The Rabbi Moti Elon Scandal: What Can We Learn?

The religious-Zionist community is still in shock about Rabbi Moti Elon, the yeshiva head accused of molesting young men who approached him for advice. In synagogue yesterday morning, our rabbi drew some conclusions about how we could prevent similar incidents in the future.

  1. According to sociologist Max Weber there are three types of authority: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic. Charismatic authority is the most powerful, yet the most unreliable and dangerous. Both children and adults need to think critically and even a bit cynically, to prevent being misled by a charismatic leader. No one, no matter how talented, spiritual and sincere, is perfect.
    AddeRabbi has an excellent post on charismatic rabbis and teachers.
  2. The input of women is critical for discussions about complex issues within our community. Women are members of the Takana forum to prevent harassment and abuse by leaders in the religious-Zionist community.
  3. Young people with questions about sexual identity are at risk for emotional problems and suicide, particularly in a religious community. The young men who accused R. Elon had asked for counseling on this issue. But homosexual tendencies  should be handled within the family, with professional advice and support. One of the congregants mentioned that R. Elon had often spoken out strongly against homosexuality. Ironically, his actions may now give Orthodox homosexuals “permission” to come out.
  4. All institutions should publish written rules meant to prevent harassment and abuse, including keeping a door open when a teacher meets with a student, and prohibiting physical contact. He said that in order to correct a serious problem, it’s often necessary to go to the opposite extreme.

A note on the last point: The problem with rules is that charismatic leaders have a way of convincing people that rules don’t apply to them. Guidelines need to be publicized widely and universally enforced.

Afterward I approached the rabbi to ask about Takana’s delay in publicizing the events. He explained that when the Takana forum received the first complaints, it worried about libel. The complainants insisted on secrecy to protect R. Elon, whom they continued to admire.

By forcing him to resign from all official positions, the Takana forum minimized R. Elon’s power and influence and no new incidents came to light. About a year ago, R. Elon broke the signed agreement and began seeing people individually (this contradicts Takana’s statement: see below). Our rabbi is not sure whether the initial secrecy was the correct approach.

Update: According to Takana’s own statement, there were reports all along that he was holding private meetings. Yet no action was taken for three years. The statement does not mention new complaints from that period. Lurker’s translation and emphasis:  R. Elon did not abide by the restrictions that were placed upon him, and in particular, in the realm of personal relationships. The disclosure [to the public] came only after, throughout the years, R. Elon was warned multiple times that if he does not act within the framework of the restrictions that were placed on him, we would be forced to publicize the matter.”

Takana’s existence, and taking on this challenging case—its first one—are a step in the right direction. In the past complaints of abuse and harassment were ignored or denied.  I still believe that the events should have been publicized earlier to empower victims who had not yet come forward and prevent future incidents. Admiration for Rabbi Elon and concern for his family (who, of course, were also victims) took precedence over the need for the public to know.

We as a community are not yet dealing effectively with issues of harassment and abuse.

Previous post:  R. Moti Elon and Takana: Where Was the Mercy for the Victims?

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  1. As the week has progressed I began to realize how huge this whole thing is in our community. In my 11th graders school today, the Rav (menahel/principal) had a session regarding the whole thing. He himself was a student, and later a colleague of Rav Alon. The girls asked very good questions, which my daughter felt were answered satisfactorily….

    What I’ve learned personally, for the umpteenth time in my life is that the “worshipping” of our leaders, religious or otherwise, putting them on a pedastal is not the way to go. Everyone is human, with human failings–some failings more victimizing than others.

    The higher they are, the harder they fall.

  2. One thing I’d highly recommend is that any institution where counseling frequently takes place in the rabbi’s office should put a big window in the door.

    It removes both temptation and doubt.

    My brother said that as a team leader he really appreciated that his office had windows in pretty much every door – it meant that if he needed to have a one-on-one consultation with a female co-worker, he could close the door without any suspicion or impropriety.

  3. 1) Agree or disagree, you have to respect the way Takana handled the situation. They had a very difficult decision to make a few years back, whether to immediately go public, thereby ruining Rav Elon’s career and subjecting his family torment, or to try to get him to stop without publicizing it. Obviously in hindsight it’s clear that they should have gone public earlier, but how could you blame them? They were hopeful that this issue could be resolved without a media frenzy, and that’s the direction they initially pursued.

    2) We’re in a difficult situation as frum Jews because the transmission of the mesorah depends upon the recognition of authority figures. Rabbenu Bechayei says in Parashat Kedoshim that the first mitzva after “kedoshim tiheyu” is “ish imo ve’aviv tira’u” because the first step toward kedusha is recognizing the concept of authority, as represented in the obligation to honor parents. As adults, we can easily differentiate between respect for authority and ascribing infallibility. Kids generally see things in simplistic, black-and-white terms, and this is why the concept of authority for them exposes them to danger when you have pedophiles running around in our schools.
    It’s a catch 22.
    I am optimistic that as awareness of this issue continues to grow, and as a result of the internet spreading the news like wildfire around the globe, potential violators will be deterred and far less likely to mess around with kids. Let’s hope and pray that I’m right.

