ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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'I'm trying to sort out all the Torah I learned from him'

Students and followers struggle following the Art Green sexual misconduct revelations

As the ousted founder of Hebrew College’s rabbinical school is the subject of a 3rd major email, focus has shifted to a pained community who relied on him for teaching and guidance

Rabbi Art Green. (Hebrew College/ via JTA)
Rabbi Art Green. (Hebrew College/ via JTA)

JTA — In its third major email about the status of Rabbi Arthur Green, the ousted founder of its rabbinical seminary, Hebrew College focused on the students, faculty and others who were processing revelations about a rabbi long regarded as an esteemed teacher.

The first email, in May 2022, announced to the school’s community that Green was retiring, in part due to “a private personnel matter that deeply impacted” a community member.

Another letter, sent last month, identified that matter as sexual misconduct and added that “subsequent events” had merited Green’s being banned from campus.

The third, sent last week, referenced the Jewish Telegraphic Agency report from the previous day detailing the allegations, as well as the school’s response to them. But the email’s focus lay elsewhere.

“This has been a heartbreaking and painful episode for our community, most particularly for the individual who was harmed by Rabbi Green’s misconduct,” wrote Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Hebrew College’s president, and the school’s current and former chairs.

“We are committed to ensuring that all members of the Hebrew College Community have the support and resources they need to process these developments,” the email said.

As discussion of Green’s alleged misconduct has moved from private discussions to community-wide missives and into the open, his former students, the school he founded and the broader Jewish community he has influenced are all reckoning with what it means. Hebrew College’s leadership wrote in the most recent email that the school is providing settings for students to cope with the allegations. Some of its alumni, meanwhile, are grappling with how to view Green’s teaching and writing in light of what they’ve learned about his behavior.

A former Hebrew College student who took multiple courses with Green, and who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation, said that they’ve had difficult discussions as news of the allegations has spread.

“It’s been really painful and scary to see colleagues and friends that I like and respect, talking publicly about the news in ways that are sort of dismissive or justifying or minimizing the harm,” said the former student, who attended Hebrew College. Regarding Green’s reported victim, they said, “Just imagining the fallout for him was very painful.”

The former student added, “I also felt some sadness for Art, and sadness that doesn’t in any way justify what he did. I feel sad that he made these horrible choices.”

Green, too, weighed in on the allegations publicly last week, telling his personal email list of what he said was more than 1,000 recipients that he was living “in the midst of a firestorm” that has done “violence” to him.

Rabbi Arthur Green, right, and Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport speak, May 17, 2013. (Wikimedia commons/Flickr/CC-A-2.0/Festival of Faiths)

Over the course of his career, which has spanned longer than a half-century, Green’s influence has stretched far beyond Hebrew College, whose rabbinical school he founded 20 years ago. He has played a major role in contemporary Jewish thought as a preeminent scholar of Hasidic Judaism and previously served as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College as well as a professor at multiple universities. In 2020, he earned a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, and has taught privately and under the aegis of other groups and institutions, some of which are undergoing their own soul-searching now.

“His teachings have been foundational to our work, and the personal relationships many of us have with him have been very important to us,” wrote the leadership of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, in a letter to its community last week announcing a review of its own safeguards against sexual misconduct. “All of that makes this news especially painful; the thought that anyone could have been harmed at any Jewish institution is heartbreaking, and it is even more difficult when the harm was caused by someone so close to our community.”

Another former student of Green’s, who has used his teachings in sermons from the pulpit, called the allegations “heartbreaking” in a comment on a public Facebook post about Green.

“I have been his student directly or indirectly since 1989,” wrote the student, who said they had recently begun learning online with Green again. “And my own students when asked to name a favorite Jewish book they have read recently almost always name a book of his. So it is a different kind of heartbreak for me than others of rabbinic impropriety.”

