Let’s Talk about Policy Instead of Whether Rabbi Shmuel Tal Did Teshuva



Asher Lovy

The guest post that follows by Asher Lovy is a response to the debate about whether Rabbi Shmuel Tal truly repented of his egregious manipulation of woman he was counseling to get her to divorce her husband so Tal could marry her. A beit din declared he could retain his position heading a yeshiva because he did repent. I posted about the episode (and included a statement by Rabbi Yosef Blau). Subsequently there were also posts by Rabbi Blau in the Times of Israel and by Hannah Katsman on her blog, A Mother in Israel. All of us utterly dispute the claim that he repented. 

Asher Lovy is the Director of Community Organizing at Zaakah, and an activist who played an important role in securing  in some legislative victories involving child abuse in New York State.

Guest Post
Let’s Talk about Policy Instead of Whether Rabbi Shmuel Tal Did Teshuva
by Asher Lovy

I respect Rabbi Blau and appreciate his his article, Rabbi Shmuel Tal’s Authority is Intact; Everybody Should Be Asking, Why? But, I feel like the discussion around this issue has been allowed to veer into the morass of our particular religio-communal-cultural discourse around sexual impropriety, and that we’ve lost objective focus of this issue.

Last week, Rabbi Elli Fischer wrote a post that generated an intense discussion. In that post he said that he felt the beis din was correct in not stripping him of his position because he could understand the possible frame of mind in which Shmuel Tal did this to that woman, and that since nothing else otherwise incriminating was found on his computer, and we don’t have a long record of Tal doing things like this, the conditions set by the beis din that Tal could no longer counsel women or claim to have Ruach Hakodesh, while still maintaining his position as rosh yeshiva, were fair. (Note- Rabbi Fischer has since removed his article from public viewing on FaceBook after a lot of online criticism). 

To me this whole discussion is missing the point. It’s not relevant whether or not he did teshuva. It’s not relevant whether or not stuff was found on his computer. We need to start looking at these cases not as individual cases to be adjudicated individually, but as broad matters of institutional best practice.

If nothing else, this case illustrates very clearly why the work done by policy organizations like Sacred Spaces and Shira Melody Berkovits are so incredibly important. Consider how this would be handled by an institution with a clear institutional policy that was established, enforced, and overseen by a third party.

Assuming Shmuel Tal’s job included the occasional counseling of women, there would be a policy about where and when that could happen. If it became known that the policy was breached, it would be more likely to be stopped before it progressed to the point where he destroyed a family. If it had nonetheless progressed to the point where he’d destroyed a family by using his position to manipulate a women like that and acting wholly inappropriately in the interim, he would be fired for grossly violating the policy.

There wouldn’t be dithering around with a beis din, there wouldn’t be arguments about whether or not his teshuva happened or could be taken seriously, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not it’s a first offense, or if pornography was found on his computer, he would simply be fired for grossly violating the institutional policy.

But we in the Orthodox community don’t function like that. We don’t think like that. We’ve gotten so used to this particular way of relating to our leadership as if they are somehow divinely entitled to their positions, above reproach by default, and to be handled delicately and deferently in the wake of gross malfeasance, that we’ve lost any objectivity in these cases.

He’s nothing more than a dean of a school who should be accountable to a board which is committed to enforcing a sexual harassment policy.

It should never have reached a beis din in the first place. He should have been fired immediately, and the school should have sought a new dean. And if the school would crumble because it is held together by the sheer force of his brilliance and charisma, then the school doesn’t deserve to exist.

We need to start shifting the conversations we have about our leaders and institution from assuming of them a divine right to their position, to seeing them as institutional leaders accountable to the people they lead. We must start making it the norm in our communities to adopt institutional policies based on best practices with actual accountability and actual consequences for violations of those policies.

The people are always more important than the leaders, and none on them are expendable to satisfy the leaders’ desires. Someone I consider to be a true tzaddik once told me, “The second an institution starts to matter more than the people it serves, it no longer deserves to exist.”

It’s time our communities adopted that creed.

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