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Michael Broyde: One Rabbi, Many Opinions

Top rabbi apologizes for using pseudonym to boost his work and join a rival rabbinic organization

Yair Rosenberg
April 12, 2013

Rabbi Dr. Michael Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University and former finalist for British Chief Rabbi whose work has appeared everywhere from the New York Timesto Tablet, has apologized for creating an alternate identity which he used for two decades to participate in rabbinic discussions, tout his own work, and most recently, join a left-wing rabbinic organization. The Jewish Channel’s Steven Weiss broke the story today, with this bizarre reveal:

Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser has been published in multiple scholarly journals and been a part of numerous online dialogues with other Orthodox rabbis. But Goldwasser does not appear to be a real person. In examining voter registration records, contacting rabbis in areas where he was said to have lived, and in research by yeshiva archivists, no record of his existence has been found over the course of The Jewish Channel’s investigation. Yet the Goldwasser character’s name and e-mail address have been used to publish correspondence that frequently touts Broyde’s work. The Goldwasser character has generated correspondence over nearly 20 years. Going back to the early 1990s, the Goldwasser character has published letters in such well-regarded journals of Jewish thought as Tradition and Conservative Judaism.

The Goldwasser character also joined a professional rabbinic organization that rivals the one of which Broyde is a member, giving the Goldwasser character access to thousands of messages a year through its members-only listserv e-mail discussions and other members-only correspondence regarding its plans and positions. And while the Goldwasser character consistently claimed to be corresponding with that organization from a home in Israel, the Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses attached to those e-mails show they were sent from a Comcast subscriber in Atlanta and from Emory University facilities. Those IP addresses match precisely with IP addresses attached to other correspondence signed by Broyde from both locations.

Broyde, a prominent center-left Modern Orthodox intellectual and a member of the Beth Din of America of the Rabbinical Council of America, initially denied the charge. But following the publication of this morning’s expose, he issued an apology to the head of the International Rabbinic Fellowship:

About twenty years ago, I and a friend began jointly occasionally using a pseudonym to write about matters of halacha and Jewish public policy. The views expressed were not reflective of an overall joint ideology, but we wished to write together on some matters to see if we could form a common opinion, albeit one not each of us agreed with completely. This pen name had a literary career for about 15 years, and included letters to the editor to various Torah publications as well as other comments, publications and emails.

At one point when we were both interested in the IRF and considering joining, this pseudonym joined the IRF and participated vigorously in the debates on its internal email list, which we found full of wise and interesting comments. All of this stopped about three or four years ago and I have no access to those emails any more.

I realize that being an IRF member through a pseudonym was inappropriate. I am sorry. Please understand that no malice was intended and my participation was not intended to interfere with the growth or success of the IRF…

I express my apologies to those IRF members who were deceived by the device, if I have not already done so in private. This was an error in judgment on my part and I hope that you and the IRF will forgive me.

Broyde promised to issue a public apology in addition to this personal one, though he did not address the additional claims in Weiss’s expose that he had used several “sock puppet” characters to leave laudatory comments on his many online postings on Jewish law. Beyond those cited in the Jewish Channel’s investigation, Tablet has uncovered several such comments under the names “Kevin Gold,” “David Gold” and “David Weissman,” accounts allegedly belonging to Broyde.

While it may seem bizarre, the use of fake identities by prominent public intellectuals to support their positions and correct the record is not unheard of. Popular blogger Glenn Greenwald, for example, was exposed as operating multiple pseudonymous accounts for the purpose of promoting and defending his work. (Greenwald, who claimed others in his household posted the comments, is now a top columnist at The Guardian.) To avoid exactly this temptation, many college papers, such as The Harvard Crimson, forbid writers to comment on their publications’ web sites without using their full names.

Which is to say, while Broyde may be the first Jewish public intellectual shown to have engaged in this conduct, he probably won’t be the last.

UPDATE: Broyde has issued a public apology and explanation for his actions. In addition to confirming previous reporting, he adds that this was not “a deep and dark secret – many people knew about this pseudonym including some e-mail recipients. My eldest son reminded me that I used to occasionally sign his homework that needed to be returned to school with ‘Hershel Goldwasser’ as a joke.”

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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