Thursday, May 28, 2020

New York—Members of the rabbinate, ethicists, clerics of other religions, and academics were stunned last week when Steven Weiss of the The Jewish Channel exposed Rabbi Michael Broyde, a stellar dayan and posek at the Bet Din of America and vaunted member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) as someone who had created two Internet avatars—David Keter  and Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser—to publish letters in journals, endorse his own opinions, publicly defend his own work, and gain access to a leftwing rabbinical association.

Although he at first denied Weiss’ reports, confronted with the electronic trail to his computer, Prof. Broyde admitted to creating the Goldwasser persona.

The Beth Din of America and the RCA did not hesitate. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA, saying that Prof. Broyde’s behavior was extremely disturbing, and working with the Av Bet Din, immediately removed Prof. Broyde as a dayan. Prof. Broyde also voluntarily resigned indefinitely as a member of the RCA.

At the first International Edah Conference in 1999, Rabbi Yitz Greemberg told a reporter from Lifetyles Magazine that Michael Broyde was Modern Orthodoxy’s great hope for the future, especially for agunot, women who cannot receive gets from their recalcitrant husbands unless outrageous demands are met.

(Edah was a grassroots movement founded in 1996 to promote an open minded and open-hearted Orthodoxy, passionately committed to Jewish Law while remaining receptive to general culture. The 1999 conference, "Orthodoxy Encounters a Changing World," attracted over 1,500 people for two days of study and debate.)

Prof. Broyde had just finished a session on agunot. During the question-and-answer period, 400 people gasped in shock when he told a woman who had been a battered wife and then an agunah for seven years that, “I ain’t Santa Claus and I ain’t giving you cookies just cause you ask,” after she asked if Pikuach Nefesh didn’t trump all and wouldn’t that mean the rabbis could use heter meah rabbanim to grant gets in battering cases.

Many have conceded that Prof. Broyde, who is also a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta, is arrogant, yet so are many other rabbis. However, there was almost unanimity on his brilliance and halakhic insights. His work on the ethics of war, abortion, and many issues facing Modern Orthodox communities and individuals was legend and his decisions were used by rabbis of all denominations, beginning with those who “hold” with the RCA and other mainstream Orthodox streams to people like Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a well-known Reform rabbi and scholar who looked to Broyde and others as valuable sources for his work on the ethics of war and peace.

There are some who see what the professor did as a sign of a purported mental disorder.  If that is indeed the case, the JLBC asked what will now happen to decisions Prof. Broyde made from the time he assumed his imaginary identities. Is it not the case that if this is a lapse of judgment or a manifestation of a mental illness, the prism through which a posek looks must be one of clarity of mind? Considering the circumstances, do his decisions become null and void or do they stand?

Rabbi Goldin told JLBC that this was a serious issue addressed by the Bet Din as soon as the issue came before the RCA. At this time the Av Bet Din has ruled that all the decisions the professor made will remain in force, “We are not going to change that. But his lack of judgment at this point prevents him from being on the Bet Din, and we are continuing to research the matter to determine whether or not the suspension will be made permanent.”

When asked about the general failures of leadership in the community and the lack of ethics—what with the destruction of the public school system in East Ramapo by the Orthodox members of the school board there, the behavior of an Israeli president toward female employees, and the revelations about the victimization of children and other abuses at every level in the community, Rabbi Goldin said, “I don’t believe human nature has changed. We just find out about it faster because of technology and have more access to information. But we have always had to carefully screen people we put in authority. One of the things we have to watch out for is that the higher a person rises, there may be potential for the development for these kinds of activities [grandiose behavior, abuses of power].”

The rabbi continued, “There is a wonderful suggestion made about the pesukim in Vayikrah, where the Torah talks about sin offerings and it uses conditional language from the lowest level of power and succeeding levels that reads  ‘when and if’ a person commits an aveyrah, until it comes to the Nasi, the president.  Then the language changes and the posuk reads: ‘When the Nasi will…’  The language becomes definite—that therefore it is clear that men in power will err. Not everyone agrees with that view, but I believe the potential for such abuse grows along with the power.”

What happens now? “We have to be vigilant,” said the rabbi, “and when someone is put in a position of power, we need to be sensitive when people have issues with those people and we have to pay attention and deal with them responsibly.”

Rabbi Goldin told the JLBC that another reporter had asked him how the RCA will regain its credibility. “We do it by not sweeping things under the rug and by dealing with them immediately and transparently.”

by Jeanette Friedman