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Let's make our voices heard. It's time to stop the never ending cycle of sexual abuse in the Jewish Communities. It's time to make every phony and despicable lowlife Rabbi tremble in their boots. It's time for righteousness to overtake evil. The time is now; not tomorrow!
© (2003) by Rabbi Yosef Blau
- Reprinted by Permission -
Originally Printed in Nefesh News, 7:9, July 2003
It is no longer possible to ignore the tragic reality that sexual, physical and emotional abuse exists within the Orthodox community. Recent revelations about rabbis and teachers abusing adolescents, often continuing to abuse for decades, dramatically remind us that our existing mechanisms are failing to deal with the problem. I am not aware of any statistics which clarify whether the numbers of offenders is substantial, but even a small number can traumatize hundreds of victims.
The full measure of the horrendous nature of abuse is not always apparent from a technical halakhic perspective. Two teenagers touching each other inappropriately are guilty of the same sin as a forty-year old rabbi touching a thirteen-year old female student. We intuitively recognize that the rabbi has used his position as an authority figure to manipulate a vulnerable child, though she is an adult according to halakha. A pedophile who abuses minors, even if he gets their approval, is halakhically a rapist, but not if he does the same with an adolescent boy or girl.
It is even more difficult to pinpoint the sin when dealing with emotional abuse and manipulation. While one can make similar technical arguments in other areas of halakha, its significance in this context is its use as cover for the many who do not want to deal with the full implications of confronting rabbinical abuse. Not wanting to see themselves as lacking sympathy for victims, people can claim to be concerned about preserving halakhic standards. How rare it is to have two witnesses who saw the abuse.
Even when the pattern of abuse is clear, the question remains how to effectively deal with the abuser in a way that at least limits his ability to move elsewhere and continue to abuse new people. Schools fire abusive teachers, who then move to another community and start teaching (and abusing) in the new yeshiva. Going public is seen as causing a hilul Hashem and going to secular authorities as mesira.
Virtually all poskim agree that if there is danger to future victims then there is no halakhic issue of mesira, but practically the taboo of mesira remains. Victims are discouraged from coming forward on other grounds as well; it will potential hurt shiddukhim , not only for the victim for members of his family as well. Compassion is expressed for the reputations of members of the abuser's family as well. The probability that family members may have suffered abuse themselves and continue to suffer from being in ongoing contact with the abuser, is not understood.
Taking the accusation to a Beis Din, unfortunately, is rarely effective. Few rabbis have any training in recognizing abuse and rabbinical courts have no investigative arm. Some abusers are charismatic leaders and have followers who will say whatever they ask them to say. Perjury to a Beis Din is not punished and in many cases the witness, in support of his mentor, has no difficulty with distorting what occurred. The cultic element in the guru's leadership is hard for us acknowledge. A rabbi promoting Judaism is seen as incapable of being a cult leader.
Newspapers, particularly Jewish newspapers are assumed to be anti-Orthodox. Speaking to them is almost the act of a traitor. Yet at the present time the media have played a primary role in the increased awareness of this problem; an abuser whose name has appeared in the newspaper is unlikely to be hired by a new school or youth movement.
Two recent cases point to differing approaches now being used. In one story from Israel, a commission including a rabbi, psychologist and a judge evaluated allegations and the accused was fired from his teaching position. He hired a lawyer and is fighting for reinstatement. The Israeli media have picked up the story. A recent article in Maariv broadened the discussion to quote varying views about rabbis counseling married women.
The other case involved allegations that been investigated twenty years ago and a resulting agreement that an individual would leave Jewish education, which was not effectively enforced. After two decades it became difficult to reconstruct what had occurred. Supporters of the accused spoke freely to the media while victims used pseudonyms. New allegations surfaced and a major expose appeared in the papers and a new Beis Din was formed to decide how to deal with the accusations. While no formal announcement has been made, their apparent decision was to send the case to a religious court in Israel that will deal with the charges.
