Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reacting to Scandal: A guide for rabbis

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a second half to my discussion of community scandal: What does a rabbi do once a scandal has broken in the community, spreading pain, gossip and hard feelings far beyond those people directly involved?

Here's what I plan to say to my group of young rabbis; what would you add? (Again, please omit all reference to actual events from comments, or I may need to delete them.)

When it's a scandal involving someone else
Minimize your public comments
* Remember the great advice I once received from a congregant: If only 10% of the shul knows about an issue, and you address it from the pulpit, you have now made it an issue for 100% of the shul. Make sure it's worth it.

* Showing you know the inside scoop never helps you, and can hurt you.

* People respect a closed mouth - and are far more likely to trust it when it does open.

Dealing with a shamed person
* Remember that for many people, you represent Gd

* You can offer friendship without offering endorsement, but it's best to do it privately

* Organize others to offer friendship, where appropriate

* Remember the good in the person; it should not be overridden

* Don't put the person in the spot, particularly by forcing a conversation before the person is ready

When it's a scandal surrounding your own error
What to say
* Full disclosure of the mistake

* Full, sincere apology - not "if I offended" or "for anything I may have said" [And if you think you are right, and the world thinks you are wrong, then you are outvoted and it's time to get objective counseling.]

* Don't attempt to justify it or explain why it's not as bad as people are saying

* If you must talk to the media, do it via press release to maximize the chance that your actual words will be heard, in context

Retreat from the spotlight
* The length of time depends on the harm done

* Never assume the worst is over

It's never safe to joke about it
* There is no statute of limitations

* It will never be funny to the victim


  1. Wow, bravo.

    "And if you think you are right, and the world thinks you are wrong, then you are outvoted and it's time to get objective counseling."

    Basically, Rabbi Eliezer-and-the-oven syndrome.

    What about the following?

    A. "Why don't we follow the majority and therefore Christians are right an Jews are wrong?" "Because majority is only used to settle a doubt, we have no doubt." (Remind me which Achron said this?)

    B. "Why don't we follow the majority? Because the majority is intoxicated by their evil inclination" -- R' Elchanan Wasserman, paraphrased slightly.

    C. "Isn't it yachid v'rabim, halacha k'rabim? That's only when THE Yachid -- yichudo shel olam -- is with the rabim." Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar. (Shu"t Bnei Banim takes great issue with this view.)


    How about this?

    If you are innocent but you have been framed, then make every effort to prove your innocence (in a defensive manner, not attacking those questioning you); if it appears the false evidence against you in the court of public opinion is overwhelming , then quietly step down and say "there are all sorts of talents and properties a rabbi needs to fulfill his job properly; will I maintain my innocence, my reputation is not as high as is necessary to do my job."

  2. "And if you think you are right, and the world thinks you are wrong, then you are outvoted and it's time to get objective counseling."

    Have you ever been genuinely right in doing some official act or making some statement, but were blamed by most others out of ignorance or malice? If so, what did you do then?

  3. 1. Seek counsel. If necessary seek the assistance of professionals. Meaning, know when to get legal help for you or the shul, know when to get PR help as well. Furthermore, call your Rebbi; get a torahdik outside perspective on the situation.

    1a. Know your legal rights and obligations

    2. Practice. Just like a fire drill. Write up a plan of action and then go through the motions of what you would do if a scandal arose.

    3. Understand the technology (see other post) know that electronic communication is both 'discoverable' legally and can often be found and posted online. Sometimes its better to speak to someone in person.

    4. Have 3 and only 3 talking points and stick to them when dealing with the media. This really gets into media training but the basic idea is that you don't have to answer the question you are being asked, think like a politician and always go back to your 3 basic points, repeat them over and over.

    5. Inform your family. The last thing you want is for someone in your family to be blindsided. Maybe this goes without saying for some, but I think it's important to mention.

  4. Shalom-
    I see a difference between majority and Majority. If it's 60%, I might be right. If it's 90+, I don't think so.

    In my experience, the cases of 100% vs. 0% are vanishingly few. I have never found a case in which I was blamed and yet I found myself fully in the right.

    Anonymous 9:55 AM-
    Thank you; these are valuable points.

  5. I am worried by the post that provides PR advice and, in particular, with Point 4, in which the writer counsels you to "stick to your talking don't have to answer the questions you're being asked." For someone like a rabbi who is in the public eye and whose character and integrity are part of the basic occupational qualifications, evading unpleasant questions is not on. You have to be prepared to address the issues frankly and head-on; equivocation or non-responsive responses make you look worse, not better. And, besides, it is fundamentally wrong to do so. Better to say candidly, "I can't answer that" than to twist your way into a canned response, in my opinion.

  6. @still4jays - עִם-נָבָר תִּתְבָּרָר; וְעִם-עִקֵּשׁ, תִּתְפַּתָּל. (tehillin 18:27). When dealing with nearly all journalists you are not dealing with someone who is trying to ascertain the truth. S/he is trying to get a soundbite or story hook at best, and at worst is trying to cause controversy and find someone to blame.

    I in no way advocated lying and certainly you can say 'no comment' but you would be better served using the platform to get your message across.

  7. If you really did something scandalous do tshuvah. And publicly enough so that you are setting a good example to your congregants and the public to counteract the bad one you set.

    If the scandal is a result of your misbehavior and not everything has yet come out, get it out yourself and quickly. Do not let it dribble out bit by bit.
    Think before you speak (this is good advise when there is no scandal too)

  8. still4jays-
    I didn't get the sense that Anonymous was recommending dishonesty, as much as knowing what you want to say and not letting anyone get you out of that zone.

    Mike S-
    Good points, but I think the problem with many scandals is that teshuvah is either invisible or something long-term, and it's hard for people to feel comfortable around the rabbi because they can't identify a moment when it's "over". [Kind of like Ralbag on korbanos, actually - the korban chatas provides closure.]

  9. "Because majority is only used to settle a doubt, we have no doubt." (Remind me which Achron said this?)"

    The Tumim said this(see link):