What a Shame
A brilliant talmid chacham (Torah scholar), who taught Torah to thousands both in person and through shiurim (classes) on several websites, was recently discovered to have violated several extremely serious Torah, Rabbinic, and ethical prohibitions which lie at the very core of Orthodox Judaism. People discussed with me that they are upset, shaken, shocked, or hurt by the recent unmasking of that scandal. Unfortunately, it was not the first violation of its kind by prominent rabbinic figures and, it will probably not be the last, rachamana litzlan (G-d protect us). For many it causes personal, religious, or ethical difficulties, or a combination of those.
How are you reacting to that news? Perhaps you have found yourself asking questions like these:
How could it be? I just don’t understand it. How could a person so involved in Torah also behave in such a way?
My seminary hired him and clearly made a serious error. How can I trust any Torah or hashkafah (religious outlook) that I learned in my seminary altogether?
He probably was crazy. Geniuses are sometimes like that. He was just in space. It’s a shame he needs to be dragged through such a scandal. Nebach (pity).
Must be lashon hara (slanderous speech). I am not mekabeil (I don’t accept its veracity).
How can I trust any rabbanim (rabbis)? Why should the one I have a religious relationship with be any different?
If that is how rabbis and scholars act, then why am I religious?
The issue is complex and multifaceted. An important issue to examine in this situation, and those like it, is a mental health condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder and a personality trait often known as narcissism.
Each one of us has habits, traits, and long-standing patterns of behavior that are with us from youth and throughout life. We describe that cluster of behavior and interaction as “personality.” Some people tend to have more “anxious personalities,” others “cheerful personalities,” and some “introverted personalities.” Personality does not only describe how a person usually acts, but often gives a hint as to how she will behave in the future. An “anxious personality” might take finals time harder than her friends. A “cheerful personality” might not mind his bad date as much as his friends do. An “introverted personality” possibly prefers a quiet Shabbos afternoon with a book. Personalities are not really so simple or so predictive, but we often think about ourselves, and others, in terms of personalities. “That’s SOO your type!” is a common refrain in contemporary language.
Sometimes, one’s personality includes a pattern of behavior that seriously impedes his function or his interaction with others. In mental and behavioral health, those are sometimes termed “personality disorders” to indicate that the individual has patterns of behavior that, without intervention, are probably going to obstruct his life performance. Individuals with personality disorders might be very successful in general, but will usually fall short in at least one area, such a relationships or societal function.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
One type of personality disorder is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Features of this disorder include an inflated sense of self, arrogant behavior, and an inability to empathize with another person. In addition, narcissists are often so caught up with their sense of self that they sell themselves very well. They often have magnetic personalities, charm, charisma, and a winning sense of humor. Part of NPD as currently defined (APA, 2013) means that the individual suffers from impairments in interpersonal functioning in the realm of empathy or intimacy. Deficiencies regarding empathy include difficulty recognizing or identifying with the feelings and needs of others. Impairments regarding intimacy include having relationships that are largely superficial or that exist to serve self-esteem regulation but contain little genuine interest in others. In addition, it is common for a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) to become extremely irate or even dangerous toward a person or group that threatens his superiority.
Almost everyone has features of this personality on occasion. Yet, if these traits are severe, long lasting, and severely impede an area of functioning, they might be termed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. NPD, like other personality disorders, does not need to inhibit all functioning. It describes and forecasts significant impairment in some aspects of life. Some individuals that might have had NPD went down in infamy, such as Joseph Stalin. Others, such as Steve Jobs, became fabulously famous. Yet both of them had significant feelings of grandiosity that undermined their abilities to have secure, meaningful, healthy relationships that were not based on mass murders or tantrums.
It is fascinating that the Talmud (Yevamos 79a) highlights three traits which the Jewish tradition prizes over all others: being merciful, bashful, and kindheartedness. Narcissistic Personality Disorder cuts at the heart of all three of those ideas. One that has it is usually unempathic, unnaturally bold, and uncharitable.
The Spectrum of Personalities
Personality disorders express extreme levels of personalities and traits. Yet, it is helpful to look at personality as a spectrum. Most personalities are a mixture of positive and negative traits. The negative aspects, if taken to an extreme, would qualify as one of the several clinical personality disorders. Yet, if these traits do not severely impede functioning, they do not meet the threshold of a diagnosis. Correspondingly, many people have some aspects of narcissism in their personality, but not enough to severely impair their functioning. It is sometimes commonly accepted to call those with some narcissistic tendencies or traits “narcissists,” but there are no universal or objective criteria for that term.
Narcissism and Leaders
On the flip side, some level of narcissism might be both positive and beneficial. Narcissists can usually succeed better in some interpersonal interactions. The inhibitions, self-doubts, and shyness that might mitigate or inhibit some from socializing present less issues for narcissists. They tend more to the side of grandiosity, self-assuredness, and boldness, which can help them function well socially. Some even suggest that aspects of narcissistic personality are really the true manifestation of one’s strength and positive ego attributes, helping to fight criticism and self-doubt, which are not truthful.
