A leading Orthodox rabbi and esteemed law professor appears to have created a fake professional identity which he used to gain access to members-only correspondence of a rival rabbinic group and tout his own work. The fake identity may also have been used to submit letters to scholarly journals.
Rabbi Michael Broyde is well-known in both the fields of Jewish scholarship and law, and according to veteran British Jewish news reporter Miriam Shaviv, he was also on the shortlist of candidates being considered for chief rabbi of England in recent months, in an article saying that the chancellor of Yeshiva University had called him “the finest mind of his generation.” He is a rabbinical court judge, or dayan, on the largest rabbinical court in the United States, the Beth Din of America. Broyde is also a law professor at the U.S. News & World Report 23rd-ranked law school in the country at Emory University, where he is also Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. His Emory biography declares that he “has published more than 75 articles and book chapters on various aspects of law and religion and Jewish law,” including in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy and the Emory Law Journal. The author or editor of several books, he is a prominent figure in rabbinic circles, where his detailed arguments and strong opinions regarding matters of practice and communal standards have produced alliances and opposition. He was also the founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, in Atlanta, Georgia.
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. The Goldwasser character has also been used for other means, such as commenting on blogs and engaging in scholarly correspondence.
An IP address is assigned to every computer that connects to the Internet, and is noted in metadata attached to every e-mail and web interaction. Internet search engines allow researchers to determine the approximate location and institution for any IP address and, by seeing if IP addresses match, to determine whether two e-mails or web comments were sent from the same computer.
In an April 11th phone interview with The Jewish Channel, Broyde denied that he had created the Goldwasser character, or used the character’s name for professional correspondence. Broyde claimed that Goldwasser was “not my character,” and was in fact a real person who had moved to Israel “ten years ago, or something like that, maybe more, I don’t remember.” Asked how this person in Israel could have sent e-mails that had the same IP addresses as correspondence from Broyde showing the e-mails originated from a Comcast subscriber in Atlanta and at Emory University, Broyde claimed not to know what IP addresses are or what they mean, and that he was “not denying” that the IP addresses were identical for Goldwasser and Broyde, simply saying “I don’t know” what the technology is.
Joining A Group Where He Wasn’t A Member
The Goldwasser character became a member of an upstart Orthodox rabbinical group, the International Rabbinical Fellowship, or IRF, which was founded in 2008 as a more-liberal rival to the group of which Broyde is a member, the 90-year-old Rabbinical Council of America, or RCA. With that membership, the Goldwasser character gained access to a members-only e-mail listserv with which he could remain apprised of members’ plans and ideological arguments. Broyde has often written or spoken publicly about the members of the IRF and the positions they’ve taken, sometimes expressing strong disagreement or condemnation, and sometimes expressing support for their positions.
Multiple rabbis who would not speak on the record out of concern for their careers said Broyde would occasionally speak about the IRF’s plans and discussions as though he had direct knowledge of them, even though he was not a member. According to these rabbis, when Broyde was asked how he’d obtained the exclusive information, he’d say that he obtained it from anonymous sources.
A Supportive Opinion
The Goldwasser character would also engage in ideological arguments on the e-mail listserv — often using the seemingly fake identity to cite or tout Broyde’s own work.
Indeed, in one of the earliest examples of the Goldwasser character uncovered by The Jewish Channel — a letter to Conservative Judaism from 1996 responding to an article by leading Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorff — the Goldwasser character declares Broyde’s article in the 1988 National Jewish Law Review as “the classical article in the area” of parentage in Jewish law. In a letter to Tradition – which is the scholarly journal published by the RCA, of which Broyde is a member and which is affiliated with his rabbinical court, the Beth Din of America — the Goldwasser character wrote in a letter that he would be “stealing freely from the methodology of Rabbi Broyde’s reply to a prior piece,” referring to an exchange in Jewish Action where Goldberg and the real person of Broyde debated the same topic.
The Goldwasser character was used to engage in public discourse with leading rabbis with whom Broyde already had professional relationships. He wrote to Jewish Action to criticize an article by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, who had previously been rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, Beth Jacob, to which Broyde’s Young Israel was an upstart competitor at the time. The Goldwasser character wrote to Tradition twice over a span of ten years: the argument with Goldberg, and an argument with Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel, who is also seen as a major figure in the area of Judaism’s interaction with American law.
