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Can We Be a ‘Holy Nation’ While Abuse Persists?

״השכינה בצבע״, by Meira Goodfriend (www.meiragoodfriendart.com @meira_batya) (used by permission)
״השכינה בצבע״, by Meira Goodfriend (www.meiragoodfriendart.com @meira_batya) (used by permission)

Charismatic Jewish leaders and teachers are in the headlines again: abusing their power by betraying the trust of unsuspecting followers. As is too often the case, it appears the offenses were widely known, or at least strongly suspected, by communal members and leaders. In this frighteningly familiar pattern, the media ultimately did the job that our communal leadership failed to do; only through public expose were the abusers finally uncovered and repudiated.

Given what we have seen and all that we now know about the lurking dangers of abuse, and assuming the good intentions and a genuine wish for safety among communal members and their leaders, why does this disturbing pattern so stubbornly persist?

To be sure, the answer to this question is complex, and cannot be adequately addressed in one essay. However, I would like to focus on one piece of the problem, which is highlighted in this week’s Torah reading.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, God instructs Moses to call to the people: “And you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (goy kadosh)” (Exod. 19:5-6).

What might it mean to be a holy nation, tihyu…goy kadosh? To unpack this term, let us compare it to a verse in the book of Leviticus, which offers a similar directive: “…be holy, kedoshim tihyu, for I, the Lord, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Famously, on this latter verse, Ramban, the 13thcentury Spanish commentator, suggests that the words “kedoshim tihyu,be holy,” do not constitute a new commandment, but rather impart an ethos that is meant to underlie our observance of all of the mitzvot and to underpin our entire life. In his view, when we observe the commandments,  there is always a gap that allows for abuse of the system, making it possible, while technically upholding the law, to live a life of hedonistic depravity. Ramban explicitly warns against behaving in such a way, as a “naval birshut ha-Torah,” a scoundrel within the confines of the law.

In Ramban’s view, God’s charge to “be holy” is meant to fill the gap between perfunctory observance of mitzvot and their truest observance. It is incumbent upon us to discern not only what the technicalities of the law demand, but to act “lifnim meshurat hadin”—determining what extra steps are necessary to meet the full spirit of the law, the full spirit of God. The result of that extra effort is called holiness.  In this week’s parasha, God’s call to “be holy” brings this same ethos to the entire covenant at Sinai: suggesting that the laws we receive are never to be reduced to mere technicalities but are meant to propel us to live lives of unbounded uprightness and sanctity.

In considering these two divine calls for communal holiness, I am disturbed anew by recent revelations of sexual misconduct perpetrated by religious leaders. And particularly, by the institutions and individuals who surround, shield and enable those perpetrators, when their intended role is protecting their communities from such abuses.

There is a culture that often too single-mindedly favors process—with its necessary, but cautious focus on adhering to technicalities and the strict sense of the law—at the expense of the much loftier and truer desired result: holiness. The stumbling-block, then, may be a mistaken, and ultimately unholy, cleaving to process over outcome, to legality over holiness.

To cite a few examples:

  • Institutions that continue to function without precisely crafted, clear and transparent codes of conduct—and without a clear chain of reporting if abuses are alleged. Although there are not always laws requiring the updating and sharpening of policies, neglecting to do so threatens the safety of the public– much as would be the case were institutions to hold on to outdated fire safety policies.
  • Institutions that fail to use their policies to the fullest, instead latching on to lacunae or taking shortcuts. When inappropriate behavior is alleged against a particularly powerful, or popular, leader, or against a beloved colleague, some institutions have a sad track record of looking the other way, embracing any possible loophole that can be found. Despite the good intentions in building policies, this is a far cry from the difficult, yet “holy” work of investigating all allegations with equal rigor and impartiality.
  • In difficult allegations of misconduct, in which the reputation of the institution could suffer a serious blow, there is often a failure to bring in outside investigators and assessors. Although not legally required to do so, institutions must write into their policies situations in which they are required to seek outside intervention, thus making it far more likely that they will remain above considerations of institutional self-interest and self-preservation.
  • Religious institutions that have chosen to “lawyer up,” refusing to acknowledge their part in allowing abuses to occur, out of fear of legal ramifications. As a recent lawsuit against a major Jewish umbrella organization alleges, no specific admission of wrongdoing, or direct apology to victims, was ever carried out, despite the fact that the organization sheltered and promoted a convicted sex abuser over the course of decades. Tragically, in refraining from a full public reckoning, historic wounds fester, rather than heal. Where is the holiness in this scenario?
  • Even within dedicated, well-intentioned, institutions and fora specifically tasked with addressing allegations of abuse, an over-emphasis on process can impede the desired In a recent case, one organization heard multiple testimonies alleging decades’ long sexual abuse by a charismatic teacher. As reported in the Israeli news source Kippah, while the anti-abuse forum made sure that the alleged abuser was removed from her direct teaching responsibilities, it chose not to alert the public at any time during the ensuing years. Although there were many defensible reasons for the forum’s actions and inactions, one wonders if a “lifnim meshurat ha-din” approach might have provided more protection for the public. When asked about its long public silence, the leader of the forum placed the onus on the specific community’s rabbi and its other leaders. Despite clear indications that communal leaders were consistently failing to warn the public, the forum remained silent. Ultimately, the story reached the ears of the public only by virtue of an expose in the press.

Thankfully, we have come a long way in the effort to combat abuse in the Jewish world. More than ever before, institutions are engaging in the painstaking process of constructing codes and policies to prevent abuse, and when necessary, to address it. It is now much less acceptable than ever before to impugn the motives or the veracity of victims who step forward. Yet we still have a long way to go for the cultural mindset to fully arrive where it needs to be. Instead of technically, exclusively, adhering to our checklists, so that we can assure ourselves and our public that we are committed to collective safety, we must go farther—lifnim meshurat ha-din—to proactively ensure that everyone receives the greatest protection we can offer. Organizations and individuals must make a purposeful, conscience-driven commitment to cease taking refuge in the gaps in our systems; instead we must undertake the hard work of creating and maintaining a society that is fit to serve God.

It is our mandate as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to reach for the high bar set by Ramban, to keep our institutions not only technically, legally, blameless; but to ensure that we create and maintain a society infused with holiness.

Let’s all strive for nothing less than “kedoshim tihyu”.

About the Author
Judy Klitsner is a senior educator at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and an international lecturer on biblical studies. She is the author of Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, which won a National Jewish Book Award. Judy is the founding board chair of Sacred Spaces, a US-based organization that seeks to address abuses of power in Jewish institutions.
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