Throughout Israel Rabbi Mordechai (Moti) Elon’s shiurim are being advertised. To many readers this may seem rather innocuous, but it actually has great import. For those who don’t pay attention to rabbinic scandals, Moti Elon has been indicted for “indecent acts” with some of his teenage students. Even before the indictment, a group of senior rabbis called the Forum Takana investigated complaints about Elon and pressured him to leave the sphere of teaching and public leadership… and now he is back.
In fact, he has been back for a while. In November 2011, R. Elon posted a youtube video (Hebrew) publicly defending his innocence, castigating the Forum Takana, and announcing the opening of a new yeshiva under his leadership. Oddly, this is not what disturbed me about the video; Elon had already begun to defend his innocence in public, and castigating the Forum Takana was simply a logical extension. What really bothered me, what ate me up, was the opening.
The video opens with Rabbi Elon and a number of students and friends singing “eili atta ve-odeka” (you are my God and I exalt you). The singers, especially Elon, are wearing their most pious faces (I have no reason to think they aren’t pious) and go on for more than a minute with the tune.
What message is this supposed to convey? I fear that the intended message is that Moti Elon is a God-fearing man, a religious man, and, as such, would never have done the things he is being accused of having done. This is a terrible message.
Religious people commit all sorts of crimes. There have been religious murderers, religious adulterers, religious pedophiles, so why not religious statutory-molesters and abusers of privilege? I would have strongly preferred it had Elon admitted that there are teachers, even religious ones, who have abused their positions of authority over children or teenagers to take sexual advantage of them, but that he, Elon, is claiming not to be one of them. (I am not saying I would accept his claim of innocence—I have no more information than anyone else uninvolved in the case—only that this would have been a more appropriate defense.)
The case of Moti Elon and his attempt to reintegrate himself into the Religious-Zionist leadership structure brings to the forefront the question of how the Jewish community, in Israel and outside, relates to leadership that abuses power, especially when that abuse involves sexual exploitation of someone in a weaker position. Although it may seem distasteful to try and understand how these men work—they are almost always men—it is important to understand them in order to stop them. As I see it, this type of abuse takes three basic forms: pedophilia, sexual abuse of teens (statutory abuse), and coercion of vulnerable adults.
Pedophilia stands out as the most frightening and heinous for of sexual abuse. Prepubescent children are the weakest and most innocent of victims and this type of abuse can crush them emotionally before they have a chance to develop. Over the past few months, there have been a number of scandals about teachers who turned out to be child molesters, the most prominent examples being Yehuda Kolko in the US and the ring of child rapists in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. This is a problem the Jewish world, and especially the religious Jewish world, is only beginning to tackle seriously, as I have written about elsewhere. Nevertheless, as the recent horrifying revelations about assistant football coach of Penn State Jerry Sandusky demonstrate, it is hardly a uniquely Ḥaredi or Jewish problem. America and Israel both have mandated reporting laws, and America does have a registry for sex offenders (Israel apparently does not), and these things help, but clearly not enough. Public schools in some states (New York, for example), have a fingerprinting requirement to weed out convicted pedophiles, sadly, most day schools do not.
What is so frightening about pedophiles is that it is nearly impossible for the average adult to understand the warped perspective of seeing prepubescent children as sexual objects. Since we do not understand, we fear—a natural response. But it is better to fear than to deny, and the clearer we are that this tendency exists, and that this subset of the adult (male) population is a danger to our children, the closer we will be to preventing situations like those of Kolko and Sandusky.
Statutory abusers take advantage of teenagers. The most famous case in Jewish circles of this type of predator was that of the NCSY director Baruch Lanner, and this is the crime for which Moti Elon has been indicted. In one sense, statutory abusers are less terrifying. Teenagers have adult-like bodies and adult-like brains; in short, they look, act and think like sexual beings. However, in a different sense, this makes the problem all the more difficult since anyone in power—not just a subset of depraved individuals—can be tempted to abuse a teenager.
Teenagers exhibit many adult-like traits but they differ from the average adult in one key feature: their emotional and intellectual resources are not fully developed. The self-confidence of a teenager can never stand up against that of an adult and a teen’s understanding of the ramifications of his or her actions is generally deficient. This gives an adult a certain amount of psychological leverage over any teenager. Additionally, our society tends to categorize teenagers as large children (other societies have thought of them as small adults), which gives any adult sociological leverage over any teenager. Statutory abusers use this leverage to coax or force a teen to participate, passively or actively, in sexual situations that he or she is not ready for, doesn’t want, sometimes doesn’t even really understand.