In perhaps the most surprising example of the use of the Goldwasser character, a dialogue with the publisher of a new prayerbook was simultaneously held by both Broyde and Goldwasser. In a preface to the 2009 Koren Siddur — a prayerbook whose publishing was meant to provide a significant ideological shift from the standard Orthodox prayerbook published by Artscroll — publisher Matthew Miller writes that “A number of rabbis selflessly devoted considerable time in reviewing early drafts of the Siddur…We especially wish to thank Dayan Michael Broyde for his critical help.” Miller goes on to thank several other rabbis, including “Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser.” In a phone interview, Miller said he didn’t recall much about Goldwasser, and that “he must have been of the one thousand rabbis we sent the early proof of the siddur to” and who replied with comments that were eventually incorporated into the prayerbook. Broyde was singled out at the top of the acknowledgments paragraph because, Miller said in the interview, “Dayan Broyde wrote extensively” to the publishing house with comments. Miller said any records of the correspondence were lost years ago to a crash of the publisher’s Internet server.
An Intricate Life Story
The Goldwasser character had an intricate biography for a seemingly fictional rabbi, and one that variously intertwined with Broyde’s real life. In a letter to Jewish Action in 1995, the Goldwasser character is identified in the signature line as living in “Jerusalem, Israel,” but, “Formerly of Los Angeles, CA.” In a letter to Tradition in 1995, the Goldwasser character declares he is “a generation older than Rabbi [Hillel] Goldberg.” While Goldberg refused to comment about his age by phone, Goldberg’s official biography declares he has been writing professionally since 1967, when Broyde was three years old.
It was in correspondence on the IRF rabbinical group’s members-only e-mail listserv where most of the work was done to enhance the Goldwasser character’s biography. In e-mails from Broyde’s IP addresses for both an Atlanta home and from the facilities at Emory University, embellishments of the story of Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser abound.
The character is inserted into the history of one of the most famous rabbis of the 20th century in an e-mail to the listserv from August, 2009. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein is considered by many to be the most significant Orthodox Jewish legal mind for the past several hundred years. Many of his responsa are compiled in the work Iggrot Moshe, and one of those responsa speaks about the impermissibility of gazing at women.
The Goldwasser character becomes part of that responsum in the e-mail, sent from Broyde’s Emory University IP address. The e-mail offers the back-story behind the responsum, “For those who are interested in some history.” The Goldwasser character says that the responsum came out of an episode in which “Rabbi Feinstein was walking with a group of young men on the boardwalk” of Long Beach, New York. The Goldwasser character declares, “I was one of them,” though the story took place in “the early 1960’s,” whereas Broyde was born in 1964. The Goldwasser character writes of how Feinstein “screamed at us all” when one of the young men in the group glanced at a woman in “a revealing bathing suit.” The Goldwasser character then describes Feinstein telling him and his fellows the core lesson that Feinstein would later publish, “which is that you can walk on the boardwalk only if you do not stare at the women.” Within the letter, the Goldwasser character also claims that his study partner at the time, who is “now a well known Rav,” declared in response “that they should just poke his eyes out now, as that was impossible.” The story from Goldwasser doesn’t relate how Feinstein reacted to that last comment.
In an e-mail to the listserv from April 2010, also from the same Emory IP address, the Goldwasser character, addressing rabbis in their 30s, declares “I confess that I am much older than both of you and come from a different generation.” The Goldwasser character’s biography is further embellished in a way that distinguishes him from Broyde, by writing, “my life’s work is not mostly in torah, but in accounting and finance.” The Goldwasser character then uses accounting and finance examples to present an argument. Broyde’s biography lists no experience with accounting or finance, and at the time of the e-mail, he was a law professor.
Where all of the Goldwasser character’s letters to scholarly journals had identified him as a resident of Jerusalem, by May of 2010, he had moved. In an e-mail from that time, also from the Emory IP address, Goldwasser announced, “I live in Beer Sheva,” a different city in Israel, which he then uses as occasion to explain knowing a lot about a rabbi there and that rabbi’s positions on certain rabbinic controversies.
There is even outrage from the purported Israeli regarding protests against the Jewish State. After Israeli women were arrested at the Western Wall for wearing prayer shawls and reading from Torah scrolls, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington, D.C.’s National Synagogue, protested at the Israeli embassy. The Golderg character responded on the e-mail listserv in July 2010, again from the Emory IP address, calling the protest “disgusting” and demanding, “Let him come and live here before he protests in the galut [diaspora] against policies of the Israeli government that offend him.” At the time, Broyde was still an Atlanta resident.
