Rabbi Michael Broyde might be the first catfish rabbi. For those unfamiliar, the term “catfish” was coined by a young man named Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, who made a 2010 documentary about his experience falling in love on Facebook with a fictitious young lady named, Megan. Nev was so taken in by the girl that wanted to meet her in real life. However, every time they came close to meeting, she had an excuse as to why she couldn’t. As his doubts compiled, Nev decided to film his journey to find Megan. When they finally met, Megan turned out to be Angela – a middle aged married woman with multiple online identities.
Angela’s husband, Vince, tells a story in the film. He says that when live cod were shipped to Asia from North America, the fish’s inactivity in their tanks resulted in only mushy flesh reaching the destination; but fishermen found that putting catfish in the tanks with the cod kept them active, and thus ensured the quality of the fish. Vince talks of how there are people in everyone’s lives who keep us active, always on our toes and always thinking. It is implied that he believes Angela to be such a person.
Nev Schulman has gone on to create an MTV series called, Catfish. The show profiles those who, like Nev, have been involved with people who created fake online identities. Apparently, there are quite a few people who spend their days creating personae online. It is quite complicated and requires pilfering other people’s photos, coming up with background stories, creating fake friends and colleagues for the false characters, obtaining multiple cell phone numbers for each character, etc. Many of the imposters on the MTV show lead fairly solitary lives and prefer to live in their fake universe without thought to the damage they do. A famous Catfish case that was recently in the news featured Notre Dame linebacker, Manti Te’o.
Like a catfish, Rabbi Broyde certainly has everyone stirred up. Perhaps the orthodox community is late to the games played by insecure and lonely souls on social media sites. We have quickly caught up with this incident. It’s hard to know what kind of insecurities caused Rabbi Broyde to create false online identities praising and supporting his own scholarship and career. Certainly, he was already a well received personality in the orthodox world. Despite Broyde’s rapid fall from grace, it can’t be denied that modern orthodox Judaism did lose a prominent figure. More specifically, modern orthodox women lost a prominent supporter.
Rabbi Broyde’s thoughtful analysis about the future of ordaining women into spiritual leadership roles was progressive, if not cautious. His endorsement of a pre-nuptial agreement for grooms to promise not to withhold a get showed his commitment to eliminate the plight of the agunah. Rabbi Broyde even tried to make an argument to free women from the bindings of their headcoverings in a controversial essay.
It remains to be seen whether or not Rabbi Broyde will recover from from his catfish controversy. It also remains to be seen if other prominent orthodox rabbis will step up where he has left off, concerning women’s issues. Despite his online indiscretions, Rabbi Broyde is a man who has attempted to reconcile halacha with 21st century life. He is a man who has made efforts to ensure that contemporary orthodoxy maintains the integrity and dignity of Jewish women. It’s a shame that he could not maintain his own.