Sex, saunas, and rabbis: Where are the boundaries?

By Rabbi Dan Dorsch
June 3, 2015

By Rabbi Dan Dorsch | Jun. 3, 2015

Recent scandals involving rabbis who violated clergy-congregant boundaries are making it difficult for good, honest leaders to counsel the people we serve. Between Barry Freundel, who clearly broke the law when he spied on naked women in the mikveh, and Jonathan Rosenblatt, whose custom of mentoring young men whilst naked in the sauna lies somewhere in the legal gray area, one thing is clear: these rabbis' errors in judgment have eroded the public's trust in religious leaders as sources of safe, spiritual guidance.

Since graduating from seminary five years ago, I, myself, have felt ill-equipped, at times, to handle pastoral care issues related to sexuality when working with congregants confronted by infidelity, marital problems and divorce. None of the popular rabbinic “handbooks” on the subject made any mention of how to handle these issues as they relate to sex, and none of my classes at the seminary ever talked about how to deal with them. So I decided to sign up for an online course called “Sexual Issues for Jewish Clergy."

During this program, I discovered that rabbis often struggle with the same kind of challenges concerning sexuality and boundaries that their congregants face. Actions that for me seemed common sense and worth undertaking for my own protection – like giving counsel with my door open, and almost never agreeing to meet a person without someone else being present in the building – were far from established common practice. But what may be common sense for some rabbis is not for others. The New York Times article about Rosenblatt is a stark reminder of this fact.

There is also the issue of protecting both rabbis and congregants. A 2008 Baylor University study presented the testimonies of 47 people who described their personal experiences with clergy misconduct. As I watched the videos, I was struck by how often the victims' communities discouraged them from speaking out. Even when the victims were repeatedly violated, the congregation or their movement's umbrella organization ultimately sided and protected the violating rabbi.


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