Thoughts on the Rabbi Michael Broyde Situation

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DSC_0005-140x140One 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.

Links: The Jewish Channel 1 and 2.

UPDATE: Rabbi Broyde speaks!

  • RJM

    You were quick to formulate your thoughts here. I share your high regard for Rabbi Broyde as a scholar and, generally speaking, a person. I very much wanted to learn from and with him, although my opportunities to do so were limited. To his credit, he has been extraordinarily responsive to me both via email and in phone conversations, and has offered me helpful advice personally and professionally as well. That being said, he has quite aggressively and bluntly taken me to task (privately) for my public involvement in the “Maharat” scandal that interfered with my RCA membership process two years ago and for my subsequent attempts to clarify what actually occurred and what I did or did not do/intend. As you recall, I spoke at Sara Hurwitz’s conferral ceremony several years ago – that is literally all I did, although I was “credited” with much more, including not only ordaining a female rabbi but actually championing Open Orthodox ideology. Rabbi Broyde reiterated to me, as recently as this past weekend, that my explanation that I was naive, trusting and didn’t fully appreciate the political implications of agreeing to participate in that controversial event failed to pass what he called the “giggle test”, was not credible and that, because of my perceived lack of credibility, I “have no friends” in the Orthodox world. I’m curious how he would apply that principle to his own case.

    • Is this Rabbi Maroof of the Sephardi DC area synagogue or is it a sockpuppet? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Hershel Goldwasser

    Wonderful piece, loved every word

  • Shragi

    It is a sad situation, but I wonder if it is less bad than the French Chief Rabbi situation where he; 1. plagiarized and 2. lied about his credentials. And if it is less bad, why?

    • Less bad. It’s all his own work.

  • Habib Mei-Zahav

    RJM is the most brilliant blogger, commenter and rabbi ever. I’m so glad he has graced the DC area with his magisterial presence.

  • Hershel Goldwasser

    This is all a mistake. I wasn’t showing up because my secular name is Harold. https://www.facebook.com/harold.goldwasser.1 I am a native Atlantan, came back after yeshiva, and was R. Michael Broyde’s rebbe at the Hebrew Academy when he lived off Vestavia as a child. I still divide my time between Israel and Atlanta, often forward my e-mail through my Atlanta-based account, often through my account that Emory generously provided me when I was a guest lecturer there a number of years back.

    • Azi Grae

      seems legit

  • IH

    On the other hand, itโ€™s not so bad because no one was really harmed.

    I am less sanguine. First of all his apology thus far is only for the IRF issue, but he seems to maintain innocence about other posts despite the reported IP address evidence. Second, there is the open matter of his involvement in the George Finkelstein scandal. I fear more will still come out which could be damaging all around.

    After all, his is the same R. Broyde who angrily protested on Hirhurim: “Putting aside that this [Jewish Week] op-ed neither quotes my published denial that this conversation [with Mordechai Twersky] even took place (I certainly would have remembered someone alleging that George Finklestein sexually abused them) nor my public ruling that as a matter of halacha anyone with such a claim should go โ€“ run โ€“ to the police, nor that as a mere dayan,I had no authority to grant or deny hearings, its basic framework of the problem and the solution is wrong.”

    • IH

      Another strange incident, is R. Broyde choosing to go after a woman who responded to his post Hirhurim post on women wearing talit describing her experience at Maimonides in the 1970s. She, in turn, deftly lanced R. Broyde’s bizarre apologetics as follows:

      โ€œIโ€™m kind of surprised that you would go to so much effort to create 6(!) different completely false back stories when the simple truth is exactly what I said. It might be more difficult for you to bend your brain about the simple truth that I wore a tallit at Maimonides with the knowledge of the Rav and without his objection.โ€

      My intuition tells me there is a deeper set of issues here that will be unpacked in due course and we are only at the start.

      • Shlomo

        The insinuation in this comment is false. The “6 false back stories” were not presented as facts, but as 6 different guesses as to what might have happened in that case. I see no relation to any misrepresentation RMB did elsewhere.

