Much Ado About Nothing
The title of this Shakespeare play actually sounds better in Hebrew than in English: Rov Mehuma Al Lo Me’uma (רוב מהומה על לא מאומה), and it summarizes the latest rabbinical “scandal” eagerly reported in a New York Times “expose” and just as eagerly picked up by The Jewish Week. It was reported that Jonathan Rosenblatt, the rabbi of long standing at Riverdale Jewish Center, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, had played squash and racquetball with young male congregants, then showered with them naked (that’s how men usually shower) and sat with them in a sauna or steam room, naked or wrapped in a robe (as men usually are when they use saunas and steam rooms). This had gone on for decades and reporters at both publications had known about it for decades, but did not report it until now because only now was one person man enough to speak for attribution. Plenty of others were ready to bad-mouth the rabbi, but only behind a veil of anonymity.
Among the words used to describe Rabbi Rosenblatt’s conduct are “disturbing,” “inappropriate,” “unusual,” and words of that ilk. Never “illegal” or “criminal.” By all accounts there was no sexual touching or other sexual misconduct, as occurred in other well-publicized sex scandals involving rabbis. The New York Times article itself states that “parsing [the rabbi’s conduct] is an exercise in ambiguity.” If so, and given Rabbi Rosenblatt’s stature, are we not required to be דן לכף זכות, to give the rabbi the benefit of the doubt?
Up until the middle of the 19th century it was unusual for any observant Jew to play organized sports. Then Jewish consciousness began to be raised by the Zionist movement and men such as Max Nordau. Young Jewish men, first secular and then observant, began seeing their bodies and minds as an integrated whole, each feeding off the other. Orthodox rabbis, however, remained the black-suited, black-hatted purveyors of scholarship and dared not step out of that realm, except maybe to escort congregants to Soviet Jewry demonstrations or Salute to Israel (now Celebrate Israel) parades. Rabbi Rosenblatt, it seems, was the first to think and act outside of that box, and more power to him. Several years ago the chief rabbi of Warsaw was attacked and beaten by anti-Semitic Polish hoodlums. Just imagine if he had been able to give those goons a proper rabbinical butt whooping. It would have been a tremendous kiddush Hashem, a veritable earthquake, with aftershocks rippling with his muscles through the length and breadth of Poland. No more would the few Jews left in Poland be seen as easy marks.
One of the anonymous complaints concerned the rabbi lingering in a post-workout shower with the boys and young men with whom he was bonding; there was no rush. Why should there have been a rush? Were they expecting a trainload of Jews arriving and having to use the shower? A shower after a hard fulfilling workout may be routine for others who take their physicality for granted, but for us it is a mystical experience of supernal joy. That’s water coming out of those shower heads, not gas. We draw water with joy from the wells of salvation (see Is. 12:3). Take as long as you want. Sing, whoop and holler if you feel like it. Savor the experience as you would good wine. I remember running races in the summer heat and makeshift showers would be set up along the course. I’d pump my fist in the air, run through and shout “l’chaim” – to life. Who needs drugs when you can get high on pure Jewish joy? It is said that at the entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz hung a sign reading זה השער לה' צדיקים יבאו בו - This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter it (Ps. 118:20). Perhaps the showers of gyms at yeshivot and Jewish community centers should have signs reading יבואו בו זה השער לגאולה חזקים – This is the gate of redemption; the strong shall enter it. I remember taking showers in school after gym or swimming, naked with my classmates in full view of one another, and thinking nothing of it. I don’t remember if the teachers showered with us, but if they had it would have been no big deal.
