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You are here: Home Op-Eds Disappointed in the Appointed: Grasping How Orthodox Leaders Can Lead Unorthodox Lives

Disappointed in the Appointed: Grasping How Orthodox Leaders Can Lead Unorthodox Lives

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Another scandal. What does that say about Orthodoxy? Rabbis? Me?

What a Shame

A brilliant talmid chacham (Torah scholar), who taught Torah to thousands both in person and through shiurim (classes) on several websites, was recently discovered to have violated several extremely serious Torah, Rabbinic and ethical prohibitions that lie at the very core of Orthodox Judaism. Individuals have expressed that they are upset, shaken, shocked or hurt by the recent unmasking of that scandal. Unfortunately, it was not the first violation of its kind by prominent rabbinic figures, and it will probably not be the last, rachamana litzlan (God protect us). For many it causes personal, religious or ethical difficulties, or a combination of those.

How are you reacting to that news? Perhaps you have found yourself asking questions like these:

How could it be? I just don’t understand it. How could a person so involved in Torah also behave in such a way?

My seminary hired him and clearly made a serious error. How can I trust any Torah or hashkafah (religious outlook) that I learned in my seminary altogether?

He probably was crazy. Geniuses are sometimes like that. He was just in space. It’s a shame he needs to be dragged through such a scandal. Nebach (pity).

Must be lashon hara (slanderous speech). I am not mekabeil (I don’t accept its veracity).

How can I trust any rabbanim? Why should the one I have a religious relationship with be any different?

If that is how rabbis and scholars act, then why am I religious?

The issue is complex and multifaceted. An important issue to examine in this situation, and those like it, is a mental health condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder and a personality trait often known as narcissism.

Personality

Each one of us has habits, traits and long-standing patterns of behavior that are with us from youth and throughout life. We describe that cluster of behavior and interaction as “personality.” Some people tend to have more “anxious personalities,” others “cheerful personalities” and some “introverted personalities.” Personality does not only describe how a person usually acts, but often gives a hint as to how she will behave in the future. An “anxious personality” might take finals time harder than her friends. A “cheerful personality” might not mind his bad date as much as his friends do. An “introverted personality” possibly prefers a quiet Shabbos afternoon with a book. Personalities are not really so simple or so predictive, but we often think about ourselves, and others, in terms of personalities. “That’s SOO your type!” is a common refrain in contemporary language.

Sometimes, one’s personality includes a pattern of behavior that seriously impedes his function or his interaction with others. In mental and behavioral health, those are sometimes termed “personality disorders” to indicate that the individual has patterns of behavior that, without intervention, are probably going to obstruct his life performance. Individuals with personality disorders might be very successful in general, but will usually fall short in at least one area, such as relationships or societal function.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

One type of personality disorder is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Features of this disorder include an inflated sense of self, arrogant behavior and an inability to empathize with another person. In addition, narcissists are often so caught up with their sense of self that they sell themselves very well. They often have magnetic personalities, charm, charisma and a winning sense of humor. Part of NPD as currently defined (APA, 2013) means that the individual suffers from impairments in interpersonal functioning in the realm of empathy or intimacy. Deficiencies regarding empathy include difficulty recognizing or identifying with the feelings and needs of others. Impairments regarding intimacy include having relationships that are largely superficial or that exist to serve self-esteem regulation but contain little genuine interest in others. In addition, it is common for a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) to become extremely irate or even dangerous toward a person or group that threatens his superiority.

Almost everyone has features of this personality on occasion. Yet, if these traits are severe, long lasting and severely impede an area of functioning, they might be termed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. NPD, like other personality disorders, does not need to inhibit all functioning. It describes and forecasts significant impairment in some aspects of life. Some individuals that might have had NPD went down in infamy, such as Joseph Stalin. Others, such as Steve Jobs, became fabulously famous. Yet both of them had significant feelings of grandiosity that undermined their abilities to have secure, meaningful, healthy relationships that were not based on mass murders or tantrums.

It is fascinating that the Talmud (Yevamos 79a) highlights three traits that the Jewish tradition prizes over all others: being merciful, bashful and kindhearted. Narcissistic Personality Disorder cuts at the heart of all three of those ideas. One that has it is usually unempathic, unnaturally bold and uncharitable.