The Teacher Is the Pupil
Elsewhere, the Goldwasser character establishes a rationale for so frequently citing and touting Broyde: he declares that he was actually Broyde’s high school teacher.
In an e-mail to the listserv from July 2009 sent from the same Comcast home IP address as other of Broyde’s correspondence, the Goldwasser character describes a long history with Broyde over multiple paragraphs. “Michael Broyde was a student of mine many years ago — more than twenty five — and he was a one-in-million [sic] high school student back then. He was diligent and smart and he tried harder than anyone I have ever met. I have kept up with him here and there in the last decade and since I retired he has reached out to me a few times (I assume as a form of hakarat havov [sic] [gratitude] as I grow older). He sends me drafts to read.” It was this claimed receiving of Broyde’s earlier drafts that the Goldwasser character used to explain why he was familiar with arguments Broyde had made in drafts that were edited out of his published articles.
The Goldwasser character would frequently mention Broyde in ways that suggested the two were different people. An e-mail to the listserv from October 2009 concluded with the note, “I have more or less plagiarized this content from a series of emails Rabbi Michael Broyde wrote to me a few months ago [...] in the course of a back and forth exchange we had.” On another occasion, the Goldwasser character copies-and-pastes a long e-mail from Broyde (sent from Broyde’s e-mail address to that of the Goldwasser character, and then forwarded from the Goldwasser character to the listserv), telling the members of the listserv, “This email was sent to me by Michael Broyde and might interest others on this list.” In an e-mail to the listserv from October 2009, the Goldwasser character writes, “I have more or less plagiarized this content from a series of emails Rabbi Michael Broyde wrote to me a few months ago.”
There is even an exchange between the Goldwasser character and a younger man whom Broyde is teaching to be a rabbinical court judge, Rabbi Zev Farber of Atlanta. The Goldwasser e-mail about being a young man in the 1960s is addressed to Farber, and is a detailed argument against an essay Farber had written about homosexuality in Jewish law. In a postscript to that e-mail, the Goldwasser character writes to Broyde’s student, “If you see Rabbi Broyde (you learn with him, don’t you?) tell him that I liked his article on women clergy and that he should write more frequently.”
In the phone interview with The Jewish Channel, Broyde denied that he is the Goldwasser character. Told that a story was being reported on his Goldwasser character, Broyde responded that Goldwasser is “Not my character…He’s a rebbe [teacher] of mine from many years ago who’s deceased [and] made aliyah [moved to Israel] ten years ago, or something like that, maybe more, I don’t remember.”
Asked at what institution Goldwasser was Broyde’s rebbe, Broyde responded that Goldwasser was actually “a friend of my father’s from [Yeshivas] Chaim Berlin,” and that he was “not really my rebbe,” but rather someone influential in Broyde’s life deserving of the title, rebbe. Asked when his father would have been at the yeshiva with Goldwasser, Broyde responded, “I think from ‘54 to ‘64.” An archivist at Chaim Berlin, Meir Yanofsky, told The Jewish Channel that he had no records of anyone with the last name Goldwasser being a student or teacher at the institution in those decades; however, Yanofsky said, despite a digitization of all records for the school’s centennial in 2005, it was possible that some records from that era could be missing.
Asked why, given Broyde’s description of their relationship as informal, Goldwasser’s e-mails would refer to Broyde’s qualities as a “high school student” and a “student of mine,” Broyde responded that Goldwasser must have been referring to an informal relationship Broyde had with Goldwasser “as a teenager…in the sense that he knew me in high school,” and that Goldwasser, “Popped in and out of my life.”
“I never really thought about him…he made aliyah,” Broyde explained, adding “I haven’t e-mailed or spoken to him in ages.”
Asked how he could not have spoken to Goldwasser in “ages” when Goldwasser repeatedly cites ongoing correspondence with Broyde in 2009 and 2010, Broyde said it was “definitely true” that they’d had a correspondence “in the late ’90s and 2000s.”
Broyde said the fact that Goldwasser claims to have received early drafts of Broyde’s articles prior to their publication was not unusual, and that Broyde sends drafts of articles to “many” people, saying “Please send me comments on this, sure.”
Asked why the Goldwasser character would, in many communications, have precisely the same IP addresses as two common locations for Broyde’s signed correspondence, indicating they were drafted on the same computers in the same locations in Atlanta while Goldwasser claims to be writing from Israel, Broyde said he did not understand what IP addresses are or how they work. “I’m not denying” the IP addresses are the same, Broyde said, adding, “I don’t know.”
