Understanding Power

Another rabbinic scandal has come to light. Last week The New York Times published an article about Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt and his practice over many decades of taking young boys and men to play racquetball and then have long talks with them while often naked in the shower or sauna. In talking about the scandal, many people have said, “How could this have gone on for so long?” “Why didn’t people speak up?” “Why wasn’t the rabbi fired?”

Well, in this case it sounds like many people voiced concerns and complaints over the years. Gary Rosenblatt (no relation) editor in chief of the New York Jewish Week called the rabbi’s actions “an open secret.” Rabbi Rosenblatt had been asked not to participate in this behavior by his own board who tried to buy him out of his contact a few years ago, by the Rabbinical Council of America, and by Yeshiva University, which stopped sending him interns. In this case, many people did indeed speak up, yet apparently, the rabbi did not change his practice.

It was not until another prominent Jewish professional Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, went on the record, by name, to a reporter of the Times that this story broke widely. Dr. Kurtzer’s bravery is underlined by the fact that he is the only one who experienced a “sauna talk” with Rabbi Rosenblatt to have his name published in the article.

The way this scandal has unfolded unearths the reasons why it is so hard for people to publicly call out an abuse of power – it is all about power. Rabbi Rosenbalatt has power. He has/had great respect in his community. He comes from a long line of powerful rabbis. He leads a close-knit community whose members must have felt tremendous pressure not to topple their own leader. To speak out against the rabbi’s abuse of power and inappropriate actions would have significant consequences for those who would do so. They would lose friends, family, their community, and their own reputations.

The power dynamics in any abusive situation cannot be overstated. I entered rabbinical school an empowered, enlightened, well-educated feminist who though I would and could speak out against abuses of power in any situation. Yet within a few months, I found myself to be the victim of sexual harassment. It started so slowly that I did not even recognize what was going on at first. Then, when I was finally able to name it, I felt paralyzed. All of my internal self-confidence was gone. How could I take on a powerful figure in my school? To take him on would surely have meant having to leave school and rethink my entire life. I would never get to be a rabbi. My name and his would always be linked. I did not want any of these outcomes. I felt truly powerless. There was no good outcome no matter what I did.

In the end, I transferred schools, and I told another person in authority about my experience so that he could look out for other women who might be victimized. Did I do enough to protect others? No. At that point in time, I needed most to protect myself. I understand why it took so many years for Rabbi Rosenblatt’s grossly inappropriate actions to come under full public scrutiny. There is a tremendous amount to be lost when you speak out. I hold Yehuda Kurtzer and other whistleblowers in high esteem.

The politics of power is deeply complicated. As a society, I don’t think we truly understand the dynamics involved and how hurt and shamed people can be. It does not surprise me in any way that Dr. Kurtzer did not speak out until his own reputation was well established.

In the wake of this scandal, I hope we can remind ourselves not to blame the victims. Several spoke out in this case and were not heard or taken seriously. This “funny” practice of Rabbi Rosenblatt’s was not funny. It should have been stopped years ago, but the power dynamics involved made that impossible. May we as a society learn to listen better to the voices of those who are powerless, and truly hear what they are telling us.

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