Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rabbi Motti Elon, Rabbi Leib Tropper, and our Yosef Mistake

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

The more I think about the scandals of Rabbi Elon this past week, and Rabbi Tropper a short while ago, the more I believe that the Jewish world makes two mistakes:

1. We have a very low bar for entering leadership

Many people have desires which go unfulfilled because they lack opportunity. Admired leaders, whether overseers of conversion processes or heads of yeshivot and seminaries, have that opportunity on a daily basis. We should be doing more to vet people before putting them in those positions of opportunity.

I’ve actually believed this for a long time, ever since I was put in charge of various things at a pretty young age. A leader, a Gadol, someone we will trust with our institutions as well as our hopes, cannot be a work in progress other than in his own humble mind.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we hunger for leaders. We look at generations past and see their great figures, we look at the recent ones, like Rav Moshe Feinstein, and we long for their kind. And so we look to people who have yet to prove themselves, and we make them leaders. But Rav Moshe, to use him as an example, was a long time in the making, decades before he was recognized as a leader.

A leader should spend decades proving himself before the nation turns to him with that level of respect and trust. In learning, in chesed, in publishing, in apprenticing, a potential leader must prove himself before we place the Jewish world, and our trust, in his hands a la וגם בך יאמינו לעולם (Shemot 19:9).

2. On adultery, we overstate Yosef’s greatness

The Torah portrays Yosef passing the test of Potiphar’s wife (Bereishit 39) with little hyperbole. Yosef went to work, she approached him, Yosef ran away. Gittin 57a also notes that Yosef's deed was a one-time event; righteous, certainly, but not truly heroic.

We, on the other hand, play it up as an incredible deed, this refusal to commit adultery with the wife of his employer.

I wonder whether this hyperbole doesn’t provide a subtle heter (permission) for adulterers: “Well, Yosef was a great tzaddik, and that’s why he didn’t stumble; I’m not Yosef, it’s not the greatest problem if I stumble once or twice.”

I know you could (and perhaps should) argue the point, but I’m just wondering about it.


  1. I just made that last point on my blog (well, I quoted someone else who did).
    I avoid talking about my parenting mistakes, etc., for the reason you mentioned, except in specific circumstances.

  2. We should be doing more to vet people before putting them in those positions of opportunity.
    Admirable aspiration - but because of the clarion call of "Lashon Harah" we are often prevented from doing any reasonable due diligence. Past indiscretions are covered up, and if anything is revealed, the questioner will be at best be told it's Lashon Harah or at worst be hounded by supporters of the person being examined.

    In recent years, it's wonderful that people are learning more and becoming more aware of the halachot of Lashon Hara. But I feel that the halachot are being distorted to preclude any disclosure, even for a bona fide toelet. There should be more shiurim on WHEN releasing information is OK and required under the laws of LH.

    I think people ignore situations when they must disclose information such as with shidduch situations, business arrangements and I would think kal vechomer potentially placing young children in danger.

  3. MoI-
    Interesting; is that with adult kids, or younger ones?

    Yes, this is a real challenge. It's also difficult because accurate information, given to the wrong audience, is also problematic.

  4. TRH: I'm not sure I understand your question. My oldest is 19 so barely an adult.

  5. I am all for further vetting of candidates for rabbinic positions. And I also agree that building leadership takes time - true gedolim become who we remember them to be over many years of hard work. But I think it's not only a matter of vetting but actually vetting the right things. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people remark that someone is extremely learned ("he knows all of Shas!") while ignoring obvious problems with the way that person interacts with others. The mistaken mentality is that "learning=mentchlekhkeit." I think דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה is the more proper attitude. R. Moshe was not merely respected for his learning, but also his midos.
    I'm still organizing my thoughts on the Yosef issue.

  6. Yosef went to work, she approached him, Yosef ran away. Gittin 57a also notes that Yosef's deed was a one-time event; righteous, certainly, but not truly heroic.

    We, on the other hand, play it up as an incredible deed, this refusal to commit adultery with the wife of his employer.
    see yoma 35b where it states it wasn't a 1 time thing (and iiuc that's why hatzadik was added). also the opinion that yosef went that day with the intention of sinning but his fathers image kept him from it at the last minute (lesson of importance of good training/role models)

    perhaps some teachers have emphasized the wrong element?
    Joel Rich

  7. I think part of the problem lies in the fact that many people entering the Rabbinate have no clue what community leaders really have to deal with.

    Its not simply learning and teaching, but dealing with incredibly complex issues that require counseling for marriage, infidelity, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, sexual abuse, Jewish criminals, fraud, and the list goes on and on.

    Simply learning in the Beit Midrash does not prepare anyone for the magnitude of the real world.

