One of my heroes, Rabbi Michael Broyde has admitted to using a pen name to access a private email group for a rabbinic organization of which he was not a member. It is further alleged that Rabbi Broyde used this pen name to bolster his articles and ideas written under his real name in various online forums. He has not fully admitted to this second part as of yet, but the evidence is pretty compelling.
Is this so bad?
It’s not so bad, but it’s bad. It’s bad because rabbis need credibility. Creating alter egos is a credibility issue. It gives others the sense that one cannot be honest and truthful or real in their professional life. A public figure pretending he is someone else shows a character flaw because it means that we are not able to stand behind our statements. But when the fake account is used to bolster one’s real life work, the issue becomes worse. It’s a way of falsely propping up one’s ideas. Sure, it should not matter how many people agree with someone when deciding the merits of one’s argument, but the reality is that people are drawn to ideas that have approval. For that, one could say that Rabbi Broyde perpetuated a fraud on the endearing public. It is akin to falsifying earnings reports to boost a stock price.
On the other hand, it’s not so bad because no one was really harmed. Nothing really changed. It doesn’t really matter if he was posting things as himself or an anonymous pseudonym. It feels wrong, but no one has really been hurt here. In fact, many great rabbinic works have been written anonymously or pseudonymously.
The broader implications of this scandal are important.
As a society, the frum community does indeed stifle dissent. It can be hard to be a lone voice agains the party line. It can even be dangerous. It can be dangerous to rabbis, laypeople, or whomever is doing the writing. It can harm relationships, marriage prospects, business opportunities, educational opportunities, everything. The currency of our community relies heavily on reputation and what one says directly affects one’s reputation. A bad reputation is a death sentence in the frum community.
These are the circumstances that create a need for alter egos and sock-puppetry. That does not excuse lying or misrepresentation. But it does explain some of the reasons behind it.
As a society we can do better to allow multiple opinions and views. We can try to encourage respectful dissent and not punish those who think or act differently. It is possible that we can get there. The Internet helps and being part of a global community helps. I hope that we can get there soon.
I also hope Rabbi Broyde can rescue his career and reputation. I respect Rabbi Broyde’s work and really admire his positions within Torah Jewry. We need more people with ideas and scholarship like Rabbi Broyde, not fewer. His voice is too important to be relegated to the trash heap or the anonymous pile.
UPDATE: Rabbi Broyde speaks!