I will teach transgressors Your ways
that sinners may return to You
[Tehilim 51: 15]
Despite everything, I have great hopes for Rabbi Elon and believe he will deliver. I do not know what really happened, what is true and what is not. Surely something awful seems to have taken place. Nevertheless, though he may have seriously erred, caused people suffering, and damaged the honor of Judaism, and though he deserves to take responsibility and pay for his actions, I believe that it is in his power to teach us an important lesson.
I am neither a member of Rabbi Elon’s camp nor a follower of his. I do not believe in the idolization of people, even great rabbis. And I am not going to defend him.
But I do know this: greater men than Rabbi Elon have bitterly failed as well, perhaps even more than he. Each one brought disaster upon the nation, shocked millions of people and caused a national trauma. But they pulled themselves together, showed extraordinary moral strength, did sincere teshuva and reached unparalleled heights as a result.
King David is one of them. His adulterous affair with Batsheva (Shmuel II, chapter 11) should have been enough to remove him from the annals of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. None of us should utter even a word of his Tehilim (Psalms) after what happened. How is it possible to praise God using words written by a man who fell so low? How can we consider him one of the greatest spiritual heroes ever, calling him a prophet and a tzaddik? To this day we sing David melech yisrael chai vekayam; how can our lips even pronounce his name after all that happened? Why was he not dethroned after this affair? How is it possible that Tenach seemingly glosses over King David’s grave error? We read (Melachim I, 15:5) that “he did only what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside once from what He commanded him all the days of his life, save for the matter of Uriah Ha-chiti” (Batsheva’s husband who was sent by David to the frontlines so that he would be killed) (2).
The answer is this: David openly confessed and did teshuva as very few have ever done. Although he first tried to conceal his guilt, once Nathan the prophet told him in no uncertain terms what he had done, David woke up and radically changed his attitude: “I stand guilty before the Lord” (Shmuel II, 12:13). There was no hypocrisy, no further attempt to hide what had happened, no justifications, only open admission.
Surely David must have had many advisers counseling him to deny it all; to besmear the reputations of Batsheva, her husband Uriah, and the prophet Nathan; and to condemn others for tricking him into it.
Still, David did nothing of the sort. He understood the terrible mistake he had made and realized that only the most intensive form of teshuva could mend his relationship with God. Clearly he went through a crisis the likes of which few of us ever experienced. His ambition to become a real servant of God came crashing down on him. Everything fell apart. Out of this anguish David was compelled to write some of the most personal and revealing words of repentance (3). These have since become a source of great comfort and help to millions of broken people who, like himself, had to cope with the intense pain of failure. Slowly, he rebuilt himself and became an example to so many of us.
But David knew there was more. By now, all the citizens of Israel knew what had happened in his palace. He realized that he had plunged the entire nation into the depths of trauma. Knowing that he was admired as few people were, that he was considered by thousands upon thousands to be the quintessential teacher of Torah, that he was their spiritual hero and all their hope was invested in him, he understood that he had to act in an unprecedented way. Too much was at stake; too many people would leave Judaism. He had to take a radical step, save what could be saved and rebuild what was destroyed. Like his forefather Yehudah, who openly admitted his sin after the indiscreet incident with his daughter-in-law Tamar and said “She is more righteous than I” (Bereshith, 38:26), David, too, declared before all of Israel that he was guilty and would repent.
This takes considerable courage and impeccable integrity. To do teshuva privately is one thing, but to openly admit to having committed a sexual offense, instead of running away and hiding, is the ultimate sacrifice and nearly impossible. Who among us is able to do so? But the dignity of man stands in proportion to his moral courage. Indeed, writer Gilbert K. Chesterton once remarked that the paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it.
In all of us lives a potential Rabbi Elon. We all know of moments in our lives when dangerous feelings loom. They emerge innocently and before we know it they have taken over, leaving us with nearly no escape. Afterwards many of us ask: How did I ever get there? Most of us are able to control ourselves so that nothing drastic happens, but what do we know of another human being’s feelings, immense pressures and personal challenges? Did not the sages say, “The greater the person, the greater his yetzer hara (evil inclination)” (Sucah 52a)? Was it not God who created the yetzer hara, making it difficult for us to resist?
Should we now believe that all of Rabbi Elon’s teachings were hypocritical and must be banned? Definitely not. Hypocrisy is not the result of an inherent weakness but of a deliberate desire to violate one’s own moral principles when one could easily have overcome them. Were it otherwise, all of us would be hypocrites.
Painful though it may be, we, including his many students, should not feel a need to leave Judaism because of what may have happened. The truth is that Judaism has always taught us the reverse. It warned us against unconditional admiration of great rabbis. Unlike other religions, Judaism has never professed the infallibility of its most revered; all it requires is respect for our rabbinical leaders. But it simultaneously teaches that even the greatest of us are only human, that all of us are prone to the evil inclination and that ultimately each one of us is responsible for his or her life and cannot simply rely on our rabbis.
I wait for the moment when Rabbi Elon will openly say: I have sinned before God and man.
I wait for the moment when he will surprise us with his honesty and sincere admission; when he will take us by storm, and revive the whole of Israeli society; when he will prove that he has freed himself from the quicksand in which he got stuck. No, I am not pleading that he be forgiven; confession does not free a man from his deserved punishment. But I hope Rabbi Elon will do what very few people are capable of. He can teach us how to conduct ourselves when we have bitterly failed. We will then feel relieved. Many of us will see the impact of Judaism on a man whose very being has been deeply affected by its teachings. We will watch him do what his critics and others could never do: tell the truth, admit his missteps and show us the way to sincere teshuva.
Let us grow from the experience. Let us give him and his family their space and not lose our confidence in our teachers. There is much to learn, and all of us will be richer and able to hold high the banner of Torah.
After all, the confession of one great man will humble us all.
(1) At the request of many of my students, I write this essay concerning an issue which has very recently traumatized a large sector of Israeli society. I am writing this in pain and hope it will be of help.
(2) I am well aware of the Talmud’s claims that his sin was not adultery, that Batsheva was already divorced when David took her and that her husband Uriah Ha-chiti was liable for the death penalty (See Shabbath 56a). But some of our greatest commentators tell us that despite these observations they believe that David committed actual adultery and was responsible for Uriah’s undeserved death. See for example Abarbanel ad loc.
(3) See for example Tehilim: 51.