  4. By forcing him to resign from all official positions, the Takana forum minimized R. Elon’s power and influence. No new incidents came to light. About a year ago, R. Elon broke the signed agreement and began seeing people individually.

    I’m afraid that is simply not correct. According to Takana’s official statement, R. Elon broke the signed agreement over and over again throughout the entire 4-year period between his resignation from his official positions until last week. As opposed to what your rabbi said, R. Elon did not refrain from seeing people individually until only one year ago. To the contrary — according to Takana, he repeatedly held private and intimate meetings with people who sought his counsel throughout all those those years.

    Yet, in spite of this, for the duration of those 4 years, Takana chose to do nothing more than simply warn R. Elon over and over again that if he didn’t change his behavior, then Takana might publicize the truth. But they never acted on these threats — not until 4 years of violations had elapsed!

    Here it is in their own words [translation mine, emphasis added]:

    Throughout the duration of all those years, constant differences of opinion erupted between the Forum and R. Elon on the question of his compliance with his obligations. The Forum continued to demand from R. Moti Elon that he fulfil all that he had accepted upon himself, and most especially, refraining from personal and intimate meetings with those seeking his advice and his help — regarding which he had explicitly signed (in the wake of the first complaint). To our dismay, R. Elon did not comply with all these requirements.

    R. Elon did not abide by the restrictions that were placed upon him, and in particular, in the realm of personal relationships. The disclosure [to the public] came only after, throughout the years, R. Elon was warned multiple times that if he does not act within the framework of the restrictions that were placed on him, we would be forced to publicize the matter.

    As you can see, your rabbi’s assertion that R. Elon broke the signed agreement only “about a year ago” is flatly contradicted by Takana’s own official account.

    • Lurker: I think what the rabbi was saying was that there were no further *complaints*from that period, which of course doesn’t mean anything. What you said about the private meetings does contradict, though.

  5. I think that what everyone complaining about Takana overlooks is that the VICTIMS did not want to go public. In fact, Takana told then straight out that if they chose to go to the police, they would have no problem with it, but aside from the fact that in one case the case had passed the statute of limitations they turned down that option. What’s more, they did contact the Attorney General, who agreed with their approach.

    Takana was in a difficult situation. Firstly, the issue of libel is serious and cannot be dismissed. False accusations can ruin someone’s life, and such cases have been documented. Secondly, and it a real catch-22, when victims talk to such an organization only on condition of secrecy, to come out in public becomes a breach of trust to the victims who have come forward.

    The first issue can be somewhat resolved, by proper investigation (using professionals who know what to look for and how to look). The second is one I can’t think of any good answers to.

    Something similar happened recently in NYC. Assemblyman Dov Hikind encouraged people with stories of abuse to call his office. He said, on the air, that he’d gotten a huge number of calls. He encouraged all of them to go to the police and promised to give them whatever support he could, but all of the callers insisted on secrecy. In fact, he had also mentioned that he wanted to name names etc. but was hampered by this, but he felt that he could not betray people who had trusted him.

    This, of course was in the local news, and the Brooklyn Disctrict Attorney decided that he wants all of the information that Hikind had received. I’m not sure what his legal basis was for demanding information that had been voluntarily given to a non-law enforcement person under promise of confidentiality, but he threatened to subpoena the information. Hikind said he would fight it in court and at that point the DA backed off. He would not have backed off, in my opinion, based on his history, if he hadn’t expected a very strong backlash AND a loss in court.

  6. my takeaway from reading about this is that there are some scumbag rabbis out there – bottom line – if you think your rabbi is creepy – stay far far away from him – keep your kids away and tell everyone you know that you think they guy is a creep. nobody ever got sued for exercising good judgment

  7. The veil of secrecy is what pedeophiles& sexual abusers depend on to continue abusing vulnerable children who they are authority figures for. ” Arrangements ” to keep things under the lid for the ” good ” name of the establishment or the abuser’s family actually reinforce the abuse;the abusers tend to repeat their patterns of behaviour – as noted here & the victims are left with a sense of shame & impotence that may be a permanent scar & affect every aspect of their life & ability to relate to people. After all they have ” trusted ” an established authority figure & been betrayed by that figure who then is facilitated in continuing the behaviour by the lack of an open & criminal proceeding of accountability in the courts.

  8. Within the Catholic Church, the decades of abuse by many Priests in similar mentoring positions has been very expensive financially & morally.

