Burning dilemma
Burning dilemmaiStock

Last week, this author was tasked with reporting on the abject apology of an elderly rabbinic figure who admitted to committing grotesquely unrabbinic acts. "I take responsibility for what happened, I am willing to accept any punishment in the world, including burning me and stoning me because that is Torah law. The punishment that was meted to me was perhaps too light, and I am willing to accept a greater punishment," he said.

The reportage presented me with a dilemma: Whether or not to continue to preface his name with "Rabbi". I would like to share the thought process that led me to decide not to, lest my decision be misinterpreted.

As everyone knows, journalists are meant to report facts, dispassionately. One of the foundations of democracy is the concept of an educated populace choosing representation after carefully weighing the relative merits of competing ideologies in the marketplace of ideas. Degradation of journalism means sure disintegration of the process. When a society flees from its primary principles towards a false dichotomy that posits a wedge between truth and facts, journalists change from being the sacred custodians of democracy's lifeblood to being glorified vultures trawling the earth for any sordid fact that will sell a paper. The only requirement is that it be fact.

Jewish journalists are informed by the moral imperative to judge and report all facts only in the light of truth. This implies responsibility. Therefore:

1) Regardless of the fact that it is not within my authority to grant or rescind titles to others according to my moral judgement, if continuing to call "Rabbi" one who admitted heinous misdoing will sow confusion and demoralize the populace, it must not be done.

2) The apology was a required element of the plea-bargain that lessened the prison term, so it is impossible to gauge its level of sincerity. However, one indication may be the seemingly gratuitous invitation to toughen the punishment, beyond the agreement's requirement. One could dismiss it as a crafty attempt to feign contriteness to soften his punishment, but I believe a rabbi would know better than to rely on reverse psychology.

In that case, I will give benefit of the doubt that the apology was sincere. If so, from reading his words one may conclude that he doesn't want to be called "Rabbi" any longer, and I believe that should be respected.

3) Just like the introduction of counterfeit money into circulation devalues all currency of the realm, continued association between such acts and the exalted title "Rabbi" cheapens the currency of true rabbinical leaders everywhere and for all time.

However, none of this means that dropping the title was motivated by vengeance. I was indeed shocked by some reader's comments gleefully volunteering to act as the execution squad.

For the reasons listed above, I would drop the title "Rabbi" even if it became irrefutably known to me that the man did not commit the acts, but rather accepted upon himself undeserved exile and imprisonment "for the sake of the generation" - and for a Breslov leader, such an ideal of self-sacrifice would not be unthinkable. But out of awe and respect for the accepted victims in the case, such thoughts can not be practically entertained. Nevertheless, I take no joy in tearing off a crown. The appropriate response is to meditate upon Psalm 51, make sure one's own demons aren't polluting the nation, and pray that truth become manifest everywhere.