On Rabbi Cohen: Mind the Commentary, Please

I made the mistake of reading the comments. I told myself I would just read the article, and maybe not even the whole article. I knew it contained much more information than I wanted to know about a man I deeply respected. I also felt like I needed to hear the full story. Reading the article was hard enough. I cried. I cursed. I had to put it down a few times and walk away. I promised myself I wouldn’t read the comments … until I couldn’t resist.

I don’t remember the exact wording of any of them, but as someone who studies and teaches rhetoric for a living, I wouldn’t want to repeat them here anyway. I remember them being hurtful. I remember them being insensitive. Nay, I remember them being ignorant, abhorrent, nauseating, unbelievably cruel, unjustified, and rage-inducing. They talked about how awful, disgusting, and hypocritical he must have been. They talked about what it must have been like to have been one of his students. They talked about his poor wife and children. They said vile and disgusting things about what they wished would happen to him, either in this world or in olam ha-ba.

What I remember thinking when I made the mistake of reading those comments was that the person who did this was not the person I knew, and that the person I knew was only the person he chose to share with me. I also remember thinking that these people who didn’t really know him, didn’t understand his hidden struggles, and didn’t learn firsthand the wisdom he shared with hundreds, if not thousands, of students didn’t deserve to cast judgment upon him, especially while I and others were still grieving his loss and trying to make sense of the unintelligible steps that led to it.

I’m not talking about Rabbi Cohen, who I will refer to here as Aryeh. I’m talking about my master’s thesis adviser. For the sake of his family’s privacy, I’ll refer to him here only by his Hebrew name, Akiva. Also Jewish (by choice) and also a Minnesota native (though not one of the TC Jewfolk), Akiva was a professor and not a rabbi, but I have come to refer to him as my “Texas rabbi” because he was the closest thing I had to one when I lived there. Akiva was involved in a very similar, but in certain ways more challenging, situation than the one that Aryeh was involved in. He was living a double life: By day he was one of the most brilliant and generous teachers and scholars in my field, but by night he struggled with hidden addictions and kept many secrets from his colleagues, students, and family. Like Aryeh, Akiva was caught by someone who was not who they claimed to be, but rather than a federal agent, he was caught by an extortionist who bribed him for large sums of money. Akiva never went to jail. Instead, he completed suicide.

Akiva left behind a torn community who never saw his actions or his sudden death coming. Some of the best people in my life today were people in his inner circle who I only met after his death through our collective grief. I knew him for only two years, but I have spent more than five years with other friends and family members of his grieving his death and wrestling with the complicated legacy that he left behind. We’ve had to reconcile the Akiva we knew with the Akiva we didn’t.

Like Akiva, Aryeh was also my teacher. I met Aryeh when I was a senior in high school when he taught afterschool classes to me and a handful of my Jewish friends (the irony of which is not lost on me now, even though he never once said or did anything remotely inappropriate to me or, to my knowledge, any of my friends). When I decided to stay at the U for college, I proudly participated in his Maimonides program. I’m sure I was one of the most difficult and stubborn students he ever had. It didn’t help that he found me at a time when I was really struggling with my Judaism. It also didn’t help that he had rejected one of my good friends from the program on the basis that he was a patrilineal Jew whom Aryeh had deemed not Jewish enough (whatever that means, another irony not lost on me now). Nevertheless, I found him interesting and periodically kept in touch with him even after I moved away for grad school. Even though I disagreed with 90 percent of the words that came out of his mouth, the other 10 percent were brilliant, and I always respected him.

Now I find myself struggling with Aryeh’s legacy much like I struggled with, and continue to struggle with, Akiva’s. My aunt, who also knew Akiva and recently retired after many years of working in hospice, wisely reminded me after Akiva’s death that the Kübler-Ross model of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) was “not meant to be linear.” Since learning of Aryeh’s story, I’ve found myself transported right back to some of the earlier stages. From the comments I have read, I sense that many others in this community find themselves in one of those stages as well.

Moments like this beg for ethical reflection. As I wrote about elsewhere after Akiva’s death, it’s important for those who are trying to make sense of others’ actions to beware of the dangers of hagiographic praise or demonizing blame. After all, one of my favorite maxims that Akiva regularly shared with his graduate students was that “human behavior is infinitely variable.” Human beings, and yes, even professors and rabbis, are complicated figures.

I happen to be an assistant professor who is married to a rabbi, though Aryeh probably would not call her by her title (yet another irony: He once provoked me by referring to my conservative synagogue’s former rabbi, z”l, as “The Rebbitzen”). My wife and I are no strangers to complex grief, and we regularly have conversations between ourselves or with others about how other people cannot tell us how we ought to feel or negate our experiences. My experience with Aryeh is, like many of yours, complicated. I’m in denial. I’m angry. I’m depressed. I’m glad that the police, Minnesota Hillel, and Minnesota Kollel are doing their best to keep our community safe. I’m sad for Aryeh and his family. I’m sad for his students and friends. I’m grateful to see that he at least has expressed some remorse, and I hope that, over time, he does some deep personal reflection, gets help, and finds peace. Yet, I hope a part of him is never quite at peace.

More than any of the lessons from his Maimonides course, the one that always stuck with me was the day we spent on love. His definition of love, which I refuse to let be tainted even by his lust, is still to this day one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard: “knowing everything you can know about a person and still wanting to be with them.” Despite his actions, the words do not ring hollow to me. I can be mad at him. I can want him to face the consequences of his actions. I can hope that he will not have a chance to hurt others. Despite all of that, I can still appreciate the lessons he taught me. I even can be grateful that, unlike Akiva, he is still here in this world.

People are complicated. Sex and sexuality are complicated. Judaism is complicated. Community is complicated. Grief is complicated. I can’t tell you how to feel or what to think. I wouldn’t want to either. Yet, I can tell you that I want you to feel and to think. I want you to process, and I think it’s important that you don’t do it alone.

Much of my teaching career is premised on the notion that we can’t solve difficult problems if we can’t talk about them. I do want to urge you to be mindful, however, of how and why you express what you feel and think. It’s easy in moments like these not only to gravitate toward the extremes of praise and blame, but also to use moments like this to confirm what we (think we) already know. It’s easy for Orthodox Jews to use this moment to condemn what they see as the excesses and temptations of secularism, just as it is easy for non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews to condemn what they see as the repressions and hypocrisies of fundamentalism. It’s easy for anti-Semites to jump on stories like Akiva’s and Aryeh’s as well. It’s easy to excuse wrongful behavior out of denial. It’s easy to say hurtful things out of anger and depression. It’s easy to rush to a premature acceptance by way of choosing to forget.

The comments from the article telling Akiva’s story have since been deleted. The comments that we make to each other in our own community are, like the lashon ha-ra story about the pillow with the feathers, harder to take back.

My hope is that you will see this story as a learning opportunity, a teachable moment if you will. In moments like this, I turn to another favorite lesson, a passage from ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot, as passed down to me through another favorite teacher of mine from the Minneapolis Talmud Torah (she knows who she is):

“.איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם”

Eizehu chacham? Ha-lomed mi-kol adam.”

“Who is wise? The one who learns from everybody.”

Comment. Don’t comment. Read the comments. Don’t read the comments. Do. Don’t. Talk. Listen. Whatever you do, know that everyone grieves differently, and be mindful of the stage that you’re in at that particular moment. Know that others may not be where you are, and that where you are now may change.

Brad Serber is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Dakota. The views expressed here do not reflect those of his employer.