Arguing on Two Fronts
The ordaining of the first female Orthodox rabbi in 2009 was an opportunity for Broyde and the Goldwasser character to tackle the Orthodox argument over her ordaining on two fronts. Sara Hurwitz was ordained as a rabbi-like authority in June 2009, given a newly-created title of “Maharat” by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who oversaw Hurwitz’s training and is a leading figure in a strain of liberal Orthodox Judaism he describes as “Open Orthodoxy.” Weiss explicitly avoided giving her the title “rabbi” at that time, saying that doing so would avoid controversy. Broyde took that opportunity to author an article for The Jewish Press under his real name soon after, defending the general idea of women serving as clergy in Orthodox Judaism, while also asserting that women should not be given the specific title of “rabbi.”
But in response to complaints from advocates for female Orthodox rabbis, Weiss changed his tune in January 2010, conferring the title of “rabba” on Hurwitz, a female form of the word “rabbi.” This decision generated an abundance of protest from those to Weiss’s right, including from groups and individuals that had been mostly silent or supportive of the move when Hurwitz was still referred to by her made-up title of “maharat.” Among these was Broyde, who was quoted in the Forward saying of the conferring of the title of “rabba” to Hurwitz, “Contemporary Orthodoxy has decided that this is not appropriate…It is outside the bounds of normative Orthodox Jewish practice.” The Forward and other publications cited Broyde on the controversy while also citing his expressed support of women clergy in the Jewish Press article from 2009, contrasting that with his condemnation of the title of “rabba.”
As a member of the IRF, which was co-founded by Weiss and which included Hurwitz as a member, the Goldwasser character was utilized as an opportunity to suggest that members of Weiss’s own organization were breaking ranks with him on the issue of Hurwitz’s title, and to urge Hurwitz and Weiss to change their minds and revert to the title that many, including Broyde, had previously endorsed.
Again, the Goldwasser character cited Broyde’s authority in an April 2010 e-mail to the listserv, sent from the Emory IP address, writing to Hurwitz and a colleague: “Rabbi Broyde’s essay in the Jewish Press about Clergy [sic] was widely accepted and you could have gotten all of the valuable accomplishments you want by just using the [sic] some other title. The title has brought the community nothing but trouble [...] It did not need to happen and the harmful effects can still be undone by backing away from the title by you.”
The Goldwasser character was then used to suggest that genuine members of the IRF community and their families were distressed over her new title, and that the new title was actually harming the effort of advancing women as clergy: “The fact is that normal people think that a terrible breach of tradition was created by the decision to give you the title rabba. [...]Our community was completely unprepared for it and the backlash is terrible. My children’s shul is right now reconsidering their hiring of a woman as an intern because of this. This is not progress at all.”
A suggestion that IRF members could face professional harm as a result of the decision to confer the title of rabba came in a January 2010 e-mail to the listserv, from the Emory IP address, in which the Goldwasser character declared, “It is a terrible political mistake that Rabbi Weiss is making giving women the title of rabbi and I think it will do him, YCT and perhaps even us in the IRF a lot of harm.” He went on, saying that “IRF members will be stigmatized by their membership in the IRF as if we are agreeing with this decision, one that we had nothing to do with and one which some of us agree with and some of us do not.”
The Goldwasser character then urged collective action by the IRF to address the actions of Weiss and Hurwitz, asserting “We ought to make it clear that this decision was not one that the IRF was consulted with or agreed to. (Not that we do not agree with it, but that we are not part of it).”
The Goldwasser character concluded by citing his authority as an Israeli, and thus someone more knowledgeable about the Israeli Orthodox scene than the average IRF member, as most are American, saying: “Rabbi Weiss will further slip to the margins of Orthodoxy, certainly in Israel where this is really just outside the pale.”
Famous on the Internet
Searching around on blogs, occasional comments from Hershel Goldwasser pop up. As part of President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, a leading Orthodox rabbi offered an invocation at the National Prayer Service. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein was subsequently criticized by many in the Orthodox world — including by the RCA — for having offered his words in a church and among members of other faiths.