    An excert from a speech by Stephen Fry:

    ” And then we come to children, well its all very well to say, ” the world didnt know better the world had no knowledge how dangerous a crime child abuse was …”
    I want to read you some of the words of Ratzinger, the current Pope,Cardinal Ratzinger( The present Pope ) in 2003, he was Prefect ( Im not making this up..) of The Congregation of The Doctrine of The Faith , it was his job to deal with the child abuse scandal that was brewing..
    His first act was to write a letter to the Catholic Bishops, ordering them on ” pain of excommunication ” NOT to talk to the police or anyone else .
    ” Investigations should be handled ( and im quoting that letter ) in the most secretive way restrained by perpetual silence ”
    The Mexican founder of The Legion of Christ Movement, Marcial Maciel Degollado was protected from his own catalogue of child abuse… See more
    ” one cannot put on trial so close a friend of The Pope ” said Ratzinger …
    When the allegations could no longer be denied Marcial was ” sentenced “.. yes ” sentenced ” to a life of ” prayer & penitence ” … and Ratzinger described the whole affair & that of Bernard Law of Boston as
    ” causing suffering for the Church & for me personally ..”

  9. While it is true that there are women in the Takana forum, they (at least the kolech representatives) were not party to discussions about Rav Elon. Indeed some of them heard about it at the same time as the rest of us. So while it is important to include women, it needs to be real inclusion – a forum where men and women have equal representation and equal authority.

  10. Mother of a student of Rav Alon says


    As far as I can tell, no-one thought that Rav Alon was creepy. He was/is kind, warm and approachable.

    I have some met some creepy rabbis in my time, but I don’t think that Rav Alon falls into that category.

  11. It’s so tricky to know where the line is between lashon hara and speaking out about a hunch. I met with a rabbi back in college from a local orthodox congregation who is certainly a charismatic leader, but he creeped me out by shutting the door on our meeting (and I was at that point pretty secular) and… I thought… having wandering eyes. I made my own decision to stay away. He is still well loved and prominent, and I have no idea if any of my hunch was correct. I later lost complete respect for him over something else, and the bottom line is that I’m always wary of charismatic leaders. However, he’s still well-respected and popular… so… who knows. I have nothing concrete-enough against him to spread gossip.

  12. Aren’t the people we’re talking about young men over 18yo? Why are you saying kids? And I understand that these young men were seeking his advice regarding the very matter he’s accused of. Why aren’t we doing anything more to address this issue? We don’t have to accept the practice but can’t we offer a sensitive ear to our kids who are struggling with this issue instead of offering this wall of rejection and contempt which forces them to seek advice from creeps or worse, suicide? We are so quick to condemn and ostracize.

  13. Tamara,

    I read your comment. ” Aren’t the people we’re talking about young men over 18yo?” From this i understand that you imply there may be an issue of consent for a sexual relationship, between the student & the Rabbi & therefore mitigation for the behaviour of a Rabbi.
    In relationships where one person is a mentor – or is in a position of authority, sexual contact is never going to be ethical.
    Trust is the cornerstone of a mentor -Rabbi – student relationship. A student, or any person – or society & the community in contact with a Rabbi has by virtue of the ” job specification ” an implicit trust that the Rabbi is a professional and as such will treat every person in his
    capacity as a Rabbi in a professional manner.It is a therapeutic relationship & therefore to maintain trust, the Rabbi must avoid making or responding to sexual advances. Sexualizing the relationship is a clear breach of trust.
    In his capacity as a Rabbi- the relationship is always characterized by a power imbalance in favour of the Rabbi & is exploitative & damaging by its very nature.
    The nature of mentoring, teaching – the transfer of information & exchange of information is weighted , from Rabbi to individual who are therefore particularly vulnerable. The Rabbi has a duty of care to the child or student or community member that comes with the job specification – to further that person’s best interests. It is always the Rabbi’s responsibility to ensure that appropriate boundaries are maintained, regardless of the student or child’s behaviour.

  14. I feel that homosexualism, overall, is a problem too hushed up in the Orthodox community. I personally know of appalling incidents that broke people’s lives, that happened in yeshivas, and no one ever investigated because they wanted to keep it quiet. I suppose the desire to hush things up is even stronger when it comes to a prominent figure like Rav Elon.

  15. Anna, the problem is therefore the Orthodox communities approach to sexual misconduct,; sexual abuse & paedophilia – rather than homosexuality which is common place statistically in all populations ( there are numerous incidents of sexual misconduct with women also).
    Sexual misconduct is a crime with perpetrators & victims & unless & until when the perpetrators are transparently made fully accountable for their behaviour & convicted in a court of law – their behaviour is implicitly tolorated in any community & that is why they find ways to continue it a no one can ever say for certain – ” he is a convicted sex offender. ” Ultimately looking away demeans the community & the does not comply with the ethics of our religion.