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Aryeh Klapper
Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi: What to do with Walder’s books?

QUESTION:

Dear Rabbi Klapper,

On November 18th, you wrote that halakhah mandated “immediately removing Rabbi Walder’s books from our stores and shelves.” A lot has happened since, including Walder’s suicide. What is your current position regarding the books?

ANSWER:

Thank you for asking.

I have a profound aversion to censorship. The rules of “forbidden books” are among the areas of halakhah that express powerful values within individual lives but can become tools of oppression when enforced on others. So what I wrote was very hard for me.

I gave three reasons then.

The first was that the books “specifically contributed to giving Rabbi Walder access to victims.” That one plainly no longer applies.

The second was that “children who read the books now may suffer religious and psychological trauma later.” I was afraid then of parents inadvertently harming their children. But at this point everyone is aware or else willfully ignorant, and we can ensure that remains true.

The third was that “the continued presence of the books in our institutions at this stage discourages victims of sexual misconduct from going forward.” I’ll discuss that further below.

None of these reasons related to the content or quality of the books. In fact, I have no direct basis for judging them, and no interest in making policy based on my judgement of their worth – that would be censorship.

I also won’t diagnose Walder without having met him. (Also, I am not a mental health professional.) His guilt can reasonably be judged on the evidence presented; his whole self, not so much. How many of us have extensive experience and expertise with sociopaths, after all, let alone with the semiotics of suicide notes? The therapeutic center that Walder managed is in any case a better test than his books of whether his soul contained any good. I pray that every aspect of its operation is now being investigated in great detail, and that the investigation allows for justified confidence in its work.

Some cherished moralistic classics are by disgraceful authors. Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, for Heaven’s sake, and G. K. Chesterton was an antisemite. I am very open to the possibility that Walder’s books provide intrinsically problematic messages, as some have suggested. So does The Cat in the Hat, regarding keeping secrets from parents, and so did Sesame Street, about not believing children, back when Mr. Snuffleupagus was imaginary. These could be great reasons to ADVISE parents not to buy them, and for booksellers and publishers to CHOOSE not to distribute them. But these are decisions for parents, consumers, and businessmen. There is no reason for me or anyone else to pasken them, let alone to do so for people who have not asked for psak.

So we come back to the question of the impact of the book’s continued availability on Walder’s victims in particular, and on abuse victims generally.

Reminders of past trauma create damage that is profoundly real, powerful, and violating. My own experience – which is not remotely comparable to those of Walder’s victims – is of major anxiety, disrupted productivity, damage to relationships. and actions or inactions that (I like to believe) are out of character. These consequences are intensified when powerful communal institutions, or people one respects and have power in your life, make clear that they knowingly support the perpetrator, or suggest that what happened to you was deserved. I have no doubt that the sight of Walder’s books in contexts of respect and value can continue to injure his victims.

That may not be enough to justify mandating their removal.

One reason is that Walder’s books may also do a great deal of good. People I respect continue to maintain this. Communities and individuals are entitled to make cost-benefit analyses, so long as they do so with genuine and deep sensitivity and with every effort to minimize the collateral harm from what they see as a communal good.

A second reason is that it’s bad policy to establish as a default that to continue benefiting from an abuser’s positive work means that one disbelieves victims, or put differently, to create the expectation that everything created by an abuser becomes assur bahana’ah (halakhically forbidden to receive benefit from). This risks turning every case into black-and-white us-against-them at a very early stage, and enmeshing every abuse case in webs of power and money in very unhelpful ways. In some cases it is an extremely useful and necessary tactic – I stand by what I wrote on November 18 – but it is a counterproductive default.

A third reason is that the halakhic arguments for censoring a work based solely on its authorship tend to rely on categorizing the author as wicked or heretical rather than specifically as an abuser, and to rest on claims of spiritual rather than psychological harm. Allowing these arguments into the public-policy sphere risks legitimating their use in ideological cases. (Here I very strongly disagree with Rabbi Natan Slifkin, and nonetheless strongly support the continued spread of his enlightening works.)

A fourth reason is that removing Walder’s works from view is an ironic collaboration with those who would like to consign the entire episode to an Orwellian memory hole. If the books are gone, we can go back to pretending that there are no abusers in our community, and that respected rabbis never abuse, and that charisma in educators is to be celebrated unreservedly. (I say “we” very specifically. Every branch of Orthodoxy has its full share of deliberate ostriches.)

A fifth reason is that removing the works reinforces a view of victims as unable to deal with real life, and allows us to view ourselves as generously and altruistically sacrificing for them. It creates a sense that they owe us rather than vice versa.

A much better policy aim is ensuring that abusers cannot benefit from work related to their abuse, analogous to the rule that convicted murderers cannot profit from books about their murders. The best-case scenario is if their work becomes a vehicle for providing resources and empowerment to victims, and for ongoing public education and awareness.

Here is my proposal in the Walder case:

1) His books may be published with his name incomplete or altered.

2) Every book’s cover must state explicitly that at least 75% of the profits from its sale will go to atone for the sins of its author by providing support and healing for victims that he abused, or for victims of abusers like him.

3) The funds collected from sales shall be administered by a Board consisting equally of men and women, including several who publicly identify as abuse victims. No one shall be permitted to serve on that board without specifically acknowledging Walder’s abuses publicly, in writing, and in detail, and similarly acknowledging publicly, in writing, and in detail that the Haaretz reporters and Rabbi Eliyahu’s beit din acted properly in exposing it.

This proposal, if implemented, will ensure that Walder’s crimes remain in public consciousness. It will mean that every one of his books sold expresses support for his victims and provides them with concrete resources. It will do so without reinforcing the one-dimensional perception of victims as fragile and damaged that Rabbanit Michal Nagen has powerfully critiqued, and that unfortunately permeates many well-intended gestures of support.

The truth is that victims are full human beings, in various conditions of mental and physical health and satisfaction. They deserve to be heard not for their pain but for their perspective.

About the Author
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, which brings rigorous traditional scholarship, interdisciplinary openness, and a deeply humanist understanding of halakhah to every aspect of Jewish and public life. CMTL develops present and future Modern Orthodox leaders, male and female, through unique programs of intense Talmud Torah that catalyze intellectual creativity and educational innovation. Rabbi Klapper is a popular lecturer whose work is published and cited in both university and yeshiva contexts.
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