Narcissism can especially be helpful in creating a leader. The literature is replete with studies suggesting that narcissists often become CEOs, leaders of organizations, and leaders of countries (Rosenthal and Pittinsky, 2006). Yet, narcissism can be a double edged sword and can sometimes border on NPD or share commonality with it. If it is too pronounced and deep seated, narcissism severely inhibits a person’s functioning. Narcissists that are leaders can see their organizations and all those in it as self-serving, can ignore the personal needs of others around them, and truly believe that everyone else is there to serve them.
One current way of thinking suggests that narcissism in a leader is helpful, as long as he does not use narcissistic leadership, which is personally self-serving and severely compromises the rights of those under him (Stein, 2013). A slightly different way to see it is that a leader with some aspects of narcissistic personality can do a great job, but if it is severe and inhibits his ability to lead equitably then it is inhibiting, similar to NPD.
Narcissism and Religious Authority
Correspondingly, religious leaders such as rabbis and teachers can have some aspects of narcissistic personality. For some, it might be what drew them to a position of religious leadership in the first place. For others, it might dictate how they lead. For some more, it might be both. This does not mean that their narcissism is bad or that they are leading shleo lishma (with religious insincerity). It might be that their narcissistic tendencies are what allowed them to overcome self-doubt and permitted them to emerge as leaders. Furthermore, the positive aspects of narcissism could also be what motivated them to succeed in learning or to weather the vicissitudes of the rabbinate.
It is intriguing that the Talmud (Sotah 5a) suggests that a Torah scholar possess a small amount of hubris. Rashi (the foremost medieval commentator) explains that this trait is necessary so that indolent people would still accept his rulings and leadership. It is clear that a certain amount of self-assertion is necessary for scholar and guides. In situations of leadership, one might argue that this Talmudic principle condones the leader manifesting some aspects of narcissism.
Narcissism and Wrong Behavior
If you examine several of the rabbinic figures that were unmasked as having engaged in inappropriate relationships, you might notice signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or severe manifestations of narcissism. Some were noticed to be arrogant, self-serving, or dominating. In addition, relationships that they had with students or congregants were usually marked by a supreme one-sidedness. Also, their charm and wit was sometimes energetic – and almost limitless.
The fact that many rabbinic figures that acted unfittingly displayed aspects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or narcissism does not pardon them, but it can provide warning signs for women and men to look out for in a rabbi, teacher, or leader. If you suspect a person that influences you religiously of having narcissistic personality traits it can serve as a forewarning that interpersonal relationships with that person should be approached with extra caution.
How They Got Their Jobs
Narcissistic Personality Disorder might also explain why yeshivos, seminaries, and shuls sometime hire narcissists. It is possible that their wit and charm blinded administrations. Countries sometimes elect narcissists, and shul boards or yeshiva administrations can, indeed, make mistakes. More commonly, though, those individuals might possess the ideal traits for the position. If narcissism is tempered, it can sometimes produce quality leaders.
The Rest of Orthodoxy
In addition, Narcissistic Personality Disorder might help some mellow the aspersions that these rabbis cast on other rabbis or Orthodoxy, in general. The fault lies more with their personalities than with their religious beliefs. Even if one is extremely devout and dedicated religiously, it is very hard to escape the clutches of a personality disorder without assistance from a therapist. Rabbis with Narcissistic Personality Disorder should probably not be in their positions, unless, perhaps, they are concurrently in therapy. Similarly, those with narcissistic tendencies might need extra maintenance to help them stay within the framework of law, religious or governmental. Absent those precautions, their self-assuredness might cause them to disregard the needs of others, including their superiors, congregants, or students (Maccoby, 2000). It is possibly their responsibility to regulate themselves, and perhaps the duty of their organizations and community to assist them if they do not succeed.
Life is complex, and many people you interact with might have some aspects of narcissism. If you notice that a rabbi, teacher, or leader frequently berates you or others, seems to disregard other’s feelings, thinks very highly of himself, manifests magnetic charm, or demonstrates superficial, one-sided relationships, it is advisable to proceed with caution. That does not necessarily mean that you should cease all interaction with that person, but it is important for you to be on your guard when you deal personally with him. If you feel that you are being taken advantage of, discuss that with someone you trust. You owe it to yourself, your fellow congregants or students, and the larger community. As we say daily in our prayers, may G-d speedily return our leadership to the unadulterated wholesomeness of past days and remove grief and misery from society.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). DSM 5. American Psychiatric Association.
Maccoby, M. (2000). Narcissistic leaders: The incredible pros, the inevitable cons. Harvard Business Review, 78(1), 68-78.
Rosenthal, S. A., & Pittinsky, T. L. (2006). Narcissistic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 617-633.
Stein, M. (2013). When does narcissistic leadership become problematic? Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers. Journal of Management Inquiry, 1056492613478664.