Despite growing awareness and concern, no consensus has yet emerged. Rabbis are not trained to recognize abuse nor given an approach to aid them in responding when they realize that it is occurring. Principals are not equipped to respond to accusations against teachers in their schools. Rabbinical organizations do not have rules of appropriate conduct. Accused abusers retain membership in these organizations without any process to remove their names.
Our community has not been educated to recognize abuse nor to appreciate the ongoing trauma of victims. Headlines in newspapers are not effective educational tools. Often the response is to express anger at the paper and then ignore the abuse. Until the mentality of the community changes little progress will be made.
Even if a method will be developed to get rabbinical approval for victims to go to the police, much of the problem will remain. Not every manifestation of abuse involves criminal behavior. "Rabbis" who seduce women as a part of outreach or marital therapy are not guilty of a punishable offence. Proper utilization of secular authorities is a necessary step but clearly not a total solution.
In Chicago after there were a number of serious incidents, a special Beis Din whose members are respected across the Orthodox spectrum was established to deal with accusations of abuse. Similar rabbinical courts in other major cities, whose judges would be trained to recognize abuse and would have appropriate mental health professionals as consultants, should be introduced. Creating special rabbinical courts is a powerful statement that a serious problem needs to be addressed.
Nefesh professionals have a critical role to play in educating the Orthodox community, in treating and supporting victims and in serving as consultants for schools and organizations. Only people who are trained can lead a systematic campaign explaining the nature of abuse and the need to confront it openly. Stigma has to be removed from victims. When the identity of an abuser is revealed the response of far too many is "We have known that for years." Enabling abusers to continue, covering their crimes to protect the image of the community, contributes to innocents being traumatized. Judith Herman in her book on trauma points out that both the abuser and the victims turn to others for support. The victim needs action while the abuser only asks for our silence.
It is time to stop the silence. The true hilul Hashem is that we allow victims to continue to suffer in order to preserve our community's image.
Rabbi Yosef Blau is Mashgiach Ruchani of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it. ~David Star Jordan, The Philosophy of Despair
Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. ~Albert Einstein
Character is higher than intellect. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion. ~Abraham Lincoln
Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what's right. ~Isaac Asimov
Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them. ~Aristotle
To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice. ~Confucius
My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was less competition there. ~Indira Gandhi
A man is usually more careful of his money than of his principles. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., speech, Boston, 8 January 1897
I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to. ~Author Unknown
The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour. ~Japanese Proverb
I never did, or countenanced, in public life, a single act inconsistent with the strictest good faith; having never believed there was one code of morality for a public, and another for a private man. ~Thomas Jefferson, 1809
It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit. ~Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart. ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn
If honor be your clothing, the suit will last a lifetime; but if clothing be your honor, it will soon be worn threadbare. ~William Arnot
Every wrong seems possible today, and is accepted. I don't accept it. ~Pablo Casals
Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul? ~Socrates
What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient. ~Bodie Thoene, Warsaw Requiem
I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. ~Mahatma Gandhi
A man may be born a jackass; but it is his business if he makes himself a double one. ~Martin H. Fischer
The strength of a man's virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts. ~Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670
There is a great deal of self-will in the world, but very little genuine independence of character. ~Frederick W. Faber
The universe seems bankrupt as soon as we begin to discuss the characters of individuals. ~Henry David Thoreau
I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man. ~George Washington
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power. ~Abraham Lincoln
The time is always right to do what is right. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice. ~Léon Blum
It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare. ~Mark Twain
Little boldness is needed to assail the opinions and practices of notoriously wicked men; but to rebuke great and good men for their conduct, and to impeach their discernment, is the highest effort of moral courage. ~William Lloyd Garrison
You can stand tall without standing on someone. You can be a victor without having victims. ~Harriet Woods
Rule #1: Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules. ~Nordstrom's Employee Handbook
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
The worship of God;
The bestowal of lovingkindness.
-Shimon the Righteous
Translation note (1:2) The Hebrew begins: . Shimon the Righteous was one of the survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say, .... Literally: . On the Torah, and on the service.