When Lookstein pushed back against his critics, he did so in part with a letter to all RCA members that cited various precedents and authorities. One the stories he told was about Broyde, writing that the rabbinical court judge had “told me that he was once asked by the Israeli government to represent the government of Israel ON A VERY SERIOUS MATTER at an event in a church during a time of worship. He spoke to the Tzitz Eliezer about this issue, and the Tzitz Eliezer told him directly that if it was a matter of significant importance to the Israeli government, then he should go wearing his kipa and looking as rabbinic as he could.”
Lookstein’s letter was published in several locations, including on the Jewish watchdog blog FailedMessiah. In comments to that blog post, an anonymous commenter going by the pseudonym “Archie Bunker” characterized Broyde as “from the extreme left-wing YCT crowd.” The acronym there refers to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary founded by Weiss, who also co-founded the IRF; many, and perhaps all, graduates of YCT are IRF members, and some graduates have had difficulty gaining membership to the RCA.
Coming to Broyde’s defense in the comments section was Hershel Goldwasser. In one comment, the Goldwasser character wrote, “Connecting Rabbi Broyde to YCT is just stupid. Everyone knows that Broyde published this vicious criticism of YCT. YCT hates him.” The Goldwasser character then shared a link to an essay Broyde had written at the popular Orthodox blog Hirhurim.
Archie Bunker didn’t find that explanation sufficient, replying “I connected Broyde to YCT because of the kollel [professional study group] he runs in connection with them.”
The Goldwasser character responded to Archie Bunker again: “There is no connection between Rabbi Broyde’s Kollel in Atlanta and YCT except that there is a YCT member learning in it.” That YCT member is Farber, the recipient of the Goldwasser e-mail about being a young man in the 1960s, and whom Broyde is teaching to be a rabbinical court judge.
According to information provided to The Jewish Channel by the publisher of the FailedMessiah site, Shmarya Rosenberg, the IP addresses of both Goldwasser comments match the Broyde Comcast IP that The Jewish Channel has found on many other of Broyde’s signed correspondences, and on some of the Goldwasser e-mails to the IRF listserv.
Into the Ether
The Goldwasser character’s legacy comprises much of two decades. It started with letters to scholarly journals in the early 1990s that would often cite Broyde as a respected authority, though Broyde was still in his late 20s and early 30s.
There was a revival in the mid-aughts to engage in a tussle with another major figure in the discussion of Judaism and American law, Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel, in the pages of Tradition. The Goldwasser character appeared as a commenter on blogs later in the decade.
And then the Goldwasser character joined the IRF, frequently citing Broyde and sharing Broyde’s IP addresses for a Comcast subscription and Emory University, despite ostensibly writing from Israel.
Sometime after mid-2010, around the time that the IRF was sending messages through regular mail asking members to renew, the Goldwasser character disappeared, never to be heard from again.
New Characters Rising
But the end of Goldwasser wasn’t the end of suspicious Internet characters citing Broyde’s work.
In August 2011, Broyde wrote an essay for the Hirhurim blog about eating oats on Passover. A 179-word comment from someone going by the name Kevin Gold opened with the sentence, “Rabbi Broyde’s basic point seems correct to me.” The second paragraph opened with a similar sentence: “I think Rabbi Broyde has it right.”
Broyde wrote another piece for Hirhurim in April 2012 regarding issues of Jewish divorce. A commenter going by the name David Weissman addressed the site’s publisher in a comment, saying “Thank you for posting this.” The commenter went on, “Rabbi Broyde remains one of the best writers in our community, I think. His posts are clear, his thought process impressive and the range of the sources he quotes is very broad. One gets the sense that he is really a first class mind.”
The David Weissman character returned in July 2012 to comment on another Broyde essay in Hirhurim, about issues of conversion, with the brief note, “Excellent article.”
And in January of 2013, a new character named David Gold arrived to comment on a Broyde Hirhurim essay about reporting cases of abuse to police. He wrote: “What a thoughtful and interesting piece by Rabbi Broyde. I think he gives the right rule as a matter of halacha [Jewish law]. In truth, I was involved in a case in my. Community [sic] where Rabbi Broyde wrote a very clear and direct letter to our shul board directing them to report a suspected abuser in our shul to the police. It was both very brave and controversial. He remains one of my favorite M.O. [modern Orthodox] poskim [Jewish legal decisors]. Wow.”
For all three of these blog commenters who arose between 2011 and 2013, these were their only comments on Hirhurim, and all were comments to articles written by Broyde.
All of their comments came from the same Comcast IP address used previously by Goldwasser and Broyde.