The person who apparently was leading the charge against Rabbi Rosenblatt is female and, not surprisingly, knows nothing about male bonding and male fellowship. She does not understand why the rabbi “didn’t get” his alleged judgment error. Actually, it is she that “doesn’t get it.” We men need to be with one another where females are absent, to be “out with the boys.” Time was when construction workers, longshoremen (those brawny fellows who unloaded ships before modern containerization) and such working in Lower Manhattan would, after a hard day’s work, repair to McSorley’s Ale House and enjoy some salty man talk in one another’s company over a pint or two. No more. Since 1970 McSorley’s must, per court order, be open to women. In Russia, Eastern Europe and Turkey the steam bath (and in Scandinavia the sauna) filled the role of McSorley’s. Jewish men coming here from that part of the world brought the “shvitz” culture with them, and passed it on to their progeny. So here we have an Orthodox rabbi who worked out with boys and young men, then showered and spent time in the steam room or sauna with them, discussing matters of faith and philosophy in a relaxed atmosphere where they could let their guard down. Why would any man or boy get uptight over it? Mothers did, and that is understandable. Among other functions, these male-only get-togethers removed boys, if only temporarily, from the influence of their overbearing Jewish mothers, taking them out of the world of women and into the world of men. That can be traumatic for women who can’t let go of their little darlings, but for their sons it is liberating and healthy.
To be sure, there were minor errors in judgment. Most of them stem from not adhering to a fundamental part of the masculine mystique in America, dating from the Old West, that exhorts us to never say behind a man’s back what you would not say to his face. Interestingly, this echoes a saying of one of the European ba’alei mussar of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Don’t talk about people; talk to them. In Israel men are expected to “talk dugri,” i.e. direct and to the point. Some of the young men were uncomfortable with the rabbi’s style, or so they told reporters years or decades later. With the passage of time, memory can play tricks, but it is perfectly reasonable that some people would be uncomfortable. In modern societies (but it would seem not in the primitive ones that renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead visited) puberty and adolescence is characterized by a great deal of Sturm und Drang. Young people are prone to read into situations what is not necessarily there. What one person experiences as a glance, or even thinks nothing of, can be experienced by someone else as gawking. When I was in high school, a male biology teacher once remarked to a classmate, “those biceps [mine] are unreal.” Having been lifting weights for several years, I took it as a compliment, large biceps still being unusual in American yeshiva boys in the 1960s. Given the anxieties teenage boys experience about their sexuality, anxieties not addressed by the limudei kodesh teachers (only one specific act is Biblically prohibited), some other boy might have experienced the same remark as “creepy.” The boys and young men who were uncomfortable with nudity in the shower and/or steam room should have simply told the rabbi. Alternatively, they could have asked him if this was appropriate behavior for a rabbi, perhaps citing sources if they could. It could have opened the door to some interesting and healthy conversation. One student recalled getting sick in yeshiva and being driven home by the rabbi, with pleasant conversation in the car. When they arrived at the student’s home (the parents were not present), the rabbi suggested the boy might be more comfortable if he changed into a bathrobe. This was not far-fetched; yeshiva clothes can be distinctly uncomfortable, especially when one is not feeling well to begin with. The boy did not want to change, and told the rabbi. According to the boy’s recollection, the rabbi stayed in the student’s house (is there any yihud issue between two males?) and persisted in trying to get the boy to change. With 20/20 hindsight I understand and sympathize with the boy feeling put in an awkward spot. Some of the people involved were so put off that they chose another synagogue to attend. This too is nothing out of the ordinary; in any community where there is a choice of synagogues congregants come and congregants go. Leaving is the best solution when a personality clash between congregant and rabbi is so deep that remaining together becomes untenable. Others, however, benefited a good deal from those encounters and are appalled that the rabbi, to their way of thinking, became the object of a malicious smear campaign (lashon ha-ra) years later. Students in Yeshiva University kept coming, of their own volition, to do rabbinic internships with him even when the university stopped sending students his way due to complaints, some of which were justified. The power relationships between rabbi and intern could create the appearance that the scantily clad shvitz sessions were necessary for the intern’s career advancement. Similar situations could occur between professors and undergraduate or graduate students at a secular university; today professors assiduously avoid any interaction that can give any such appearance.
The entire matter seems to have been resolved to most everybody’s satisfaction. The rabbi will be staying out the few years remaining on his contract. This resolution was reached after a frank exchange between rabbi and congregants, accompanied according to press reports by self-flagellation on the part of the rabbi that I think was unnecessary given that few if any people came to any serious harm. I fail to see any hillul Hashem here, nor any reason for the rabbi to feel broken. We all recall positive and negative interactions with authority figures in our lives, interactions as inevitable as they are universal. If there is anybody among us who never committed errors in judgment, he or she may cast a stone. The rest of us mortals live in glass houses.