On “Hard” and “Soft” Charisma in Jewish Education: Toward a Taxonomy of Risk

Meir Pogrow is but the latest in a long list of charismatic rabbis and Jewish educators who fell from grace when the world finally learned how they manipulated students emotionally in order to take advantage of them sexually—a list that includes Baruch Lanner, Motti Elon, Marc Gafni, and others. 

Obtaining sexual favors certainly ranks as one of the worst misuses of charisma, but it is not the only misuse. In 2006, Paul Shaviv first posted the draft (in a series of comments on a post by Gil Student, later posted in full on several blogs; now in book form) of an essay profiling “Pied Piper” educators. 

Among the dangers he points out are:
  • A charismatic teacher will deeply affect and influence some students, but will almost always leave a trail of emotional wreckage in his/her wake.
  • The emotional dependency and entanglement between teacher and student leads to boundaries being crossed.
  • The teacher becomes party to knowledge about students and their families that reinforces the teacher’s view that they are the only teachers who ‘really’ are reaching the students. The teacher, however, is neither a trained counselor nor a social worker. That knowledge becomes power.
  • A really charismatic teacher can end up running a ‘school within a school’. 
  • The teacher will often employ techniques (and texts) which take students to the extremes of emotion or logic, and will then triumphantly show them how they are holding they key to resolution (‘At this moment, you have agreed that life has no meaning -- but here is the answer’).
  • The moment [the students] realize that they are not [protégés] (sometimes when the teacher ‘moves on to the next’), deep emotions come into play.
  • Many charismatic teachers will lavish attention on a student or group of students as long as the student(s) do things the teacher’s way, or accept every piece of advice or ‘philosophy’ or Torah uncritically. The moment the student shows independence or objectivity, they are dropped.
  • As soon as they are disillusioned or dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s story. Often such students, very hurt, leave the school.
Perhaps the most fundamental point in Shaviv’s critique is: “The problem is that at core, these are not educational relationships.” Charisma in general is a deeply problematic and risky trait in a teacher of Torah, as, by definition, the student is attracted more to the charm and personality of the teacher than to the material that is being taught. 
The unfortunate reality is that each of the offenders mentioned above used deeply problematic methods long before there was any general awareness of the sexual aspect of their predations. This point was articulated well by Shayna Goldberg:

This is the real issue that has plagued my mind for so long. The fact that this man was never, ever fit to be an educator. The fact that knowing all the Torah in the world does not on its own make you trustworthy enough to be given a classroom’s worth of young, impressionable souls. The fact that long before anyone suspected inappropriate sexual behavior, it was glaringly clear that this person employed all kinds of unhealthy teaching methods in order to cultivate relationships with students. And the fact that no one but a few innocent teenage girls seemed to notice.
She concludes:

I hope that in the wake of this scandal, we don’t just talk about one outed, sick educator and then move on as if everything were okay. Let us not get so distracted by the outrageous details that we forget what was so grossly inexcusable about his conduct as a teacher, even had he never touched anyone….
Let’s talk about it.

Indeed, let us talk about the role of charisma in our educational system. Let us discuss whether there is such a thing as “good” or “safe” charisma (I am skeptical, but realize that I’m still in the minority); how a school, parents, and/or students can learn to recognize subtle warning signs; and—to paraphrase Rabbi Noam Stein of the Akiva School in Detroit—whether and how young charismatic teachers can be trained to use their talents in an educationally safe and sound manner. 
There are three or four basic categories of charismatic teacher. The first is comprised of cases where the teacher has clearly crossed a line into psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse, as in the cases mentioned at the beginning of this column. The second category is one where certainly no crime or abuse has taken place, but the techniques used by the teacher are unhealthy and unsound. 
The third category is teachers who use charisma to manipulate students, but to positive effect. I am skeptical about the existence of this category, but many students of Rabbi Aharon Bina would vehemently contend that he fits this category, and that, indeed, he changed their lives for the better by breaking them down and building them back up. There is no doubt that R. Bina’s methods cause considerable damage as well. Is it possible to fashion a situation in which all such collateral damage will be eliminated? Perhaps, but I am skeptical.

The final category is “soft charisma,” a term I first heard in the name of Rabbi Menachem Schrader, the founding director of OU-JLIC (and thus my former boss), and which he uses to describe the educators he seeks for his program. He explained that, as opposed to “hard charisma,” in the case of “soft charisma,” the educator never becomes more central to the experience than the Torah that s/he is teaching.

In 2010, in the wake of the Motti Elon scandal, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership explained why this distinction is so crucial: the Torah develops the self. Hard charisma effaces the students’ sense of self and replaces it with the teacher’s “self.” The difference between soft and hard charisma is thus the difference between developing the student’s sense of self—and distorting it.

The problem is that is it not always easy to differentiate hard and soft charisma. Building off of R. Klapper’s essay, the following is a preliminary taxonomy for identifying charisma and its dangerous manifestations. It goes without saying that teachers and students, and especially administrators and parents, must be vigilant even about “soft” forms of charisma, lest boundaries be crossed. “Failing” one of these tests should not automatically brand the teacher as a dangerous charismatic, but failure of multiple tests should raise red flags.
  •  Charismatic energy is easily transformed into eros, so any sort of physical contact or seclusion is a breach that warrants dismissal for a first or (at most) second offense.
  • Does the teacher seek to persuade the student to see value in what the teacher values, or to persuade the student to see value only in what the teacher values?
  • Is the teacher replacing the student’s friends?
  • Has the student begun to imitate the teacher’s idiosyncratic practices and mannerisms?
  • Is the student able to restate the teacher’s views in his own words and defend them without falling back on “but my teacher said”?
  • What is the ratio of content to unmoored emotion in a teacher’s “inspirational” talks? Can the talks or lessons be quantified in terms of thinking, textual, or interpersonal skills, or only (or mostly) in terms of emotion and inspiration?
  • How does the teacher respond to a student who questions, challenges, or rejects his/her assertions?
  • How has the student’s relationship with his/her parents changed since s/he first came under the teacher’s influence?
Charisma is attractive and even tempting. It sometimes seems as though a life of virtue, or spirit, or value is immediately attainable, but, to quote a great rabbi (who had a great deal of soft charisma), “There are no shortcuts. Ein patentim.” Education is a long and arduous process, and the voice of God is not in the earthquake, the great gust, or the fire, but in the still, small voice.

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