Of Silence, Shame and Malka Leifer

One of the most difficult of moral dilemmas is knowing when to be silent and when to speak out. The wise King Solomon understood this well when he said “There is a time to speak and a time to keep quiet” (Ecclesiastes 3:7).

There are occasions when silence is the best response such as a conflict when a misplaced word can  inflame an already volatile situation. Yet, there are other circumstances when a failure to say anything can imply consent to shameful behaviour. Churchill encapsulated the quandary in his epigrammatic: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen”.

There is a moral imperative and religious obligation to sometimes be silent in the face of unreasonable provocation: “Let my soul be silent to those who curse me; let my soul be humble”. (Brachot 17a, and part of our daily Amidah prayer). There is also an ethical and Halachic responsibility to be vocal in the face of unacceptable behaviour: “Do not stand by when your brother’s blood is spilled” (Leviticus 19:16).

The Australian Jewish community, almost in its entirety, has not stood by silently in the Malka Leifer saga. We have stood beside the alleged victims and their deep pain, humiliation and shame. Our community, leaders from ECAJ to AIJAC have voiced their outrage that after more than 60 hearings Mrs Leifer has not been brought to trial. The brave alleged victims with the help of these leaders, have brought this sad story to the attention of the highest political officials of Australia; the latest being Christian Porter.

The extended delays, obstacles and obfuscations are all strong, if not compelling indications that this woman is being protected by powerful individuals, Israeli state institutions and the Deputy Health Minister, Rabbi Litzman in particular. Rabbi Litzman is himself under investigation for fraudulent practises and the Israeli police has recommended his indictment.

The response of the Israeli government – despite repeated assurances from the very top – has been parev at best, egregious at worst. It reached another ludicrous point last week when state psychiatrists simply “forgot” that they had a summons to give the court an evaluation of her mental state.

Journalist Chemi Shalev is only too right when he suggests that this is a crisis of Maccabiah proportions for our community. We remember with regret and anger the long and shameful cover-up and refusal by Israeli authorities to take responsibility for the Maccabiah Bridge disaster in 1997. Now too we are confronted by Israel’s seeming indifference to our concerns, its willingness to place political expediency before moral decency.

It’s a gross Chilul Hashem (disparagement of God’s name) that the Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is seen as obstructing Leifer’s extradition suggesting that she be tried in Israel rather than abandon her to a “court of goyim”. It has also been suggested that local Chareidi circles in Melbourne are abetting this. As a result, the Melbourne Chareidi community in particular and the Australian Jewish community in general is being regarded by the “goyim” as a group that has not really learned the lessons of the Royal Commission. In the popular mind it’s the entire Australian religious community that is being tarred with the same brush: we are all being seen as failing in our moral duty, unable to face the reality of child sexual abuse in our midst.

And maybe we are. Perhaps we, the members of the religious community, we the rabbis, leaders and institutions of Australia’s religious community have not been passionate and vocal enough about our utter shame, have not been strong enough in our recognition of the untold anguish and unimaginable damage to the alleged victims. Not to mention the harmful message this is sending to the children of our community.

We too have been complicit not only in this “Chilul Hashem” (shaming God’s reputation) but the “Dibah Raah” (the besmirchment) of the State of Israel. “Chatanu” – we have sinned against you – the victims, our fellow – Jews, the people of Israel, the Australian people.

It was the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who fought against Nazism and was executed for this in Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945, who got to the heart of it when he said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”.

The Torah readings of the past few weeks remind us that our Patriarch Jacob lived with the tension between concealment and outspoken-ness. He is sadly (albeit understandably) passive in the face of his sons brutal reaction to the rape of their sister Dinah. He is wisely quiet when provoked by his son Reuben. Yet the same Jacob can be strongly active and unequivocal when criticising his sons for their poor behaviour. He was not quiet in his rebuke of Joseph nor in his mourning for his apparent death.

It’s high time for the Australian and especially Melbourne religious institutions and communities to speak out unhesitatingly to the Israeli Rabbinic and especially Chareidi authorities to help end this sham and put a stop to this shame!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, Rabbi Ralph Genende is a well-known and popular Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Ralph was Senior Rabbi to the Auckland, New Zealand Jewish community for ten years. He then became College Rabbi at Mount Scopus College, member of its Executive Team and Rabbi of Beit Aharon congregation. Currently Rabbi Genende is Senior Rabbi of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, one of Melbourne’s largest congregations. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist and they have three children – Eyal (who is married to Carly), Daniella and Yonatan and a grandson Ezra.
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