  8. Mother in Israel-
    I was wondering at what point we should talk more frankly to our children about our parenting mistakes, the better to help them deal with their own.


    I hear, but that's still not the same; Yosef only had the opportunity to get away with it that once. These leading figures are presented with daily opportunities.
    But I definitely agree on your latter point.

    Very true, speaking from experience...

  9. About vetting and disclosure:

    Some information is not revealed, not because of genuine lashon hara considerations, but because the people who know about it are afraid to get involved. The bad apples in Jewish society have fostered a generalized fear that speaking out will destroy all chances of shidduchim, school admissions, etc.

  10. There are a few things the frum communities are not good at. Leaders with these kinds of issues, is one of them. The secular world has had more time to get used to these things and they are still not good at them, but they're getting better. The frum communities are making honest mistakes but they are getting better. Putting leaders under more scrutiny, as you say, will help. The Greeks were good at math and we learned from them. Every yeshiva and seminary should hire people who are used to drug abuse and sexual predatory, etc. issues to bring them up to snuff on these things.

  11. I think Yosef's tzidkus lay in his courage. I guess he suspected that if he refused Potiphar's wife she would falsely accuse him. But he did what was right rather that would make him appear to be right.

    The comments about midos are on target. The most common aspect of middos that is missing is courage. That includes the courage of being accused of not being frum enough or having your shidduch prospects diminished. These days, frum culture is breeding cowardice. This is the flaw that scoundrels play on.

    The whole situation will turn around when enough distinguished roshe yeshivah arent afraid to be meshadach on the basis of midos rather than yichus, money, or fake hyper-frumkeit.

  12. Re: Yosef, I refer you to Rashi's explanation of "Kedoshim Tihyu" as a reference to avoiding those types of sins. I remember a devar Torah (unfortunately, though, not the speaker's name) which pointed out that unlike what most people assume, avoidance of 'arayot requires a large amount of effort on someone's part (hence, someone who does is successful is called "kadosh")- simply assuming that you can avoid such things without effort (by simply acting "normally")is a fallacy. Perhaps the bar for tzidkus is higher than you're portraying it: avoidance of such a sin is a big accomplishment, considering human impulses and the fact that in certain societies that type of behavior is common.
    Re: typical adulterers, I have the sense that if someone was raised with a strong sense of ethics (as Yosef was) he would refrain from doing so and deserves credit for that (one comment already mentioned the midrash that Yosef saw his father's image). I would advise not allowing the adulterer to make an excuse for himself ("I'm not so great, so what do I care"), but actually demanding he set standards for himself.
    Finally, it would be interesting to find out where Yosef is first described as a tzaddik. The definition of the term "tzaddik" in early Biblical Hebrew is not "righteous" but "innocent" - e.g. ve-heitzdiku et ha-tzaddik,"; see also Targum's translation of Avraham's request for 50 "tzaddikim"; it's "zakka'in" if I recall correctly.

  13. Joseph,
    It's in that gemara in yuma 35b.
    Joel Rich

  14. Anon1-
    Very much agreed.

    Definitely agreed. (Was the "snuff" pun intentional?)

    Courage: An interesting thought, certainly.

    I hate to call it a big accomplishment (although I suspect you are correct regarding many cases), because it gives people an 'out' for sinning.

  15. Joel, thanks. Wasn't sure if the terminology went further back than that, though(maybe early midrash?). I wanted to see how the term tzaddik has been used with regard to Yosef.
    Rabbi Torczyner, I'm not sure I fully understand how we're giving sinners an out by saying that if they do the right thing by not sinning, even if they had the desire to sin, they have accomplished something. It's not as if Yosef had no feelings for this woman. I think you're trying to suggest a universal standard for tzidkus, while I'm arguing that tzidkus depends on the situation and the personality in question. Take Noah vs. Avraham as an example.
    I'd also reiterate that the mitzvah to be kadosh applies to everyone, not only an elite; anyone who uses "I'm not a tzaddik" as an out is simply making an excuse and should be criticized for it. It's not a legitimate reason. Everyone is required to put in effort when it comes to basic morality. And if they do put in that effort, their accomplishments should not be considered any less just because some letz decides it's not for him.

  16. Joseph-
    What I'm getting at is that if we tell people they are tzaddikim for doing the right thing, then we open the door for them to fail to do the right thing when they don't feel up to being tzaddikim.

  17. And my point is that even ordinary people are required to act as if they were tzaddikim in that specific context, and should be given appropriate credit when they do so. In this way, Yosef acts as a model to uplift even ordinary people who are in such situations. Tzidkus is not beyond people's reach; it is something they gain when they do the right thing in a difficult situation, an accomplishment which might not be as common as you are portraying it. What else would we call someone who does the right thing? I'm not bothered by your question so much, since people who want to find an excuse will find one.