Fallen Starr

Making sense of my rabbi's failings.

THE MAIN RELIGIOUS figure in my life has just been revealed to have misused as much as $400,000 from my temple, and I now wander aimlessly, wondering if I need to return all the gifts from my bar mitzvah, find a new mentor, or give up on religion altogether.

I personally think the crime is a bit less repulsive than the Catholic Church’s flock of child molesters, but breaking a commandment is breaking a commandment, regardless of how high up on the list it is.

Rabbi Earl S. Starr (now stripped of his emeritus status) was my Sunday school teacher, friend, and confidant. He took me to ball games, presided over my bar mitzvah and confirmation service, dispensed great advice in times of trouble and adolescence, and was damn good company (a tough kid from the streets of Philly, he was gregarious in a talk-show host kind of way, wanting to know how it was going with the girls, yet still preaching abstinence for the time being). And even though I only went to temple twice a year for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that adds up to a lot of sermons from a guy who no longer has, shall we say, legitimacy when it comes to moral matters.

Thus questions spring forth like sinners at a Jerry Springer convention: Is my religious upbringing tainted simply because one man was human and couldn’t keep his hand out of the cookie jar? Can anyone judge anyone else in this world? Is the eye-for-an-eye standard applicable here? Could there be an unforeseen explanation for the man’s poor judgment? Can you do one thing and say another and still lead a community? Do I live in a glass house? Should I be angry or forgive? And does it really matter what the hell I think?

The media have been remarkably kind to the man, emphasizing his community work—marching with Martin Luther King Jr., growing the temple membership, his openness to other religions, and educating believers and goyim alike on what it means to be a Jew. (In fact, the temple membership has been even more kind, not bringing Starr up on formal charges and allowing him to repay the money over time.)

Stories have surfaced making the waters murky: a thousand dollars given by the rabbi to a family short of cash, a little money for heating bills to some immigrants, some dough for the poor to buy brisket for the high holidays. And yet no one believes Starr gave away anything near 400 grand to those in need—unless you count Phil Smart as the hurting kind. This was robbin’ hood, not Robin Hood.

Yet who among us has not stolen? I’m often found grazing at the granola bins at Thriftway and refilling my Coke at BK, not to mention burning CDs from the Web and swiping five giant bags of potting soil from Home Depot this past weekend. We’re sinners, dammit.

My fundamental impulse is to hold this man in my arms and say, “You are forgiven, dear sir, but perhaps the clergy was never your real calling. Try something else. Find another way to make amends.” But he’s run off to Phoenix, in declining health and apparently not wanting to face individual congregants about the details of his alleged misdemeanors. (Can you blame him? The entire town is small enough, not to mention the small gaggle of Jews running about.)

Did this man do more good than harm? Indeed. In the end, will his name be inscribed in the Book of Life? You bet. Can he make amends in the time he has left with those who have made up their minds about his actions? Absolutely not.

And so, it really is up to this one fellow and God to decide the next steps, how to make peace.

As I look over the Gates of Repentance prayer book that was given to me upon graduating Sunday school by Rabbi Starr, so many of the passages ring true about his own wrongdoings, about the current struggles in the Middle East, about Sept. 11 and Enron and each choice in our own lives. “How I wish I had learned to master myself; to control my impulses; to curb my craving for pleasure, power, and possessions; to display consistently those qualities which are most admirable in others! Have I made any progress at all in this, the greatest of all arts, the art of living? Perhaps, a little; certainly not enough.”

I for one hope he straps on his high-tops, grabs the torch of knowledge from all his years studying the Torah, and hauls ass to the big finish line in the sky with all the energy, smarts, and chutzpah he was graced with at birth. There are ups and downs, it’s a steep chase, and the road is long. Hopefully he’ll have plenty of time to rebuild his own legacy. Godspeed.