Jonathan Rosenblatt, rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center, is the great-grandson of Yossele Rosenblatt. I am sitting here listening to Yossele’s magnificent cantorial singing on recordings made a hundred years ago. He had everything, vocal range, control, phrasing, musicality, originality, and above all, soul. His secular contemporary in the opera was the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso. According to an often repeated story, Caruso attended one of Rosenblatt’s New York recitals. After hearing Rosenblatt sing Eli, Eli, he went on stage and kissed him. That was an innocent kiss expressing one great artist’s admiration of another.
But other interactions devoid of physical contact can be downright creepy. Most women have had the unpleasant experience of being visually undressed by strangers or having conversational partners talking to their chest instead of their face.
Men are used to using adjacent public urinals. Most such interactions are matter-of-fact. Whether or not one chances to notice the other, we are all socialized not to stare. To be caught staring is to cross a boundary. We know when it happens and we turn away or glare back.
As long as the inappropriate gaze comes from a stranger or peer is it mostly an annoyance. But it gets much more unpleasant when it comes from someone with power over you like a parent, teacher, boss or mentor. Workplace sex harassment lawsuits arise from such situations.
Inappropriate gaze is not necessarily a crime, because the law is a crude instrument. It becomes the crime of child endangerment when it involves nudity and minors in ways that accustom them to being sexualized. The law recognizes that such sexualization as grooming that makes them vulnerable to overt sexual predators.
Judaism has a body of ethical teachings that encompass situations neither permitted nor proscribed by law. Nachmanides coined the phrase naval bireshus hatorah, (a revolting person who is within the bounds of Jewish law). Regardless of whether an action is permitted by law, an ethical person aims much higher. Rabbis are expected to be ethical not just technically compliant with law. A naval bireshus hatorah is not fit to be a rabbi.
And yet, some manage to get away with it. The most ingenious Jonathan Rosenblatt has pulled off that feat for close to 30 years while leading the Riverdale Jewish Center (NY). Rosenblatt regularly invited boys to play racquetball with him and then used showering and saunas to gawk and to display himself.
After consultation with the Rabbinical Council of America he agreed to stop doing it with minors but he continued to do it with young men. After the recent revelations and a tumult in his congregation he agreed to stop doing it period. But the harm is there. Many of those subjected to his conduct are rightly aggrieved.
His board voted 34-8 to offer to buy out his contract but he refused. The executive committee of the board then overruled the full board and issued a ringing endorsement of Jonathan Rosenblatt. Five members of the board quit and others are very disaffected. Members are quitting. Others are holding family celebrations and not inviting the rabbi or his core supporters. A group is meeting separately for prayers and there is talk of forming a breakaway congregation for those not inclined to join the main local competitors, R. Avi Weiss’ Hebrew Institute or R. Mordechai Willig’s Young Israel.
I don’t know where this saga will end. One or more of his victims may come out publicly with more lurid details that will finally end his run of chutzpah and luck. Or maybe he will hobble on with a diminished congregation.
In the meantime, I can only marvel at his brazen persistence exemplified by his YU Torah posting of a sermon about Yom Kippur liturgy: Hidden in Plain Sight. Indeed.
Those who don’t see have chosen not to look very hard.