  • Rabbi Eli Fink

    Well done Rabbi Fink. Great essay.

    • Rabbi Eli Fink

      oops

    • Lol. Everyone knows that I don’t go by Eli.

      • Rabbi Eli Fink

        I’m another Rabbi Fink and i think this essay is marvelous. Well done, the both of us.

        • Luckily I “understand IP addresses”…

          • MarkSoFla

            Ah, so you use an overseas IP forwarder with VPN for your alter egos?

            ๐Ÿ™‚

            • Rabbi Eli Fink

              Um, ya

    • LOL!

  • MarkSoFla

    On the other hand, itโ€™s not so bad because no one was really harmed.

    I disagree.
    * Rabbi Broyde was harmed. His reputation is now greatly diminished.
    * His followers were harmed.
    * His cause was harmed.
    * And his opponents will use this incident as fodder to paint everyone in, or near, his camp as lacking in integrity and lacking in good arguments (thus requiring this kind of false self-affirming commentary).

    • Very ephemeral. Give me something tangible.

      • LSK

        He publicly accosted people on IRF’s board for being insensitive to Israelis in taking positions on Women at the Wall and other issues, pretending that he lived in Israel. That’s tangible.

      • MarkSoFla

        All life is very ephemeral.

    • Hershel Goldwasser

      I’m still fine.

  • Yair_Daar

    Since RMB is one of your heroes, I don’t begrudge you defending his actions, or at least trying to minimize their impact. However, saying things like “it’s not so bad because no one was really harmed” is going a little too far. We are talking about a man who lied to get information that he would not hav been privy to otherwise. Then he lied by praising himself using the pseudonym.

    All this lying from a dayan and professor of law. A man that people look to for for accurate and TRUTHFUL judgments. To say no one was harmed is wrong because he has now damaged the relationship with those who look to him as a role model. I think this is a lot worse than you are making it out to be.

    • I must agree with this sentiment. How many examples does the gemara use to explain how m’dvar sheker tirchak applies to dayanim? He has zero credibility any more. He may have “the finest mind of his generation” and that may continue to serve him well, but his career as a leading dayan should be over.

  • Elana Sztokman

    This IS bad, no matter how you try and spin it. A man who writes for the purpose of influencing the public, to pretend that he has more of a public than he actually does, is just fraud. Plain and simple. So much of the pilpul involved (especially around women’s issues) relies on arguments about what is “common” in the community or acceptable. So he has been using a big lie to try to present himself as representing “the community” or “the mainstream” when in fact some of his “support” is just himself. In terms of the social dynamics of orthodox leadership, this is nothing short of a scam. Trying to turn himself into the most popular, the most followed, the most respected, in order to give his ideas more credibility. That is all wrong, and in a way very sad.

    Of course, maybe this will be a wake-up call to the entire Jewish community that it’s time to stop basing our ideas on who the most popular rabbi is, who is seen to be most “mainstream” and most followed, instead look to arguments and ideas based on their truth, merit and integrity. Instead of playing these little games about what is socially acceptable and popular…. the very games that tripped up Rabbi Broyde.

    • Yacov Freedman

      Tripped up is a good word for it, but scam and fraud are not. This wasn’t an army of sockpuppets (which is as easy to create as one), it was an online persona which he used primarily to debate others. The idea that he did this to boost his own “base” is kind of silly, since he could have easily built a bigger following by appealing to the masses with more popular opinions. None of this affects his thoughts on Torah and hashkafah, which can still be discussed and argued on their own merits.

      • IH

        I don’t think it is that clear cut; we don’t know the extent of this yet. But those of us who own the OU Sacks siddur will be reminded of this sad story for some time to come: http://tinyurl.com/cjul7ly

    • And while we’re at it, we really should expose that Richard Bachman guy.

  • RRand

    One of the things that disturbed me about this:

    There are two possible approaches to conversing with people online under a pseudonym. In either case, it involves shedding your identity, but how you choose to do so really says something about you.

