Rabbi Neulander: There Are No Compensating Circumstances
Remarks by Rabbi Eric Yoffie UAHC Board of Trustees December 15, 2002 Phoenix, Arizona
On November 21 of this year, I was sitting in the Rahway, NJ, train station, waiting for my train to New York. I noticed the man across from me reading the Newark Star Ledger, New Jersey's major newspaper, and right there, emblazoned in large letters across page one, was the headline: "Jury Convicts Rabbi in Wife's Murder."
There was no reason for me to be shocked by this headline. The murder trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander, former spiritual leader of Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ, had received extensive local and national coverage. Like others in the Jewish community, I had followed the trial carefully while reserving judgment until its conclusion. But given the accumulating weight of the evidence, when Rabbi Neulander was convicted, I was not really surprised.
Still, the idea that a rabbi could be a cold-blooded, calculating murderer was so at odds with my sense of what my tradition and community are about that it was exceedingly difficult for me, as it was for so many others, to absorb and to process this information. What were the words "rabbi" and "murderer" doing in the same sentence?
How has the Jewish community responded to this verdict? Cautiously, and a bit awkwardly and clumsily, in my view. Many of the public comments have simply noted that this case is a tragedy for all concerned-a statement that, on a certain level, is manifestly true.
It is certainly a tragedy for Carol Neulander's family, and especially her children, who have had to endure a trauma so horrible and wrenching that one can hardly imagine its impact on them. And we continue to mourn for Carol, an exceptionable and beloved individual whose premature death is that much harder to bear because it was so unnecessary.
And it has been a tragedy as well for our congregation, M'kor Shalom, which-I cannot stress enough-has faced this ordeal with an extraordinary nobility of purpose, going about its sacred work with dignity, and facing down the media sharks who for years have been pounding at its doors.
But "tragedy," it seems to me, is, probably by intention, an ambiguous word that allows us to circumvent the real issues that this trial poses for our community. The major story on the verdict by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency highlights the comments of an individual who refers to Neulander as "a man who did wonderful things and a man who did terrible things." "I think," he goes on to say, that "we need to feel gratitude for what he did and grief for what he did." I have no doubt that this person is well meaning. But any suggestion that what we need to do at this moment is to look at the good and the bad in Rabbi Neulander's conduct, or to suppose that in any sense one is to be measured against the other, is a chillul ha-shem.
Let us be clear: Rabbi Neulander arranged for two thugs to murder his wife so that he could continue an adulterous affair. Like others who do monstrous things, he is surely capable of acts of kindness. But with the delivery of the verdict, there is no consolation to be found in previous good deeds by the rabbi, and there are no compensating circumstances worthy of mention. What we have-all that we have-is an act so heinous that we shudder at the thought that one trained to be a teacher and exemplar of Jewish values could be so immune to the most fundamental Jewish value of all: that human life is sacred and that the individual is made in the image of God.
I was disturbed by Rabbi Neulander's d'rash to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial, which draw on midrashic teachings and was widely reprinted. Do not misunderstand me: I am grateful that his life was spared; I oppose the death penalty in this case and in all cases. But it seemed hypocritical and offensive for someone who systematically disregarded the Jewish tradition to now quote our sources in this way for his own purposes; and indeed, I suspect that the jury spared his life not because of this presumed display of piety but despite it.
Judaism teaches us that guilt is always individual; there is no such thing as collective guilt. Rabbi Neulander alone is responsible for his actions. On the other hand, there is such a thing as collective shame. And it is the collective shame that we should be acknowledging and indeed emphasizing at this moment. Just as all Jews take pride in the worthy accomplishment of rabbis, of Jewish leaders, and of Jewish organizations and institutions, so too do we share in the shame when a member of our community acts in a reprehensible way. And the contemptible character of Rabbi Neulander's misdeeds lends a particularly vivid quality to the shame that we now feel.
And this too needs to be said: Rabbi Neulander is a Reform rabbi, trained at our seminary, who served a Reform congregation and was active in the Reform Movement. These crimes were committed by one of ours. We are shamed more than others.
Is all of this now over? Probably not. I have no doubt that there will be a book and a TV movie and countless other attempts by various people to profit from this sordid mess.
If there is any consolation at all to be found in this case, it is in recalling that Jewish tradition is about trust and hope and individual righteousness. It is in observing, in awe and gratitude, how M'kor Shalom - even in the midst of great distress - has persevered in enriching the lives and strengthening the families of its members, reminding them that what the synagogue does is to create communities of support and caring rooted in Torah. We are chastened by these events, and we recall that Jews, leaders included, can be vulnerable and weak. But the fact remains that to be Jewish is to be heir to one of the world's most ancient, enduring, and awe-inspiring faiths. No one person, however high his position or disreputable his actions, can change that reality.
And this too: As Garry Rosenblatt of the New York Jewish Week has reminded us, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, an event such as this would have unleashed a storm of anti-Semitism. It did not happen here, nor did it ever occur to us that it would. Rabbi Neulander was assured a fair and open trial, and we could await the verdict without fearing for our lives or our safety. This is a great and wonderful country - democratic, open, and free. We are secure here in a way that we have never been before throughout our long history. And for this we are thankful.