The Rabbi Elon Sex Abuse Scandal: The Personal,The Political & The Dangers of Charisma

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Rav Elon Scandal

Over the past week a number of people (off-line, of course) have praised my “courage” in writing about homosexuality and Judaism. They all assumed it must have been a very difficult post to write.

In reality, little courage was required for that. It’s actually the subject matter of this post that makes my heart heavy with dread.

The difficulty here is not in dealing with a sexual abuse scandal within the Jewish community. People who commit such crimes deserve exposure and condemnation. Openness in these matters is always the best policy (but more of that in a later post in this series).

My difficulties in writing this post come from the fact that I not only respected and admired the man at the centre of this furore, and not only did I study under him in his yeshiva (seminary) for 18 months, but he also offered the greatest hope for healing the Israeli secular/religious divide.

The facts of this case are still murky. As far as we know, a number of sexual misconduct complaints were made against Rav (Rabbi) Mordechai Elon, perhaps the most high profile leader within the Israel’s Religious Zionist movement. The exact nature of these complaints is not clear, only that Rav Elon engaged in “acts at odds with sacred moral values.” There is at least one unsubstantiated allegation of sex with a minor.

In 2003, the Religious Zionists set up an organisation, Takana, to address allegations of sexual abuse within the ranks of their own educators. This body has no official legal status in Israel, and so, when it first learned of the allegations against Rav Elon in 2006, it took them to Israel’s Attorney General of the time, Menachem Mazuz.

Mazuz refused to act, so Takana demanded Rav Elon leave his yeshiva in Jerusalem, go into exile in the north of Israel, and not hold any leadership position.

The story was kept quiet – until February this year. It’s unclear if Rav Elon breached the conditions of exile, or whether the willingness of the new Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, along with new abuse allegations, encouraged Takana to go public about the matter.

This is not an ordinary sexual abuse scandal. Because so many details are unclear, it is difficult to know what crimes Rav Elon has been accused of. More than that, the fall of Rav Elon as a national figure represents something more far reaching that the individual lives he may have damaged through his actions.

Quite simply, Rav Elon was the most extraordinary person I have ever met.

I remember Rabbi Groner here in Australia and had the privilege of spending time with him over the years. He was widely regarded as Australia’s most charismatic Rabbi. His charisma, however, cannot even be measured on the same scale as Rav Elon’s powerful magnetism: a pull that drew in much of Israel, and every yeshiva student who walked through his doors.

When Rav Elon walked into a room the most intense sense of expectation accompanied him. It was often easy to know where he was: a mob surrounded him wherever he went.

And he recognised everyone. Every student was greeted with a warm embrace and addressed by name.

The power of his personality extended far beyond the yeshiva walls.

He took yeshiva students out of the Holy City into the very secular Tel Aviv in order to do reconciliation work. Tel Aviv’s secularism is integral to its identity. But when Rav Elon walked down the street, people stuck their heads out of windows to greet him, treating him like a minor celebrity.

They recognised him from his TV programme in which he delivered sermons. Most shocking was that these secular residents of Tel Aviv had been tuning into watch a Rabbi speak at all. And they had been tuning in, in large numbers. This was previously unheard of in secular Israel.

While I was at the yeshiva, I had a number of ideas about how to unite the fractured Israeli population. Others dismissed these ideas as pipe dreams; but Rav Elon was able to present them in such a way that everyone was instantly convinced. In the yeshiva – and in the Religious Zionist world, his influence was so powerful that no idea he proposed seemed impossible, as long as it was bolstered by the power of his persona.

Rav Elon’s personality was a gift to the yeshiva and to the Religious Zionist movement, but it was also an unseen threat – in ways that go beyond the sexual abuse allegations.

Before I went to Rav Elon’s yeshiva, I studied at a smaller yeshiva in a village. The rabbis there were not powerful personalities and were not even present some of the time.

Yet the yeshiva thrived.

The example of Seuda Shlishit (Sabbath’s third meal, before the Sabbath ends) at that yeshiva is very instructive.

In many yeshivas the third meal is an intensely spiritual period with slow, moving songs, and esoteric lessons geared to the soul.

In the village yeshiva, the meal section was done quickly, the students then moved into the library, a smaller and more intimate room, where the singing began. As soon as the Sabbath concluded the lights would be turned off and the singing would continue.

Up till this point, everything was directed by the students. Only towards the end would the rabbi arrive, and deliver a sermon in the dark room.

Had the rabbi not appeared I’m certain that one of the senior students would have taken his place and it would have been indistinguishable.

The contrast at Rav Elon’s yeshiva could not have been more stark.

When he was not present, the singing would still happen, as would the sermon. But there was a crucial spark missing.

On the weeks that he was present, the mood completely changed.

Before Rav Elon’s arrival, the mood would be flat, but as soon as he walked in the room, the atmosphere became electric.

As long as he wasn’t distracted.

All it took was one person to want to talk to him, for his attention to wander, and in an instant the electricity died. The atmosphere would only return with Rav Elon’s focus.

Such a powerful personality allows others to live through it and it allows them to believe they cannot make a move without their mentor approving.

As individuals, these people stagnate.

This sort of stagnation is much more dangerous than the ordinary boredom or stand still that can happen in other environments.

This form has no obvious signs, because the leader drives everyone forward, so it seems like there’s plenty of activity and plenty of inspiration.

And because no one sees anything bad happening no one thinks to fix it.

This is not unusual with charismatic rabbis, but it the implications were far deeper and wider with Rav Elon.

Aside from the personal aspects that I have spoken of, the scandal has touched so many more people, since he was the driving force for an entire segment of the religious population. He had religious educational material going out to almost all the government schools in Israel (including – and perhaps predominantly – in the secular).

He was a national TV and radio celebrity who had incredible ratings whenever he was put on the air.

He was mentor not just to one class of students, but to an entire generation.

I was also mesmerised by the man, and his message was one that I believe in.

It’s for this reason that it was heart wrenching for me to hear of this scandal, and painful – yet strangely therapeutic – for me to write about it.

***

Coming up: the secular/religious rift

Series NavigationRiots, Religiosity, and The Broken Bridge»
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2 Responses to “The Rabbi Elon Sex Abuse Scandal: The Personal,The Political & The Dangers of Charisma”

  1. noam says:

    Rabbi Yaron shilt”a, (understanding that this is a series, and you might deal with this issue).. Do the alleged actions take away from the his ACTUAL powerful message, of unity and religious national pride?

    Does the fact that he is an alleged sex offender cripple his credibility to the point that all his Torah must be disregard?

    i too as you know witnessed this incredible person first hand, and have struggled to deal with the issue…I personally accept the allegations as credible, but nonetheless, feel that i still have enormous respect for him, yet , at the same time feel that this can only happen because of a lack of openness in religious society to deal with controversial issues like homosexuality…I am assuming that he has had ‘urges’ from a young age and was never given a permissible outlet to discuss his issues without being exiled from the community…thus his whole personality would have been crippled…which i can only imagine for such a great man how devastating that could be.when he knew he had the potential to such great things…

    interested to know your thoughts

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    • Yaron Gottlieb says:

      Noam,

      You hit on so many points that I was going to deal with over the next posts, so I will not respond to them here.

      Your comment is encouraging for me as it would seem that I am not the only one of his former students who is struggling with these ideas, and it is a topic that needs discussing.

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