    My online commenting accounts are not all connected. I’ve also written quite a bit online where my name doesn’t appear. I’ve been content with that situation. It’s nice to be able to post in a vacuum.

    Part of posting in a vacuum, for me at least, is that people don’t read what you write with an ingrained bias. There are plenty of people who might read something I’ve written with the immediate inclination to say “Rand is right” or “Rand is wrong” or “Rand is a good/bad guy” based on how well they know me. And I like to be read in a new light, to be judged solely on merit.

    If you’re a well-known Rabbi and a Law Professor, I imagine there’s even more reason to do so. You want people to be able to respond to your words, not to the name on top of the post. To avoid a fallacious argument from authority. And I imagine it’s a relief, to be judged by your words, not by who you are.

    But Broyde took the opposite approach, one that strikes me as narcissistic in the extreme. When he went by his pseudonym he he created new accomplishments for himself in order to strengthen his position. “Oh, I’m a financial expert.” “Oh, I heard this from Rav Feinstein!” “Well, I’m quite a bit older than you are so I have perspective on this issue.” “I live here, rest assured that I know more about this problem than you do!”

    Pretty disturbing and saddening. He’s a bright and original thinker, who commands respect. Though I guess losing some of that respect is, in context, rather appropriate.

  • anon109

    I understand your desire to defend him as he is one of your heroes — it is why I don’t have any “heroes” in ethics who are still living, it’s just easier to live without the disappointment. However, this is a “big” deal. For a scholar, academic, and Dayan to sockpuppet for years, building a respectable porfolio in itself, and using it to self-promote one’s ideas: โ€œMichael Broyde was a student of mine many years ago โ€” more than twenty five โ€” and he was a one-in-million [sic] high school student back then. He was diligent and smart and he tried harder than anyone I have ever met.” This, in addition to the other unethical things done. Additionally, when charged with the allegations, he denied it, presumably because he didn’t realize the evidence against him, and even now, he hasn’t taken full responsibility. To sum it up, his credibility is completely shot.

    • RMB’s accomplishments do not hinge on anyone’s praise or endorsement. They speak for themselves.

      • anon109

        I don’t refer to his accomplishments; I say his credibility — that is, his image — is ruined, and he did it to himself. The funny part is he didn’t need to do this. He is talented and intelligent, and would have been successful without doing this..

  • proudjew

    I think the biggest issue here is he lied to The Jewish Channel, he simply could have said no comment but continued to perpetrate the lie. It means he knew he did something wrong and should have admitted it, he continued to perpetrate it and that makes it worse.

    • Shlomo

      For what it’s worth, he has since asserted that he shared this pseudonym with another person, and did not want to expose the pseudonym before being able to consult that person, but planned to admit to it afterwards.

      • proudjew

        then he should have said no comment.

  • Anon123

    Using the pseudonym that way for that long is weird and sad and a credibility killer, but the bigger issue is that when confronted with it he wove an intricate false tale that would make Bill Clinton blush. This guy is a halachic authority? A legal ethicist? A teacher? Really?

  • Grunk

    Nah, Broyde would have to resign if he actually had a choshuv position at the BDA. however, I really don’t know who else they have at this point, so probably not.

    “the finest mind”, my ***. He has brought about the death of his credibility over something so stupid.

  • Rachel

    I think that perhaps one of the saddest parts of this whole saga is that a man so brilliant and talented clearly was not confident enough to believe that he could be successful without resorting to deceptive practices to strengthen his popularity.

    As for his initial denial: I think that after 20 years, he actually believed Goldwasser existed and felt like he knew the guy. (See Seinfeld episode re: when you believe your own lies they are no longer lies)

    • So Hershel Goldwasser was the Art Vandalay of rabbis. Except instead of giving him a phony career (import/export, architect, “Vandalay Industries”), he was the same career as RMB

  • Not Hershel Goldwasser

    You are creating a bigger chillul Hashem than Frum Satire and Failed Messiah put together by perpetuating this rechilut. May the Aimeshter have rachmunus on all of us for indulging this neveilah.

