Coping with Judaism
Living in a Jewish country has its attractions. One of them is that you can enjoy being a Jew without being religious.
Living in a Jewish country also has its problems. One of them is that you cannot avoid Judaism.
Even outspoken Jewish atheists are surrounded by stimuli associated with the faith they deny. Virtually every item on the daily news touches the subject. Either Jews are quarreling about an issue with religious implications—and almost all of the local topics have such implications, such as comments about environmental protection or agreements with Palestinians that deal with the Land of Israel—or some distant goy is saying or doing something likely to impact on Israel and its Jews.
Jews could use a rabbi with the power of a pope to impose order on them, and to decide about the major issues that provoke dispute.
But then it wouldn’t be Judaism, with its large variety of contentious communities and outspoken individuals.
As if we needed another reminder of who we are, and what is our religion, the saga of Rabbi Mordechai (Moti) Elon is providing it.
It is not clear when his story begins, leaving aside the principal biographical and professional details. Born into an elite family (his late father was a justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, one brother was a Knesset member and government minister, and another brother a judge), study and then teaching at religious schools, eventually heading one of Israel’s most prestigious Orthodox yeshiva, a media career that included regular appearances on radio, television, and Torah lessons taught in the presidential residence, and leadership of an organization that worked with the Ministry of Education to enrich the education of Israel’s youth. Rabbi and Mrs. Elon took seriously the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. They have 11 children.
The problem in dating the beginning of his story concerns the practice of this charismatic rabbi to include hugging and other physical gestures in his counseling of young men.
On Wednesday of this week a lower court found him guilty of indecent acts. Some time ago a rabbinical forum had conducted its own inquiries, and found that Elon had crossed the line into sexual exploitation.
What is not clear is when these behaviors began. As in the case of other distinguished figures in the realm of religion (Judaism and other faiths) and other fields, many individuals are loath to complain. The lower court accepted the testimony of several individuals whose episodes occurred long enough ago so that they could not be the basis of a conviction, but could be used to bolster a pattern of behavior to be used in considering a specific and more recent charge of wrongdoing.
The rabbinical forum that also decided against Rabbi Elon was less constrained than the court by its rules of evidence and statute of limitations.
The case featured in Rabbi Elon’s guilty verdict occurred in 2005, and produced an indictment only in 2011.
The lapse in time to judgment may owe something to Elon’s status and the reluctance of individuals and prosecutors to act against him. Yet Israeli justice is characteristically slow. Former minister Avigdor Lieberman is currently involved in a court action that reflects police investigations and prosecutors’ pondering for more than a decade.
As it was, one of the two individuals that the prosecuting attorney had included in his indictment against Rabbi Elon refused to appear in court. This reinforces the image of personal reluctance or social pressure against coming forward against a prominent religious figure.
Some time ago, when Rabbi Elon’s practices or proclivities upset leading figures in the Orthodox community, he gave up his positions in elite Jerusalem sites, and was “exiled” to the remote and down at the heels settlement of Migdal. According to the rabbinical forum that judged him to have acted improperly, Rabbi Elon violated his agreement to avoid intimate, personal and private meetings with people seeking his advice. The forum decided to go public with its allegations “because they saw no other way to protect the public from possible harm.”
Rabbi Elon has not lost his capacity to attract loyal adherents.
His Torah lesson in the evening after the court verdict was crowded with supporters who sang along with the rabbi. When a religious man spoke out and demanded that the rabbi acknowledge his sins and begin the process of repentance, he was drowned out by heckling and hustled outside. The rabbi’s supporters said that someone must have put the critic up to his performance, and that he was attracted by the television coverage of the rabbi’s Torah lesson.
The rabbi, family members, and adherents continue to assert his innocence. They say that the court (and the rabbinical forum) have not understood the rabbi’s personality and counseling techniques, and deny improper sexual elements in how he deals with young men. They assert their loyalty to Israel and its courts. They adhere to the rule of law to which the rabbi’s father dedicated his life. But in this instance, they assert, the court erred, and they intend to appeal the decision.
In all probability, a Jewish pope would not solve this kind of problem. The Roman Catholic Church has its rouge priests. It deals with some by sending them to distant parishes, or to homes for priests with personal problems. The Church defrocks some, but some of those attract a following of what they consider to be true catholicism. Mormons are another well-disciplined religious community, but has its own variety of charismatic rebels, typically adhering to polygamy, who consider themselves superior to the established Church.
Judaism may be stronger by its acceptance of diversity, or by its age old recognition that it cannot overcome what some may consider improper, extremism, or practices best described as something other than Judaism. Leaving aside converts—who may find themselves ousted from orthodoxy for being caught failing to observe religious law, and in Israel thereby denied the benefits associated with being Jewish—the vast majority of Jews are members of the community by birth and not by faith.
The tribal basis of membership pretty much creates the situation where anything goes.
Rabbi Moti Elon is not the first rabbi to fall afoul of what Israeli courts are willing to accept by way of sexual, financial, or other improper behaviors. Still to come is the sentencing by the lower court, and whatever appeals the rabbi and his lawyer decide to file. Insofar as Rabbi Elon has a proven capacity to attract a spiritual following, no amount of jail time or enforced community service may end his career.
The Orthodox community is divided into those who side with the court and the rabbinical forum, those who say that Rabbi Elon’s activities have been misunderstood, and those who shy away from taking any position. The aura that attaches to the title of rabbi keeps many religious Jews from hard analysis. There is also something extraordinary about Rabbi Elon that may protect him from what would bother the rest of us should we cross a line of generally accepted behavior.
Contributing to discomfort within the Orthodox community is the pressure to face up to homosexuality. All of the allegations against Rabbi Elon pertain to his behavior with young men.
With respect to the rabbi’s future, what comes to mind is Douglas MacArthur’s penultimate line when speaking to a Joint Session of Congress after being removed from military command by President Harry Truman. He predicted, accurately, that he would “fade away” like other old soldiers.
We’ll see if Rabbi Moti Elon fades away, or continues to inspire followers who travel to Migdal in order to study Torah or ask his advice.