Monday, April 22, 2013

How to avoid scandal: A guide for rabbis

I expect to deliver a class this week, for young rabbis, on "Avoiding Scandal". It may seem like a relatively simple topic - don't do anything wrong - but I do have some thoughts based on my own experience, and things I wish I would have been told 17 years ago, when I was starting out.

Here are my major points:

1. You can't prevent other people from doing scandalous things, but you can institute policies for yourself, and your shul, to avoid or mitigate problems.

2.  Financial issues
* Make sure that everything involving donations and tax receipts is on the up-and-up;
* Make sure you know how to file your own taxes and claim your deductions;
* Make sure you know the rules regarding Benevolent Fund tax receipts;
* Ensure that your shul employs people legally;
* Know your level of responsibility to non-shul institutions with which you are involved.

3. Sexual issues
* Never meet with women or children unless someone else is able to observe you;
* Keep your wife informed of your meetings, and have her as a check on your judgment;
* Make sure your shul has a sexual harrassment policy;
* Make sure that people within your shul administration are up on "today's norms", which are not the same as those of a generation ago.

4. Disputes between members
* Be clear that your role as an impartial mediator is clear to the participants;
* Know when you cannot be impartial, and admit it;
* When the shul is involved as an institution, make sure all roles and interests are clear;
* Know when you are out of your depth;
* Do not let yourself be bullied into taking on something you cannot take on.

5. Make sure all members of the shul administration know who is the shul's official spokesperson - and it may not be you.

6. When speaking publicly
* Don't talk too much; it's the last sentence that gets you into trouble;
* Don't assume that people will assume the best of you, or know what you meant

7. If you aren't sure whether it's ethical or right, ask someone.

8. You are a religious figure and a public figure, and so there will always be those who want to catch your mistakes. Don't make their job easier.

I would love to hear your comments - but please avoid mentioning any particular scandals, as that might force me to delete your comment.

I also have a separate component: Responding to scandal once it has taken place. Perhaps I'll post that next.


  1. Excellent advice, and the truth of point #6 made me smile. You might also add something about knowing when you must report a wrongdoing; what you should consider consider when the matter is not clear-cut; and the importance of seeking advice. Also, the potentially severe consequences of conniving or being seen to connive in a cover-up.

  2. "Know your level of responsibility to non-shul institutions with which you are involved."

    Could you give some example or illustrate? You mean something like the rabbi is also a teacher at a school, and that creates time conflicts or even conflicts of interest? Or something more like the rabbi/shul's relationship with a Federation or the like?

    I heard about a shul that installed a camera to take low-res video (no audio) of the rabbi's office and keep it stored for a very, very long time , to protect him in case allegations were ever made G-d forbid. How do you feel about that?

  3. "Know when you are out of your depth" is easily the most difficult, and absolutely the most critical. Master this and every other point falls nicely into place.

    That said - you can add in the speaking publicly section: Stick to your notes and "I am not prepared to comment on that" or "I will have to get back to you on that" does not make you appear stupid.

  4. If there is a organization (the board of directors, executive board, machers, whatever) that largely funds the shul and its personnel, including the rabbi, how does the rabbi police the activities of that organization and its individual members? If he can't do this, he runs the risk of being the front man for a corrupt clique.

  5. Understand the technology you choose to use. Are your shiurim recorded and put online? Are you posting pictures of a shul event with minors online without parental consent? Etc.

    1. go even further than that: assume that you are being recorded. anyone with a smartphone can turn your class into a youtube file that goes viral.

  6. Re #2 --make procedures that control spending of shul funds (e.g. checks above a certain amount need to be signed by multiple people).

    Re #3 --isn't the first item mostly covered by the existing laws of yichud (at least as regards women and girls)? This isn't of course to argue with the idea (naturally it reinforces its importance) but one would hope that for a rabbi (and for the rest of us) this is a given in our daily conduct.

  7. Joe-
    All good points, thanks!

    1. I meant, for example, the extent of the Rabbi's responsibility to ensure that the workings of the mikvah or vaad or Federation are on the up-and-up.

    2. Video - Sounds good as an added security step, but it doesn't replace the others.

    Thanks, great points. This is one of the two reasons I always delivered speeches from a text. [The other was in case I became nervous and forgot where I was...]

    I don't know of a way to supervise members, but I believe the Rabbi does need to help ride herd on the institution.

    Anonymous 10:53 AM-
    Good points, thank you.

    Thanks. I thought about mentioning yichud, but this transcends yichud. Yichud has certain heterim ("someone could walk through here any moment") which I don't believe work in this context.

  8. Great post (and timely).
    I found number 8 to be potentially the most difficult, since a Rav is always in the public eye.

  9. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. And do get back to the person who asked it after you have had a chance to think and/or research the matter. That is obviously true (or should be) for halacha l'ma'aseh, but it is also true for hashkafa and homiletics. It is OK to say to someone who asks about some point in you drasha--"I didn't think about that, let me get back to you after I have thought about it."

    I give (parallel) advice to engineers I hire; but it is sound advice for rabbis and doctors too. Just because you are a professional does not mean you are expected to know everything at the tip of your fingers. And it is both easier and less embarrassing to admit it than to try to retract or correct something you said when you were "winging it" to avoid admitting a lack of knowledge.

  10. "RAM-
    I don't know of a way to supervise members, but I believe the Rabbi does need to help ride herd on the institution."

    I really meant to include members of any clique that pays the freight, not all members. It's not so healthy to depend on a few wealthy supporters unless they're of high character.

  11. By the way, when I pose a serious shaila, I don't want to get back vague nothingness or hints. If the Rav can't answer cogently on the spot, he should ask for time to investigate and then get back to me with the psak and a reasonable amount of explanation. Doing this helps the Rav avoid major problems with congregants.

  12. Neil-
    Thanks, and indeed.

    Mike S., RAM (II)-
    Agreed, although I view that as broader than "avoiding scandal" - it's the ABC's of doing your job.

    RAM (I)-
    I agree with your last sentence ("It's not so healthy"), but I think it is easier to find other supporters than to enforce policies on those who are not engaged in an official capacity.

  13. "RAM (I)-
    I agree with your last sentence ("It's not so healthy"), but I think it is easier to find other supporters than to enforce policies on those who are not engaged in an official capacity."

    Agreed, but, as I tried to indicate, they typically do have some official role, too.

  14. If you are ever contacted by the media tell them you can only respond on the record in writing, not verbally.

  15. Re: MJ's comment

    I was staying at a shul rabbi's home one Shabbos in New England. Soon after Havdalah he began getting phone calls for his reaction to the murder of Israeli PM Rabin, which he had heard about only minutes before.

    He handled the calls very well, but I can see how a rabbi not as fast on his feet would need more time to collect his thoughts. I doubt many would have to go so far as to do all responses in writing.

    More recently, I've seen training films to show how people in industry should handle the media, when, for example, when some major accident happens at a factory. These films could be instructive to rabbis, too.

  16. MJ, Bob-
    Writing is definitely better, both to provide a verifiable source and to avoid having your answer taken out of a Q/A context. And I would say to Bob that wherever possible, one should duck the verbal answer, even if that means your voice will be left out.