The CCAR Code of Ethics is an “ecclesiastical” system, based on religious principles and our lived experience and shared expectations as rabbis. The Code has among its goals maintaining safe and sacred communities served by rabbis who live up to the highest moral values. When a rabbi fails to do so, the Code provides a process to address the needs of the community, any possible victims, the rabbi’s family, and the broader Jewish community. The system of T’shuvah, Rehabilitation and Counseling is designed for a rabbi’s possible return to health and wholeness, and we hope to rabbinic service.
As conversations take hold in the national media of how companies are responding to allegations of misbehavior, it’s important to take a step back and recognize the way our obligations align and differ from those of other environments. The Human Resources/legal (HR) system is designed to moderate the employer/employee relationship. Civil law sets out the substance of the law and the procedures that must be followed. To protect the employer and employee, that system is aimed at a different set of issues: It addresses the rights of an employee to certain protections and processes when employers take action to discipline employees. Rabbis and congregations are in direct contract with one another, and the congregation makes HR/legal decisions like any other employer. CCAR is not the employer of Rabbis. CCAR is an association of member Rabbis, whose members have agreed to the Code of Ethics and the processes under it.
The HR/ legal system is normally limited by the specific charge brought against an individual. It is a system that is rooted in law, facts, circumstances, and, importantly, the ability to prove or deflect the proof of wrongdoing. In that system, an individual can use all procedures and techniques allowed by the law, even to bar evidence that may prove wrongdoing.
The CCAR Ethics system, on the other hand, is rooted in the Code of Ethics to which all rabbis agree to abide and to which we hold one another accountable, even when there is no legal violation. Unlike some HR/legal processes, we take into consideration all information that the Ethics Committee learns from all possible sources. We are not limited by the admissibility of evidence in law. Further, the rabbi cannot limit the outcome of a case by trying to manipulate the evidence as can occur in the civil law. Also, we are not limited to the “four corners of the complaint” (i.e. only that which is alleged to have happened). We look at the issues and behavior. For example, if a complaint comes in that alleges that a rabbi created a hostile work environment due to an anger management issue, and in the course of that it is discovered that there was also sexual misconduct, the CCAR can proceed to investigate and adjudicate the discovered issues.
Our system allows us determine whether an individual remains fit for the rabbinate and capable of serving a congregation or organization or individuals.
The Code of Ethics goes to personal failings, personal boundaries that guide relationships, and ways in which we regulate prudent human behavior. What follows are two examples, one dealing with sexual boundaries, and one with money.
This first example, a sexual boundary violation under the Code of Ethics has a wide breadth, and can include anything from inappropriate language to a consensual extramarital affair to sexual abuse (some of which fall outside of a HR/legal system). Let’s look at the issue of “consent”. Let’s say, hypothetically, there is a male/female relationship. In most legal and HR cases, if an individual consents to a relationship, the allegations made by the victim of harassment will usually end. In that system, the showing of consent can absolve the purported perpetrator. However, in our system, consent does not end charges of sexual boundary violation by a rabbi. Thus, for example, even in a “consensual” relationship, if either party is married, it will be a violation of the Code of Ethics by the rabbi. We look at many issues of the dynamic of a relationship between a rabbi and a lay person, including abuse of power, real and symbolic authority, and other behaviors which, even if they are “legally” consensual, might still exploit the vulnerability of a victim or compromise the moral integrity of a rabbi.
The second example is financial. In a legal system, when there are allegations of financial mismanagement or a diversion of funds, evidence must rise to the level of proof of the actual diversion. In our system, the Code of Ethics provides that even an “appearance” of financial misconduct can constitute a violation. This goes to the issues of imprudence. We seek to protect the integrity of the rabbinate, or a rabbi’s discretionary fund, and even the intent of the donor. This applies even if there is no legal diversion.
The CCAR Ethics Code is a complaint driven system—someone must bring a complaint against a rabbi to start the process. The Ethics Committee first determines if there is sufficient evidence to adjudicate immediately. For example, in a situation where a rabbi acknowledges the truth of the allegations and admits his/her violation of the Code of Ethic, the Ethics Committee can adjudicate. Or, if the Committee has questions, it can look further. If there is not sufficient information to adjudicate, the Ethics Committee appoints a Fact Gathering Team who will meet with the complainant, rabbi, and other potential witnesses such as congregational leaders, spouses, congregants, and others. Once sufficient information is obtained to adjudicate, the Fact Gathering Team refers the matter back to the Ethics Committee for adjudication. If the rabbi is found in violation of the Code, the rabbi then has thirty days to appeal. Notice of the adjudication of a Censure, Suspension or Expulsion is sent to the rabbi, the victim, and the rabbi’s congregation or organizational supervisor.
Unlike an HR setting, the CCAR does not have the power to remove a rabbi from his or her rabbinic position. If a rabbi appears to be a “serious danger to others”, the Ethics Committee will notify the rabbi’s supervisor or congregational President and “urge that the rabbi be removed from rabbinic function prior to the investigation.”
Only after adjudication can the CCAR place restrictions on a rabbi prohibiting him/her from functioning as a rabbi in the community. Again, here we have a limitation also. The CCAR does not have the power to defrock a rabbi. If the rabbi resigns from the CCAR (leading to an expulsion) the rabbi can independently hang out a shingle and seek rabbinic employment. For that reason, we prefer to suspend rabbis rather than expel them, because while suspended they remain accountable to our ethics code. If, however, a Rabbi refuses to cooperate or resigns rather than follow the Ethics process, that Rabbi is expelled and the expulsion will be announced. Lastly, even after a rabbi completes a rehabilitation process, notice of Censure, Suspension and Expulsion is given to a prospective employer.
Importantly, lay leaders join with rabbis on the CCAR ethics committees: the Ethics Committee (which receives complaints and adjudicates), the Ethics Appeals Board (which hears appeals from an adjudication) and the Ethics Process Review Committee (which proposes changes to the Ethics Code). Lay leaders also are on the fact gathering teams that investigate complaints.
As we deal with any painful issue of rabbinic misconduct, it is important to distinguish between what the CCAR Code of Ethics is and what it cannot be. Clearly, the Code of Ethics is not a legal document written by a group of lawyers trying to protect employees and the employer, whose relationships ends when an employee is terminated or leaves. Rather, the Code of Ethics is a system of rabbinic accountability to which we, as rabbis and members of the CCAR, have voluntarily agreed to live by in order to uphold the highest ideals of Jewish ethics. In this task we will continue to persevere.
Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
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[…] goals and allow an ethics committee to do its work in a way that is fair, protective, and safe. (As I have written about in other settings, the CCAR ethics process is an ecclesiastical process, not analogous to a legal […]