My own students when asked to name a favorite Jewish book they have read recently almost always name a book of his. So it is a different kind of heartbreak for me than others of rabbinic impropriety

The Hebrew College community, and the far broader network of Jews interested in the neo-Hasidic ideas that Green studied and wrote about, is experiencing a form of reckoning that has taken place across fields in recent years as towering figures have been accused of sexual misconduct. Should such allegations change one’s assessment of the alleged perpetrator’s work and contributions? Is it possible for them not to?

“I went through a process of thinking through Art’s Torah and trying to sort out which pieces of it actually maybe were implicated and which pieces were separate from this and how I was going to think about the Torah I learned from him, now that I have this extra piece of the puzzle,” the former Hebrew College student told JTA.

In Green’s case, he stands accused of having made at least two unwanted sexual advances toward a faculty member who was formerly his student, according to multiple people with whom the faculty member had shared his account. Green admits that he acted inappropriately in one of those instances but told JTA that he rejects that anything inappropriate took place in the other.

Hebrew College said the emergence of a third allegation, about an incident that took place in Israel last year, contributed to its decision to bar him from campus. Green and another man say they had a consensual physical encounter. Identifying himself publicly last week as Nachum Pachenik, a somatic therapist and sexual abuse survivor, the second man said again that he believed nothing inappropriate had taken place with Green, whom he described in a public Facebook post as “one of my dear teachers and a fellow traveler.”

But a third man in the room, a disciple of Green’s, alleged that he had been inappropriately touched by Green, and that he became distressed and felt violated. “It really bothers me that Art thinks he didn’t hurt me,” the third man wrote in a statement sent to JTA last week.

Green told his mailing list that he was facing intense blowback over the allegations and his comments about them, writing in a letter on Thursday that the “campaign of vilification against me has been quite relentless.”

Green, who did not respond to multiple JTA requests for comment, focused on public discussion of his bisexuality, which he disclosed in a mass email sent shortly before the JTA report was published. He wrote in that email that he had shielded his sexual orientation for decades in order to build his career.

“The violence done to me in the course of this week, both by Hebrew College and by the Anglo-Jewish Press, is of a deeply personal nature,” Green wrote to the list, which he said had grown since the allegations against him broke. “An essential fact of my existence, which I have chosen to keep secret for seventy years (yes, since puberty), is suddenly all over the news outlets and everyone is talking about it.”

Anisfeld wrote in her email that Hebrew College would provide structured opportunities for “support, reflection and dialogue” on campus. The first round of such programming took place last Tuesday morning for current Hebrew College students. Anisfeld declined to elaborate further when reached for comment.

For those not at the campus, much of the discourse has taken place online. On social media, posting in public and private Facebook groups, sparking discussions on Reddit, and exchanges in private listservs, past students of Green — from formal settings and more informally — have laid out their complicated feelings.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, wrote a series of public Facebook posts grappling with his own mixed feelings, drawing on a core Hasidic idea that Green alluded to in his first statement about the allegations against him.

When a sacred object is broken, it still retains echoes of its former lofty status… Perhaps Reb Arthur as a ‘broken vessel’ does not render him and his Torah completely worthless

“When a sacred object is broken, it still retains echoes of its former lofty status. Its kedusha [holiness] does not completely dissipate,” Katz wrote early last week. “Perhaps Reb Arthur as a ‘broken vessel’ does not render him and his Torah completely worthless.”

Katz said it was too soon to draw conclusions about Green’s long-term legacy, but that he personally would be guided by the approach of some followers of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, “towards people who are broken and have also passed on that brokenness to others, causing them pain and much hurt.”

Some of the people responding to Katz told him that he had been overly focused on Green and insufficiently attentive to Green’s alleged victims. Several called attention to Green’s strenuous self-defense, saying that portraying himself as a victim was in their view among the most egregious elements of his behavior.

Another commenter suggested an alternative to debating how to view Green’s work in light of the allegations against him: “I think the best course of action in cases with credible accusations of sexual misconduct is to put aside the person’s Torah and not mention his name to the extent possible as long as his victims are alive.”

Some of the comments were long and laid bare evidence of internal conflicts. Others boiled down thoughts to just a few words. Among the shortest of them all: “I pray for wholeness to return to anyone hurt by him.”

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