The Spectrum of Personalities

Personality disorders express extreme levels of personalities and traits. Yet, it is helpful to look at personality as a spectrum. Most personalities are a mixture of positive and negative traits. The negative aspects, if taken to an extreme, would qualify as one of the several clinical personality disorders. Yet, if these traits do not severely impede functioning, they do not meet the threshold of a diagnosis. Correspondingly, many people have some aspects of narcissism in their personality, but not enough to severely impair their functioning. It is sometimes commonly accepted to call those with some narcissistic tendencies or traits “narcissists,” but there are no universal or objective criteria for that term.

Narcissism and Leaders

On the flip side, some level of narcissism might be both positive and beneficial. Narcissists can usually succeed better in some interpersonal interactions. The inhibitions, self-doubts and shyness that might mitigate or inhibit some from socializing present fewer issues for narcissists. They tend more to the side of grandiosity, self-assuredness and boldness, which can help them function well socially. Some even suggest that aspects of narcissistic personality are really the true manifestation of one’s strength and positive ego attributes, helping to fight criticism and self-doubt, which are not truthful.

Narcissism can especially be helpful in creating a leader. The literature is replete with studies suggesting that narcissists often become CEOs, leaders of organizations and leaders of countries (Rosenthal and Pittinsky, 2006). Yet, narcissism can be a double-edged sword and can sometimes border on NPD or share commonality with it. If it is too pronounced and deep seated, narcissism severely inhibits a person’s functioning. Narcissists that are leaders can see their organizations and all those in it as self-serving, can ignore the personal needs of others around them and truly believe that everyone else is there to serve them.

One current way of thinking suggests that narcissism in a leader is helpful, as long as he does not use narcissistic leadership, which is personally self-serving and severely compromises the rights of those under him (Rosenthal and Pittinsky). A slightly different way to see it is that a leader with some aspects of narcissistic personality can do a great job, but if it is severe and inhibits his ability to lead equitably then it is inhibiting, similar to NPD.

Narcissism and Religious Authority

Correspondingly, religious leaders such as rabbis and teachers can have some aspects of narcissistic personality. For some, it might be what drew them to a position of religious leadership in the first place. For others, it might dictate how they lead. For some more, it might be both. This does not mean that their narcissism is bad or that they are leading shleo lishma (with religious insincerity). It might be that their narcissistic tendencies are what allowed them to overcome self-doubt and permitted them to emerge as leaders. Furthermore, the positive aspects of narcissism could also be what motivated them to succeed in learning or to weather the vicissitudes of the rabbinate.

It is intriguing that the Talmud (Sotah 5a) suggests that a Torah scholar possess a small amount of hubris. Rashi, the foremost medieval commentator, explains that this trait is necessary so that indolent people would still accept his rulings and leadership. It is clear that a certain amount of self-assertion is necessary for scholar and guides. In situations of leadership, one might argue that this Talmudic principle condones the leader manifesting some aspects of narcissism.

Narcissism and Wrong Behavior

If you examine several of the rabbinic figures that were unmasked as having engaged in inappropriate relationships, you might notice signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or severe manifestations of narcissism. Some were noticed to be arrogant, self-serving or dominating. In addition, relationships that they had with students or congregants were usually marked by a supreme one-sidedness. Also, their charm and wit was sometimes energetic—and almost limitless.

The fact that many rabbinic figures that acted unfittingly displayed aspects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or narcissism does not pardon them, but it can provide warning signs for women and men to look out for in a rabbi, teacher or leader. If you suspect a person that influences you religiously of having narcissistic personality traits it can serve as a forewarning that interpersonal relationships with that person should be approached with extra caution.

How They Got Their Jobs

Narcissistic Personality Disorder might also explain why yeshivot, seminaries and shuls sometime hire narcissists. It is possible that their wit and charm blinded administrations. Countries sometimes elect narcissists, and shul boards or yeshiva administrations can, indeed, make mistakes. More commonly, though, those individuals might possess the ideal traits for the position. If narcissism is tempered, it can sometimes produce quality leaders.

The Rest of Orthodoxy

In addition, Narcissistic Personality Disorder might help some mellow the aspersions that these rabbis cast on other rabbis or Orthodoxy, in general. The fault lies more with their personalities than with their religious beliefs. Even if one is extremely devout and dedicated religiously, it is very hard to escape the clutches of a personality disorder without assistance from a therapist. Rabbis with Narcissistic Personality Disorder should probably not be in their positions, unless, perhaps, they are concurrently in therapy. Similarly, those with narcissistic tendencies might need extra maintenance to help them stay within the framework of law, religious or governmental. Absent those precautions, their self-assuredness might cause them to disregard the needs of others, including their superiors, congregants or students (Maccoby, 2000). It is possibly their responsibility to regulate themselves, and perhaps the duty of their organizations and community to assist them if they do not succeed.