Unfortunately, although abusers can be anywhere (even in the family), many of these statutory abusers can be found as teachers, coaches, administrators or even guidance counselors in our schools. Sometimes this is because the abuser planned it this way; however, sometimes it is because morally weak adults find themselves in a situation of power and exploit it. That power tends to corrupt is a truism applicable not only to fascist dictators.
A third type of abuser takes advantage of adults in weak places. These cases are complicated as the behavior is often not illegal, but immoral. College professors who sleep with their students, therapists who sleep with their clients, and rabbis who have affairs with women they are counseling are just some examples. In Israel, the case of R. Marc (Mordechai) Gafni stands out as an instructive example of this kind of behavior. The man moved from woman to woman and wife to wife among his followers, exploiting his charisma and their belief in him for access to sexual favors that most inevitably regretted.
In America, the scandal surrounding the head of the Eternal Jewish Family, Rabbi Leib Tropper, is difficult to top for its sheer creepiness. Tropper told the woman that he would not convert her to Judaism without her providing sexual favors for him. As despicable as this is, it is hardly shocking to the average cynic. However, Tropper’s “favors” included phone sex and lewd encounters with other men, some friends of Tropper’s and some not, and being forced to recount them.
One of the myriad reflections that occurred to me when the story broke in 2009 was that Tropper was not embarrassed to involve his friends in his mess. Granted the man seems to have lost his moral compass, but did he not worry that such behavior would lead to his ultimate humiliation—which it did? Did the man never consider what consequences his actions would have on his family, his friends, and the organization which he founded? It would seem not.
The Tropper case is instructive. Together with his sense of ethics, he seems to have lost any reasonable estimation of his own self-worth or position in this world. Power does this to a person. When a person begins to believe that he is more powerful than others, said person can begin to relax some of the social restrictions on his behavior and can even begin to imagine himself to be unstoppable. This is foolish, of course, but sadly such people are rarely caught before they do serious damage to others.
The fault lies not only in the weak or immoral people who find themselves in a situation of power over others, but in us, in a society that allows people to have power without fear of consequences.
For the victims of pedophilia, the matter is very complex. It is extremely difficult to empower children against pedophiles; more can be done to teach them about “bad grown-ups” but they are children after all. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the community to watch for signs of this behavior and report it. Any adult knowing or suspecting abuse who keeps quiet becomes complicit in it.
For statutory abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults, we can do even more; we can work to empower the victims. Tropper was exposed because the woman he took advantage of eventually tape-recorded him and made it public. Unfortunately, such courage is rare among victims, nor does the opportunity always present itself. How many women were victims of Tropper before he was stopped is anybody’s guess.
Although part of the reason victims do not come forward is because they are scared of the perpetrator, much of their fear also stems from the fact that they do not trust the larger society to support them. This needs to change. We need to create a society where victims know they will be supported and abusers are afraid of quick and immediate detection and its real consequences. Too many of these stories are told for the first time 20 years later and by victim number 57. We need to stop this.
That is why the advertisements about Moti Elon bother me. It isn’t about Elon per se; there are many men more dangerous than he. It has to do with the message that is sent to victims when an indicted statutory abuser’s shiurei Torah are plastered all over the country and the internet as if nothing happened. The message this sends is that, in the end, taking sexual advantage of one’s teenage students doesn’t stop someone from being a prominent Torah scholar and a respected member of adult society and the power structure.
This is the exact opposite of what we should want to say.
I understand that Israel is a free country, and anyone can advertise their lectures publicly. Furthermore, I understand that Elon claims that he is innocent of wrongdoing, as do many of his students and colleagues (as did the esteemed colleagues of Gafni and Lanner, to their later chagrin). Nevertheless, to me this is insufficient.
Assuming he is guilty, I want him to publicly apologize for his behavior. If, however, he really believes he is not guilty, I want Elon to publicly denounce abusive behavior.
Instead of spending all his time on parsha insights and posting videos of himself singing zmirot, I want him to talk about how yeshivas, including his own, can be safer places. (This is the mission of Jsafe, although I cannot speak to their success rate.) I want to hear about how students should be made aware that not every hug is a just a hug, and that inappropriate behavior can come from anywhere, even the Rosh Yeshiva, raḥmana litzlan. I want students to hear that a closed office meeting can be a threat to them, that not everything that happens in confidence should remain private. I want R. Elon to talk about these things, and to make himself and his new yeshiva the safest place possible.
I don’t believe he will, though. I believe he is probably guilty and that sex abusers generally strike when they can, but maybe I’m wrong. Either way, what I really want is for us to speak about this. I want us to make protecting the victim a priority, and to develop ways to stop abuse before it happens. The more firmly we support victims, the fewer victims there will be.