complaint that broke the story open, particularly frustrating and, in this case, that is a compliment:

Phil Jacobs, executive editor of The Jewish Times, made the point in a column that Cahill's client is not Jewish, a fact that enabled her to avoid retribution from the congregation. Nobody of the Jewish faith, Jacobs wrote, would have spoken up like that, despite Max's reputation.

"Let it not be ignored that we allowed this to happen," Jacobs wrote, referring to the community's public silence.

What a sad, tragic and painful story. How many women were ignored through the years?

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