Ramifications

Life is complex, and many people you interact with might have some aspects of narcissism. If you notice that a rabbi, teacher or leader frequently berates you or others, seems to disregard other’s feelings, thinks very highly of himself, manifests magnetic charm or demonstrates superficial, one-sided relationships, it is advisable to proceed with caution. That does not necessarily mean that you should cease all interaction with that person, but it is important for you to be on your guard when you deal personally with him. If you feel that you are being taken advantage of, discuss that with someone you trust. You owe it to yourself, your fellow congregants or students and the larger community. As we say daily in our prayers, may God speedily return our leadership to the unadulterated wholesomeness of past days and remove grief and misery from society.

Postscript

Points People Pondered

This article was originally a post on my blog, ShmuelMaybruch.com. Within a few days of its posting, it was evident that the post had resonated with people. Many reached out to me with feedback. Most of the responses I received were enthusiastically appreciative, positive or supportive. Some were critical.

There are five main critiques that people have had about the article:

1. Giving a name or diagnosis to an abhorrent behavior or string of behaviors does not:

a. resolve religious questions about how God could let this happen or how He creates people that have such challenges.

b. remove the legal or religious culpability of a person for his decisions or actions.

2. It is not good practice to diagnose a person that you never met clinically—let alone at all.

3. Reducing people to diagnoses can serve to cover over and simplify the complexities of their interactions and of a long-standing set of circumstances.

4. Naming a disease does not remove culpability to “the establishment,” including other rabbis, teachers, administrators, supervisors and superiors for not ameliorating the situation.

5. Most poignantly, giving a diagnosis does not assuage the unspeakable anguish, pain, torture and grief of even one victim. Labels can sometimes seem to broadside and whitewash their emotional pain, torment and suffering.

Two additional points that no one expressly stated are that:

1. Highlighting possible warning signs might make victims second guess themselves and create guilt that they had not seen those signs sooner.

2. A diagnosis, whether it is speculative or comprehensive, full or partial, never discusses etiology—the causes for the disease. It is merely descriptive of symptoms that are presented.

Approval of the Disapproval

I agree with those lines of reasoning. The points are valid and powerful. Some of those ideas are much broader than this specific context. They lie at the core of the raging dispute about how to write a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for mental health (which describes, delineates and codifies the symptoms and thresholds for mental diseases and disorders) and if there should be such a manual altogether. Other points involve a larger discussion about the reach of a plea of “insanity” in a court of law or in Judaism or how to best support those that suffered most.

The Objective Objective

In my article I strive for a greater understanding of the broad areas of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissism. I believe that it is an important area for people to be aware of and consider in the context of this situation. What can an increased knowledge and consideration of the interaction of a mental health disorder do?

Perhaps it can facilitate understanding that:

There are certain people that are more prone to this behavior than others, possibly mitigating a sense that stressors are constantly present (but not communicating to people to diminish their vigilance).

There might be a greater concentration of them in situations of leadership, including the Orthodox rabbinate.

The existence of warning signs can help people be more in touch with what to notice in the future.

There are therapists that are aware of such behavior and versed in interventions to assist individuals and the community.

Torah does not usually change an individual’s personality when it has pronounced deficiencies.

Create a sense of order out of disorder, stability out of chaos and harmony out of deep confusion.

Find a common thread and language to describe many situations that people may see as disjointed, yet are linked by similar presentations, factors and conditions.

Disillusion and Confusion

A colleague expressed to me that one might see this situation as creating two groups of traumatized victims that are both very different, yet similar: those directly abused, and those that “suffer from a shattering of their former conceptualizations” of Torah, leadership and religiosity. I include myself in the second category. As Elihu ben Berachel said while discussing his friend Job’s travails and suffering (Job 32, 20), I speak that I might find relief.

I pray that it come to all those that suffered from this situation and those like it.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). DSM 5. American Psychiatric Association.

Maccoby, M. (2000). Narcissistic leaders: The incredible pros, the inevitable cons. Harvard Business Review, 78(1), 68-78.

Rosenthal, S. A., & Pittinsky, T. L. (2006). Narcissistic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 617-633.

By Rabbi Shmuel Maybruch

Rabbi Shmuel Maybruch, LSW is a Magid Shiur (instructor in Jewish Studies) at Yeshiva University and a psychotherapist and relationship coach in Passaic, NJ. An earlier version of this article was posted on his blog, ShmuelMaybruch.com.

 

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