April 16th, 2013
12:12 PM ET
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
Atlanta (CNN) – A top-tier rabbi and expert in Jewish law and ethics is now under the microscope for what many see as his own ethical transgressions.
Rabbi Michael Broyde was outed last week for having created a fake identity that he reportedly used for about two decades.
Broyde has long served on America’s highest Modern Orthodox rabbinical court and was said to be a finalist to become the next chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.
Just last month, he was named one of America's top 50 rabbis by Newsweek magazine. Broyde is a professor of law and religion at Atlanta’s Emory University.
Under the pseudonym Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser, Broyde cited and promoted his own work, wrote and weighed in on articles, gained membership to a rival, left-leaning rabbinic organization and engaged in otherwise privileged online conversations by way of its Listserv.
The story came to light Friday when The Jewish Channel, a cable network, released online an in-depth investigation. The lengthy piece revealed, among other things, how a search to find Goldwasser, who allegedly lived in Israel, led to IP addresses matching Broyde’s.
Broyde initially denied involvement when contacted by The Jewish Channel last week – a move he’d later call “silly and a mistake.” But he fessed up soon after the story’s publication.
In a blog post titled “My Nom De Plume Exposed,” he explained that he and a friend created and used the pen name up until a few years ago, after which he said it was used by others.
He later told a reporter with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he wouldn’t name the friend who was also involved because “he has more at stake to lose than I do.”
In his blog post, a written apology spoke for both of them.
“No malice was ever intended and our participation was always intended to foster vigorous conversation about ideas and approaches to halacha (Jewish law) that we thought needed to be addressed,” he wrote. But he also added that there’s an “old practice” of using pseudonyms when discussing these sorts of matters.
By Sunday night, it was clear that, at least in his corner of the Jewish world, Broyde’s standing was shaken.
The Beth Din of America, the top rabbinical court affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, issued a statement that Broyde had “requested an indefinite leave of absence from his role” as a member and judge, a request the court accepted.
By Monday, the council said he’d also asked for leave from its membership. In a written statement, the council called his behavior “deeply troubling” and said, “We will continue to investigate this matter in order to determine further appropriate action.”
Meantime, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, the more liberal group Broyde once joined as Goldwasser, also weighed in, dubbing his actions “shocking and saddening.” The fellowship suggested in an online statement that given Broyde’s infiltration into “a sacred and safe space in which our members can share ideas and thoughts,” he should issue apologies directly to those with whom he’d corresponded.
CNN reached out to Broyde on Monday, but he said he could make no comment.
The question remains as to whether any of these developments will affect Broyde in the secular academic world.
Officially, Emory University said in a written statement: “The allegations regarding the conduct of Professor Michael Broyde are concerning to the Law School. We are currently reviewing the matter and plan to issue a statement once our inquiry is complete.”
But unofficially, Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, said he suspects Broyde will feel less of a blow on campus.
Joining a rabbinical organization's Listserv under a false name is wrong, but it may not be "an academically sanctionable offense," he said.
In the academic community, what Broyde has done may be seen as "bad, but not fatal,” Wolpe said. “People should recognize this is clearly a breach of academic ethics. … But there are far worse things he could have done.”
Yes, he submitted work to a journal under a pseudonym – which on its own isn’t unheard of, but he did so without disclosing that fact to an editor. And, yes, in a world where citing someone else’s work is a form of “academic currency,” he cited his own, Wolpe said. But he didn’t plagiarize, nor did he steal someone else’s research. Those sorts of actions are tenure-breaking.
“The guy is still a genius when it comes to Jewish law. He’s got an expertise that is valuable. I think this is something he will recover from,” Wolpe said. “But his heart is in the Orthodox community, and to be sanctioned by them would be the real blow.”
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