Horrific events have fallen on top of the head of Rabbi Starr the previously well-respected rabbi of Temple Israel in Sharon like Dorothy’s house fell into Oz on top of the Wicked Witch of the East killing her. It is an apt metaphor. The series of Boston Globe articles about this tragic episode of sex, extortion, and possible embezzlement by a conservative rabbi has captured my attention and provoked me to thought like few other issues have. The issues surrounding the rabbi bringing him to a snake-infested swamp into which he fell are as sordid and troubling as they are voluminous and profound.
How can this incident be viewed? Through which lens do we view it? What profundities does it teach and can it have value for all of us? I reached into my arsenal of great literature and/or film to use a few of the great masters of the written and spoken word hoping they could offer me worthy thoughts to think when the unthinkable occurs and morphs into the inexplicable.
The rabbi, by his own actions has become in our time the Puritan Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s great masterpiece the Scarlett Letter. She is a woman weighed down by the heavy weight of the scarlet letter “A” for the adultery she has committed and is forced to wear it on her chest for all time labeling her a sinner and marking her for life. She must work for her redemption but never be quite free from the original sin. Can the rabbi work for his redemption? Can he ever be free from his great Coleridgean albatross of shame hung around his neck like the ancient mariner in that great work too about sin and redemption?
I sought out Shakespeare, the master of tragedy, because this once well respected man’s life has taken a tragic turn and succumbed to Shakespearean-like fatal flaws. I remembered Hamlet.
Act 2 Scene 2
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither …”
Yes, man is a wonderful creation but at the same time he is flawed and his actions can be as low as the dust.
One of my favorite films is Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” about Judah Rosenthal, a well-respected married man and successful ophthalmologist who makes a mistake of having an affair with a single woman who becomes hysterical and obsessed when he would not leave his wife and marry her. She threatens to expose it all. He is faced with a career and marriage-ending situation spun out of control. His modus operandi is getting his amoral brother to construct the murder of that woman. One can ask does the ophthalmologist “see” his sins or is the morally good rabbi in the film the one who really sees even though he is, indeed, blind. And, in the final analysis, does the universe care as the ophthalmologist’s life returns to eventual normality after the dastardly deed is done and we assume he is never punished?
In sum the quote from Professor Louis Levy in that film says it best:
“We're all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
Can this sad story about a once beloved rabbi and his allegedly egregious actions teach us anything about the definition of sin, the penitence for it, the redemption of it and wisdom behind men’s – all men’s – fatal flaws?
As the great man is alleged to have said 2000 years ago “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Yes, I can quote Jesus even for this rabbi because his words speak profundity as this rabbi, I assume, will try mightily to be the well-respected man he once was.