The Erotic Energy of the Rabbinate

December 1, 2006
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Lori Hope Lefkovitz

Twenty years ago, I keynoted a faculty in-service with a gleeful lecture entitled, “The Erotics of Pedagogy.” I focused on how teachers shape their personal stories differently in different teaching contexts, ideally creating varied versions of themselves that seduce students into a love of the subject. I used the language of romance to describe my own mild nervousness before the start of the semester (“part excitement, part dread, like waiting for the doorbell before a first date”) and I contrasted, in deliberately sexualized terms, the different rhythms that we establish in lecture halls and in seminar rooms: An opening lecture for a large survey course is “breathless” because our time together is too short and “suggestive” in the hope that students, who may be having a “first experience” with this material, will sense that “deeper pleasures are possible if they do it again, more slowly and with others.” The yearlong seminar (more like a marriage than a whirlwind romance) begins slowly, and because the students are more anxious about their performance than the teacher, she tries to be warm and accessible, promising that commitment will be rewarded with deeper intimacy. She is deliberately withholding because “we have to like each other the next morning and the morning after that.”

I come back to that work now because a consideration of violations committed by charismatic rabbis might well begin by acknowledging that the rabbinate, like teaching, is an erotic business. In Symposium, Alcibiades makes clear the erotic effect of Socrates’ speech, representing the philosopher-student relationship as salvational and charged. In Phaedrus, Plato identifies the ideal love relationship as the educational one. When the Talmud, an extended celebration of the rabbinic enterprise, makes the point that the greater the man, the greater the yetzer (a word best translated, I think, as “libido”), magnetism is understood to be a feature of the rabbinic calling. What these foundation texts also share, however, is the premise that the teacher has a first allegiance to a transcendent truth, whether philosophy or Torah, and that the relationship between teacher and student is in service of that truth.

Feminism has sensitized us to power dynamics in all relationships, and today we appreciate that, as in the therapeutic relationship, the erotic energy between teacher and student is necessarily circumscribed, regulated, and managed. Conscious of serv ing a higher purpose, the professional always shoulders the burden of maintaining self-awareness and professional standards and checking any inappropriate ego-needs that could compromise a sacred trust.

Precisely because of the potential for abuse, we have to appreciate the erotics of pedagogy. Like a good meal or novel, a fine learning experience is a seduction, raising expectations, teasing, surprising, and satisfying. Projection and transference create confusions: “Isn’t midrash wonderful? My midrash professor was thrilling.” But if the teacher of Shakespeare can be confused for the Bard, who might the rabbi be in the unconscious? Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, tells a story about the ease with which charismatic teachers can become God in their students’ imagination and the case of teachers who need to be God and take advantage of that identification.

Who doesn’t remember being in love with a teacher, even if the only exchange of words were those submitted in a term paper and the comments returned on the final page? Students know their teachers’ passions, and teachers can look into the wide eyes of a fine student and mistake the object of love. Managed selfdisclosure contributes to feelings of intimacy. A rabbi may speak annually from the pulpit on the High Holidays with an uncomplicated faith in the God who gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, but the students in her adult education class, especially those who have attended with devotion for years, harbor a privileged knowledge of the rabbi’s more nuanced understanding of God and Sinai, and the congregant who had her own theological crisis and had long, helpful conversations in the rabbi’s study, smiles with an inner awareness of the complexity of the rabbi’s beliefs and doubts.

In the past few years, scholars have asked what should be next on the agenda of Jewish feminism. In preparation for one such deliberation, I queried my rabbinical students, who reported that high on their list was what they called “rebbe-ism” — neo-hasidic educational models that espouse democratic values and the inclusion of women even as they maintain old-world hierarchies. In other words, charismatic leadership needs a feminist analysis.

We do know that the classroom in the round does not undo hierarchy. We should also admit that life well lived is often erotic, made of masked selves and multiple personae; and relationships are inevitably hierarchic, even if there are playful shifts in dominance. We therefore depend upon our professionals to police their boundaries. Historically, when a rabbi was guilty of violations, he often left his position to do the same work elsewhere under the cover that we need to retain our most charismatic leaders. (The community —   like a victim of domestic abuse — can feel complicit, loyal, or voyeuristic toward such leaders.) Today, conventional wisdom suggests a several-year suspension, time for analysis and introspection, and after serious teshuvah — a return to the job may be possible.

I disagree. When we support a charismatic teacher in the belief that he alone is needed to be a teacher of Torah, we support the very hubris that allowed that teacher to confuse himself for the object of love. Only by abdicating his role can the charismatic rabbi who has violated sexual boundaries begin the work of teshuvah. The rabbi’s professional history must remain transparent in future employment searches, and he must do work where his history has little potential to have traumatizing effects. There is good work that rabbis can do without the title rabbi. Just as an alcoholic should forever avoid strong drink, it is precisely because the rabbinate and teaching are erotic businesses that healing from abusive behavior is signaled by leaving the profession — humbly and for good.-

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Lori Hope Lefkovitz, a Sh'ma Contributing Editor, is the Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she directs Kolot, the Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies.

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