Shimon believed that for the sake of these three activities God created the world and keeps it going. Shimon’s motto in effect paints a portrait of the ideal person for us to strive toward, a person both close to God and a boon to mankind. This ideal pious person should learn Torah, should fulfill its commandments in both rituals and actions towards others, and should go beyond the strict obligations of the Torah by making acts of kindness a personal hallmark.
This ideal has its roots in the Bible. However, the paramount importance put on study (including study of both the Bible and the post-biblical, Oral tradition) and on acts of kindness is a new, characteristic note in Rabbinic or ‘Classical’ Judaism. Shimon, roughly a contemporary of Alexander the Great, came to be called ‘the righteous’ because of his renown for piety and for kindness to the people he led.
The worship of God. The commentary in Avot deRabbi Natan [ARN] says that “service” here refers to the sacrifices at the ancient Temple, where Shimon was high priest. After the fall of the Temple, the Rabbis viewed prayer as a “service of the heart” (Ta’anit 2a)which partly served as a substitute for the sacrifices. And Yochanan ben Zakkai is quoted in ARN as saying that deeds of loving kindness are as good a means of atoning for sin as the sacrifices.
The bestowal of lovingkindness. Chesed, lovingkindness, (also translated as mercy, grace, charity) is in the Bible one of the basic attributes of God which mankind is to imitate. The phrase gemilut chasadim, the bestowal of kindness, or “acts of kindness” refers to a broader category than tzedakah, the Rabbinic term for ‘charity’ in the sense of giving money to the needy. Gemilut chasadim includes any helpful action done without expectation of reward or recompense.
He who does not add, detracts;
He who does not study deserves to die;
And he who exploits the Toga
for his own gain, perishes.
Translation note (1:13) In the Aramaic language. ‘Promotes’, negid, is literally to ‘spread out’.
He who promotes his name...can mean simply that with fame come critics who will spoil your reputation. But here ‘spreading out’ your name seems also to imply an improper effort to inflate your accomplishments in order to impress others and advance your own cause.
He who does not add, detracts... is traditionally interpreted: if you don’t add to your own learning you will lose what you have. It can be taken more broadly: If a generation merely tries to preserve the heritage of the past, the level of culture decays. It must strive to add to its heritage, to make it relevant to its times, just to stay in place.
He who does not study deserves to die... refers probably to the death of the person’s reputation and influence: if he doesn’t study, his teaching will be superficial and his influence die out.
He who exploits the Toga...repeats the warning of Hillel’s teacher Shemaiah (1:10) with even greater force. Many did in fact die at the hands of the Roman govenment. Traditional commentors and a later mishnah(4:5), read toga as “crown”, and interpret this as meaning not to exploit the ‘crown of Torah’ for personal gain.
Of Hillel, the Talmud says: “In ancient days when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and reestablished it. Then it was again forgotten until Hillel the Babylonian came up and reestablished it.” Hillel is the central figure of the Book of Principles, and is a seminal figure in the development of the Classical Judaism of the Mishnah and Talmud. Hillel put forward rules for interpretation of the Torah in order to apply it to later times. He thus give focus and direction to the whole enterprise of Talmud, which develops and applies the Torah to the contemporaneous times.
Hillel also “added”. He effectively nullified the Torah law requiring cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year. This nullification was crucially important because people were reluctant to lend close to a Sabbatical year, and by that time trade, which depends on credit, was vital to the economy. Hillel said that creditors could make a declaration to the court, called a ‘prosbul’, making the court the official creditor. Since the court was not a “neighbor or brother”, the letter of the Torah law was not violated. Thus Hillel acted decisively to preserve both the economy and the authority of the Torah in economic matters.
Hillel was also personally renowned for his patience, humility, devotion to learning, and seeking of peace. The following story about Hillel includes all of these traits, as well as Hillel’s belief in the primacy of ethics in Judaism.
A certain heathen came to Shammai and said to him: “If you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot you can convert me to Judaism.” Shammai drove him away with a builder’s cubit [a stick] which was in his hand. He went to Hillel and Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary: go, study.”
Hillel’s formulation of the ‘golden rule’ is one of the first; it is also found in ancient Greek learning and in Confucius.