May one learn the Torah books and pamphlets of disgraced Rabbis, such as Shlomo Aviner and Meir Pogrow?
Before addressing the permissibility of learning Torah from a disgraced rabbi, we must first emphasize that this entire discussion refers to a rabbi whose misconduct has been confirmed. Unfortunately, in today’s age of digital communication, unsubstantiated rumors contrived and disseminated by agenda-driven parties fly through the news and, especially, social media, before the facts are sorted out and verified. And, knowing the impatience of media consumers, many of whom do not generally read past article titles, news websites run irresponsible, sensationalist headlines that misrepresent the facts and can lead to baseless suspicions. The “juicy” nature of rabbinic scandals, along with the anti-Orthodox agenda of many media outlets, make rabbis prime targets of unverified rumors and allegations. Common sense, common decency, and the obligation to respect Torah scholars all dictate that we avoid reaching conclusions based on hearsay or melodramatic headlines, and reserve judgment until allegations brought against Torah scholars are confirmed.
This warning was issued already by the Rambam, in one of his published responsa (Shu”t Ha’Rambam, 111), where he addresses the situation of a well-respected scholar who served as his congregation’s cantor, and about whom rumors spread of serious misdeeds. The Rambam devotes the bulk of his responsum to emphasizing that nobody should be demoted from his post based on rumors, particularly if that individual has adversaries with a motive to sully his reputation. Drawing upon the Gemara’s discussion in Maseches Moed Katan (17a), the Rambam writes that a Torah scholar who is suspected of wrongdoing should be privately reprimanded, and if he mends his ways, then he may retain his post. It is only if the wrongdoing is committed publicly that he must be demoted.
Likewise, the Chasam Sofer (Teshuvos, O.C. 1:175) addresses the case of a גבאי צדקה – director of a charity fund – about whom rumors spread of an inappropriate relationship with a certain non-Jewish woman. In the wake of these rumors, community members pressured the rabbi to remove him from his post, but the rabbi refused. The Chasam Sofer emphatically supported the rabbi’s decision, asserting that nobody should be deposed based on rumors and hearsay:
אין לפסול איש על רינון וקול בעלמא, ואין להחזיק הקול אלא בעדים ברורים.
One should not disqualify a person based on murmurings and mere rumors, and the rumors should be verified only with reliable witnesses.
The Chasam Sofer writes that in the end, the person confessed to his wrongdoing, and was promptly dismissed from his position.
Another example appears in a responsum of Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (13), who was asked about a certain shochet who was imprisoned by a non-Jewish court for an alleged crime. Rav Meir Simcha ruled that the court’s guilty verdict did not suffice as grounds for removing this shochet from his post, as the courts at that time could not be trusted.
Of particular relevance to our discussion is a responsum by Rav Aharon Walkin of Pinsk in his Zekan Aharon (30), addressing the question posed to him by Rav Zalman Sorotzkin concerning a shochetwho was rumored to have had occasionally visited the home of a woman suspected of prostitution. Rav Walkin writes that sexual impropriety does not, strictly speaking, disqualify somebody from serving as shochet, but additionally, the shochet in question should not be dismissed solely on the basis of rumors. Writing with particular passion and vehemence, Rav Walkin says that as disturbing as these rumors were, and notwithstanding the fact that a person filling such a distinguished role must have an unimpeachable record, it is forbidden to remove a person from a post based on mere hearsay:
גם אני מרחוק הנני נרעש ונפחד לשמוע כזה על משרת בקודש שנצרך להיות מצויין ביר”ש שכם אחד יותר על סתם בני אדם, אבל בכ”ז בבואי לחתוך עליו דין תורה, את האלקים אני ירא לשפוך עליו כל חמתי ולירד לחייו לקפח פרנסתו דההוא גברא דתלי ביה טפלי. וכל גופא מרתע בי להיות שוחט ולשחוט אב לבנים ובעל לאשה על יסוד שמועות קלושות כאלה… השתא שו”ב ששוחט בהמות אם ידיו מרתתות בו שחיטתו פסולה, כ”ש אני שבאתי לשחוט נפשות אדם, ולא רק ידי אלא כל גופי מרתת, היאך אוכל לשחטו בשעה שעפ”י דין תורה אין יסוד לזה? האם אפשר להתחסד יותר מהתורה עצמה?
I, too, even from afar, am shaken and horrified to hear such things about somebody serving in a sacred post, who is supposed to be outstanding in fear of God, on a level above most people. But nevertheless, as I come to decide Torah law with regard to him, I am too fearful of God to pour my wrath upon him, to disrupt the livelihood and deny the sustenance of that person accused of wrongdoing. My entire body shudders [at the thought of] being a slaughterer and slaughtering a father of children and husband of a wife on the basis of weak rumors such as these… A shochet who slaughters animals – if his hands tremble, his slaughtering is invalid; all the more so, then, as I come to slaughter people’s lives, and not only my hands, but my entire body trembles – how can I slaughter him when I know that according to Torah law there is no basis for this? Is it possible to be more pious than the Torah itself?
Rav Walkin advised Rav Sorotzkin to have the shochet make a formal promise to avoid going anywhere near the house in question, and, as a precaution, to inspect his knife twice each week for a year.
This responsum underscores the extreme caution that is needed before acting upon rumors of misconduct, even as it points to the need for prudent and discreet measures in response to such rumors to ensure that the alleged misconduct does not continue.
Moreover, we must bear in mind the Gemara’s instruction in Maseches Berachos (19a), “If you saw a Torah scholar who committed a transgression at night, do not suspect him the next day because…he definitely repented.” In other words, not every wrongful act committed by a religious leader warrants public condemnation and a public outcry. Rabbis, like all people, are flawed and plagued by weaknesses and occasional lapses in judgment. A person with a reputation of piety who is seen acting wrongly on one occasion must be given the benefit of the doubt that he has acknowledged his wrongdoing and has repented. Accordingly, the Chafetz Chayim writes (Hilchos Lashon Ha’ra, 4:14):
וכל שכן אם הוא איש תלמיד חכם וירא חטא, אך עתה גבר יצרו עליו, בודאי עון גדול הוא לפרסם חטאו ואסור אפילו להרהר אחריו כי בודאי עשה תשובה, ואף אם יצרו נתחזק עליו פעם אחת, נפשו מרה לו אחר כך על זה ולבבו ירא וחרד מאד על אשמתו…
Certainly, if the person is a Torah scholar and God-fearing, but now his evil inclination overcame him, it is definitely a grievous sin to publicize his wrongdoing, and it is forbidden even to suspect him, because he definitely repented, and although his evil inclination overpowered him on one occasion, his soul is distressed over this afterward, and his heart fears and trembles greatly out of guilt…
Our discussion, then, relates to the unfortunate situations of Torah scholars who have been determined to regularly engage in improper behavior, and the question then arises as to whether people may continue learning from them or making use of their inherently valuable Torah resources.