  • Mark Aspet

    All justifications aside, Rabbi Broyde is clearly not a mensch but a baal gaaveh. He deserves this shame he is getting.

  • I would be more sympathetic to Broyde but for the following. A while back he rejected comments by someone on the matter of abuse because they came from someone who was open about using a pseudonym. Broyde has written many fine things. But alas he is a egoist and hypocrite.

  • Proudjew

    Rabbi Fink,
    Does your perspective change now that it was revealed by the IRF that he falsified his written application?

    • Not really. And I’m not sure the IRF themselves know what really happened.

  • I appreciate your post, because it does mention the pros of Rabbi Broyde’s scholarship, and the cons of his actions. His pursuit of Torah alone is an important model for people to appreciate and even admire. It was and still is exemplary. I think the difficulty now is how to sift out the rose among thorns, and truth from falsity. However, I humbly disagree with your statement:

    “On the other hand, itโ€™s not so bad because no one was really harmed. Nothing really changed. It doesnโ€™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.”

    Once an individual falsifies his identity, it doesn’t only question their credibility or personal character, it questions the motivation behind HOW they presented their material, their theological perspectives, and if the majority of their intellectual endeavours and teachings were primarily in pursuit of self aggrandizement. Since this is suspect, there is a a LOT of harm done, countless people misled, an immense amount of publications in question, and lives turned upside down.

    When utilized correctly, we call our Torah the medicine of life, but when misused, we say it has the potential to be a deadly poison. In addition. Pirkei Avos Chapter 1 Verse 11: ืื‘ื˜ืœื™ื•ืŸ ืื•ืžืจ ื—ื›ื—ืžื™ื ื”ื–ื”ืจื• ื‘ื“ื‘ืจื™ื›ื ืฉืžื ืชื—ื•ื‘ื• ื—ื•ื‘ืช ื’ืœื•ืช ื•ืชื’ืœื• ืžื™ื ื”ืจืขื™ื ื•ื™ืฉืชื• ื”ืชืœืžื™ื“ื™ื ื”ื‘ืื™ื ืื—ืจื™ื›ื ื•ื™ืžื•ืชื• ื•ื ืžืฆื ืฉื ืฉืžื™ื ืžืชื—ืœืœ:

    “Avtalyon says: scholars, be causation with your words aka teachings, perhaps you may incur the penally of exile and be banished to place of bad/evil water (implying of philosophy of heretical nature), and your students will drink from these waters and perish and (as a result) the Name of Heaven will be desecrated. ”

    In short: When you go astray and were previously a spiritual leader, you take others down with you. It IS a big deal.

    I really hope everyone involved can and will heal from this challenging situationโ€ฆand not be lead astray.

  • I hope none of Broyde’s โ€œsocksโ€ sent out any satirical emails, because that would really be a major crime with international repercussions. For some insight on exactly how the Internet cops go after these socks in New York, see the Raphael Golb trial website:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

    Read the trial transcripts. See how we used taxpayer dollars to get Raphael Golb. See how his dangerous Dead Sea socks were exposed by Manhattan prosecutors. An odd detail, though: the prosecution was allowed to argue that Golb used his socks to make โ€œfalse accusations,โ€ but Golb was blocked from introducing any evidence that his accusations were true, because โ€œneither good faith nor truth is a defense to the crimes charged.โ€ Great stuff! Hopefully they will get Broyde on this too, and every other sock anyone is using out there.

    And in fact, since there is actually a Herschel Goldwasser who lives in New York, maybe the authorities should have Rabbi Broyde arrested and charged with โ€œidentity theftโ€? After all, he used the name of another to influence a debate, thereby obtaining a โ€œbenefit.โ€

    No, but seriously, have we all lost our minds? To remove someone from a rabbinical court for such nonsense? This says a lot more about the court than about Michael Broyde.

  • RAM

    If it it’s really true that we value rabbis more highly when they are praised more on the web (presumably by people who are not their alter egos), that in itself is a problem.