This week, the Jewish Press published a remarkable piece, “Molestation Cases Must Be Handled by G’dolim, Not by ‘Experts’” by the unfortunately-named Rabbi William Handler.
Even the JP editor seemed uneasy about it, introducing this article with the information that the author “was also a supporter of Rabbi Yisroel Moshe Weingarten, convicted of molesting his daughter.” (I think we can drop the “Rabbi” now.) Handler’s basic argument is this: sure, child molestation is bad, but child protective services are evil.
It is not surprising that Handler is ultra-Orthodox, what is called haredi here in Israel (although both these terms are imprecise).
The right wing of Orthodoxy subscribes to the theory of Da’as Torah, which has its very own Wikipedia page, and this approach boils down to 1) every question in life (fashion, economics, politics, etc.) is essentially a religious question; 2) these questions can only be answered by the g’dolim, the “greats” among contemporary Torah sages. I’m not sure how far this extends. House on fire, call the g’dolim? Car stolen, call the g’dolim? Cancer, heart attack, syphilis, call the g’dolim?
But this is not solely a haredi issue. We modern Orthodox have little to be proud of in this arena. Consider the hottest topic in modern Orthodoxy: whom to nominate for Chief Rabbi of Israel. Should it be 76-year-old Rabbi Yaakov Ariel or 53-year-old Rabbi David Stav? While the latter is considered more liberal, he is a member of Forum Takanah, designed to deal with sexual harassment in the religious community, of which Rabbi Ariel is president. This organization was relatively obscure until the Mordechai “Mutty” Elon scandal broke three years ago.
It turns out that Takanah learned of abuse allegations in 2005, but they decided to solve this problem by designing guidelines to keep Elon away from students. This led to the bizarre situation in which he was technically dean of Yeshivat HaKotel, but was not physically present in the yeshiva–or the city. How’d that work out? As one might have guessed, Elon broke the rules, and he’s been on trial in Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court for the past six months for various sex crimes against male students of his. And people applauded Takanah’s “bravery” in going to the media five years later!
Perhaps you’re thinking that Takanah is some relic of a benighted time when we didn’t really “get” sexual abuse. Probably the era when Emmanuel Lewis had to tell us to “Say NO, then GO and TELL.” Actually, Takanah was founded in 2003. Yes, 2003, the same year that three rabbis got up at my alma mater, Yeshiva University in New York, to beg public forgiveness for their bungling of the Baruch Lanner case.
Then-rabbi Baruch Lanner was a high-ranking official in the youth group of the Orthodox Union, as well as a high-school principal. Rumors had long swirled about his sexual inappropriateness (mostly towards female students), so in 1989 three YU rabbis convened a rabbinical tribunal, found him guilty and issued a harsh sentence: guidelines for his conduct. Sound familiar? Lanner, of course, violated these rules, and the state of New Jersey stepped in, convicting him of aggravated sexual contact and child endangerment in 2002.
So how do we combat this phenomenon? By memorizing one line and repeating it until it echoes throughout every yeshiva, synagogue and Jewish institution: “Sorry, Rabbi, it’s not OK.”
It’s not OK to create an organization to stand between sexual-abuse victims and the professionals who are trained and ready to help them.
It’s not OK to vilify those who have dedicated their lives to helping survivors or to silence those who speak out on their behalf.
It’s not OK to convene ad hoc rabbinical tribunals in order to devise guidelines unfounded in science, law or religion to “solve” the problem.
It’s not OK, Rabbi Stav or Rabbi Ariel or whoever gets this job, to maintain the status quo. There is only one reason not to go to the authorities, and that is to protect the abusers. The choice should be clear, g’dolim.