This experience taught me that no one deserves unconditional reverence. In the final analysis, humans are humans and as such are prone to make mistakes. Even religious leaders are subject to desires, lusts and temptations. Although we expect our spiritual leaders to set an example of morality and ethics, and many of them try to do just that, they are not infallible. The problem, however, lies both with some religious leaders and their followers. Some religious leaders like to portray themselves as holy and perfect. They demand reverence and get offended when they are not treated with the respect they perceive as being due to a person of their stature.
This egotism in turn plays into the natural human need of reliance and trust in others. Most of us know the limit of our own knowledge and abilities and therefore find it comforting to be able to put our faith in a person whom we feel we can trust and believe in as scholarly, holy and perfect.
One of the beauties of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible is that all the main characters are portrayed in a uniquely human fashion, warts and all. Even biblical Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Judaism is extremely realistic about its religious leaders – it recognizes that as humans they are bound to fail at least some of the time. Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not see its religious leaders as divine and therefore infallible.
In Judaism religious leaders have but one role – to teach Torah and to render Halachic (Jewish law) decisions. Yes, we can look up to them hoping that the Torah they have learnt has made them better people, but we must never expect absolute perfection from them, nor should religious leaders portray themselves as such.
When we witness religious leaders misbehaving, inevitably it will reflect negatively on the religion as a whole and they must therefore be held accountable for unacceptable behavior. However, we must be more sophisticated as well and realize that, although humans may fail to live up to their teachings, this does not detract from the truth of the teachings themselves.
Although we must constantly strive for higher standards, corruption, sin and hypocrisy are unfortunate facts of life and to give up on religion because of hypocritical and corrupt religious leaders is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Ultimately we are all autonomous human beings with choices of our own and both positive and negative aspects to our character. As one of the great Chassidic masters once said, “One who sees only the negative traits of others will learn only from them and end up completely negative. One who notices the positive in others will be able to learn from that and incorporate it into their own life and therefore become a better person.” We can choose to see only the negativity in our religious leaders or we can learn from the abundance of positive attributes that they have. If we do the latter we are much more likely to become better people ourselves.