It’s been two weeks since the news broke about the pervasive and decades-long sexual molestation of at least 1,000 children by no fewer than 300 priests in Pennsylvania. It would be an understatement to say, that as a member of the clergy and as a father, I was sickened as I read through snippets of the grand jury report that described in detail, not only the testimonials from victims, but the systematic cover-up of these despicable crimes and abuses of power.
There cannot be too little attention paid to the victims and too little concern about how, if at all, the Catholic church can atone for such a massive transgression in, what should be, the most fundamental moral concern of any institution of higher calling--the safety and well-being of children.
And yet, one of the questions that have stayed with me since this latest episode in a scandal that never seems to end is--what effect does such a profound corruption and perversion of faith have on all religion?
We are all too familiar with the decline in participation in moderate religious denominations, not just our own, that has occurred over the past two decades. Most of it has to do with shifting trends in what we value and how we spend our time. But at least a good portion of it stems from the rising number of people who believe that religion is the cause, not the solution for what’s wrong in today’s world.
It would be a mistake and unfair to say, in one breath, that ISIS and Catholic priests are threatening to turn scores more people away from the possibility of the redemptive power of faith. But no matter which corner of the world you look in these days, some misrepresentative group of people are giving their particular stream of religion a bad name.
It’s a product of the tremendous pride we have in our people and our tradition to believe that we Jews are better than that. Frankly, given our underdog status in the world, it’s hard to believe, despite what some anti-Semites would say, that we’ve acquired enough or are secure enough in our power to abuse it.
And thank God, in the past two centuries, there has been no such crisis of moral turpitude in American Judaism. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we need not be on our guard or that we cannot do better.
Just last week, an article in The Forward profiled Stanley S. Rosenfeld, a Jewish educator who worked in New York City and Rhode Island and “by own his own admission, sexually abused 'hundreds’ of children — nearly all middle school-aged boys — during his five-decade career.”
And closer to home (at least ideologically), last year, the USCJ cut ties with Rabbi Jules Gutin, the former national director of USY, after former youth group members accused him of inappropriate sexual advances and touching. Rabbi Gutin, who many of my contemporaries described as the Pied Piper of Conservative Jewish teens, was a giant in the lives of many. His profound positive impact on hundreds of young Jews over the course of his career is undeniable. And yet, though he denied the allegations, there was significant enough concern to convince the movement to end his career in disgrace.
This is in addition to the powerful Jewish writers and academics, who have been brought down by harassment claims in the #metoo era and whose important work is now being questioned and undermined, perhaps rightly so.
Once again, these are two very different types of crimes in very different types of contexts. But the larger point remains. We are not immune.
But what we must also continue to demonstrate and proudly proclaim to each other and to the world, however, is our firm belief that religion is a force for good in our community, in our country, and in the world. And Judaism is Exhibit A.
The generosity of the Jewish people is bringing light to the darkest corners of our society and the world. Whether it be in our own country, or in Israel, our intellectual pursuits, artistic achievements, and occasional athletic successes continue to bring wisdom, joy and hope to a world sorely in need of all three. And as a spiritual force for good in the world, we Jews make shalom our highest aspiration. That’s why a prayer for peace and co-existence concludes the amidah, the kaddish, aleinu, birkat hamazon and nearly every service in the siddur.
We need to keep insisting that our religion has always and will always be a part of the solution. And if, from time to time, we fall a little short, or if other religions make our job a little harder, so be it. We’ve been at this religion thing for 4,000 years. We’re not giving up anytime soon.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share