Rabbinical Court Slams Embattled Rabbi

By Rukhl Schaechter
Forward [New York]
January 5, 2006

An ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court in Monsey, N.Y., has waded into the battle over a beleaguered rabbi facing allegations of sexual harassment.

Rabbi Benzion Y. Wosner, head of the Shevet Levi rabbinical court in Monsey, issued a ruling last week (dated Hanukkah 2005) stating that Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, the spiritual leader of a synagogue in nearby New Hempstead, is unfit to serve as an Orthodox rabbi. The ruling was widely distributed to the rabbis and congregants of the local Orthodox synagogues, including Tendler's synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead. Tendler did not return phone calls from the Forward.

The ruling comes just one week after Adina Marmelstein, a former congregant of Tendler's synagogue, filed a civil lawsuit in Manhattan against Tendler, the scion of a prominent rabbinical family, accusing him of giving her "sex therapy" when she went to him for counseling. Tendler was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America, a Modern Orthodox organization, in March 2005, after a yearlong investigation of allegations that he sexually harassed women who came to him for spiritual guidance.

In the months before the RCA ruling, Tendler's supporters said that the allegations against him were being orchestrated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis who opposed the methods he used in helping women who were unable to secure a religious divorce from their husbands. At the same time, Tendler told people that several of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Monsey who criticized his work on women's issues had investigated the sexual harassment allegations and rejected them. However, attached to Wosner's ruling was a clarification signed by seven ultra-Orthodox Monsey rabbis disputing Tendler's claim that they had exonerated him.

In an interview with the Forward, one of the signatories, Rabbi Mordechai Orbach, said he arranged a meeting with Tendler at the beginning of 2003 in Congregation Shaarey Tefilah, Orbach's Monsey synagogue. The meeting was attended by six other rabbis representing the various Hasidic and non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox groups in Monsey.

The rabbis questioned Tendler and ended the meeting by saying they would investigate further, Orbach said. Since then, Tendler and his supporters claimed on a number of occasions that the Monsey rabbis had cleared him.

In their clarification, however, the rabbis wrote: "Since it has been publicly announced...and printed that we investigated R' Mordecai Tendler and that we were convinced of the truth of his statements, we are hereby forced to publicize that this is an outright lie." Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, one of the seven signatories, told the Forward that the clarification "is authentic, and we stand behind the statement contained in it."

Meanwhile, the RCA, the Modern Orthodox rabbinical union that expelled Tendler, has been fighting its own battle with the rabbi.

A Jerusalem regional rabbinical court contacted by Tendler after his dismissal by the RCA has been chastising the organization in a series of letters for expelling Tendler without bringing the issue to an independent rabbinical court. In response, on December 29, the RCA announced on its Web site that it has formally agreed to participate in a Jewish legal procedure, known as zabla, in New York. According to the rules of the procedure, each side of a dispute chooses a rabbinical judge, and the two judges jointly choose a third judge, forming a religious tribunal to hear the case.

"To this date, neither Mordecai Tendler nor his representatives have ever properly communicated his commitment to in fact proceed to zabla," the RCA statement continued.

In his recent ruling, Wosner, the ultra-Orthodox legal authority in Monsey, defended the RCA. According to the rabbi, Tendler questioned the RCA investigation because women are not considered kosher witnesses according to rabbinic law and because Tendler was not present when the witnesses testified. Wosner wrote that in a case where only women could possibly testify, they can and should do so. In addition, he wrote, testimony taken without the defendant present is valid, especially in a case where the defendant has a history of intimidating witnesses.

Citing what he described as incriminating tapes, Wosner wrote, "The RCA had every right to oust this rabbi from their organization, and his own congregation has the same obligation." In conclusion, he wrote, "the rabbi can no longer officiate at divorces, weddings. ... One should never allow their wives or daughters to go to him at all including [for] counseling... and all his rulings are null and void."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.