Moshe Shoshan

‘Our hands have shed this blood’: We must tell the full story of Rabbi Druckman

Those of us who revere the late rabbi must learn from his failures too, and resolve to never again accept as leader an unrepentant protector of sexual criminals
Rabbi Chaim Druckman attends an event in celebration of completing study of the Talmud, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, December 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Rabbi Chaim Druckman attends an event in celebration of completing study of the Talmud, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, December 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

“Acharei mot kedoshim emor” — “after death say holy things.” So goes the old Jewish saying. After a person passes away, we should only speak well of them. Even if the person had a dark side or obvious flaws, the period following his or her death is not the time to dwell on them. This applies to all people. How much more so should it apply to a man like Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who devoted his life to the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the teaching of Torah, a man who directly touched thousands through his renowned warmth and kindness.

But I do not think we can extend this principle to Rabbi Druckman. The reason lies not only in the nature of his misdeeds but in the way in which the wider community and its leadership related and continue to relate to him. The story of Rabbi Druckman’s activities protecting fellow rabbis who were accused and, in the most critical case, convicted of sexual crimes is one of both individual and collective failure. The fact that he never faced any serious consequences for his actions in his lifetime and is now being eulogized as a saint and the greatest educational and communal leader of his generation reflects a profound failure on the part of the religious Zionist leadership. The leadership of the religious Zionist community has not yet sufficiently internalized the fact that protecting its members, particularly its children, from sexual predators represents one of the most fundamental responsibilities of its rabbis and educators. Individuals who fail to do so must face serious consequences. Those who show no understanding of their basic responsibilities towards those who report abuse and, even worse, actively seek to protect sexual abusers cannot be allowed to serve in positions of responsibility.

In order to rectify this failure and ensure the safety of our children, we need to tell a different story about Rabbi Druckman. A story that tells not only of accomplishments and kindness but also of failures and nonresponsiveness to those in need. My purpose here is not to portray Rabbi Druckman as an evil person, but as a great, and also tragically flawed leader — a leader whose flaw should ultimately have led to his downfall, but who, due to the inaction of the wider community, remained in his positions of power.

First, we need to understand the nature of Rabbi Druckman’s attitudes and actions regarding rabbis accused of committing sexual crimes. The first public hint that he had a blind spot in this area emerged in the early 1990s regarding the case of Rabbi Chaim Pardes, then chief judge of the Tel Aviv rabbinical court. Pardes was charged with extorting sexual favors from women who had cases pending before him and subsequently paying them hush money. When the scandal came to light, according to the testimony of the poet Eliaz Cohen, Rabbi Druckman assembled his students at Yeshivat Or Etzion to defend Pardes. Rabbi Druckman insisted to his students that the charges could not be true. Pardes ultimately served time in jail for his deeds.

Next, in the late 1990s, came the case of Rabbi Zev Koplovitz, the prolific pedophile who then headed the elite Netiv Meir yeshiva high school. While Rabbi Druckman was involved in the ultimate removal of Koplovitz from his position, he failed to report to the police what he knew. Then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein (himself a member of the religious Zionist community) excoriated Rabbi Druckman and other senior rabbis for this failure. Rubinstein declared:

It can hardly be doubted that had they reported — as required by law — the deeds attributed to R. Koplovitz, other serious acts could have been prevented. Because they did not give credibility to the reports of the students… it is most likely that further damage was done to the students whose cries for help went unanswered.

Rabbi Druckman responded: “Had I known about the [legal] requirement to report the matter to the police, I certainly would have done so.” Apparently, in the absence of a legal requirement, he saw no reason why he should have reported a pedophile who was a continuing threat to the community. When it was announced in 2012 that Rabbi Druckman would be awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, arguably Israel’s highest civilian honor, a group of Netiv Meir alumni sent a letter to the minister of education, protesting the award, stating that “a person who hid a sexual criminal who assaulted minors from the authorities of the State of Israel is unworthy to receive the Israel Prize.” The pleas fell on deaf ears, both in the government and among the religious Zionist leadership.

A non-apology

These actions took place decades ago, when religious institutions generally and Jewish communities specifically were just beginning to grapple with sexual abusers in their midst. In and of themselves, Rabbi Druckman’s positions were not fundamentally different from the sorts of mistakes that most mortal leaders make at one point or another in their careers. However, they provide important background to the one case in which Rabbi Druckman without a doubt crossed all red lines in his response to a rabbinic sexual offender.

In 2010, the Takana Forum, a rabbinic and communal body tasked with investigating cases of abuse within the religious Zionist community revealed that they had received multiple serious accusations against Rabbi Mordechai (Moti) Elon, one of the most successful and charismatic educators in the religious Zionist world, who was at the time the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Hakotel. The group, led by Rabbi Yaakov Ariel and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, towering talmudic scholars of impeccable integrity, stated that Elon had confessed to some of the accusations, and they declared that he must cease and desist from all educational and communal activities. These complaints would ultimately lead to Elon’s conviction on two counts of obscene acts against a 17-year-old student. R. Ariel declared at the time that the crimes for which Elon was convicted were “small fish” compared to the “whales” that the forum had uncovered.

Rabbi Druckman refused to accept these findings. He declared that in taking such strong public steps against Elon, the leaders of the Takana Forum were guilty of “shedding his blood.” He invited Elon to teach in his yeshiva, declaring that, though he was sure the accusations were baseless, even if the accusations were true, Elon had surely repented. Even after Elon was convicted, Rabbi Druckman did not change his stance, insisting that Elon was “being persecuted.”

It was only in 2018, when Takana received new allegations against Elon, and Elon confessed in front of a panel of rabbis including Rabbi Druckman, that he acknowledged that indeed Elon had engaged in unspeakable acts and was unfit for any communal role. But he never admitted to his own previous error in the matter. In what was presented in the press as an apology (Hebrew), Rabbi Druckman declared that he was

taking the opportunity to stand at the side of the victim (of sexual abuse). To my great regret, I understand that some of my activities in this field have given the opposite, incorrect, impression (that I do not side with the victims) because the methods which I adopted were not understood properly. I am very pained by this, especially if there were, perhaps, some people who were hurt by this.

In this non-apology, Rabbi Druckman denies ever having taken the side of the abusers over the victims, only taking vague responsibility for the fact that people may have understood his actions otherwise. He is not even sure if anyone was actually hurt by what he did. Rabbi Druckman expressed no self-awareness of the true nature of his deeds (see also this related statement by Rabbi Druckman).

But our story does not end there. Just weeks before he died, in what was perhaps the last interview he gave, Rabbi Druckman was pressed to respond to the allegations of rape and sexual abuse against Rabbi Zvi Tau, the spiritual leader of the so-called “Kav” yeshivot and pre-army mechinot (Jewish education preparatory programs). Rabbi Druckman’s response: “This is gossip. It is bad. People love to gossip — people find things from the previous century and gossip.” He refused to call for any investigation or involvement by the rabbinic establishment at whose head he stood. He insisted that it was none of his business and that it was a problem for the police. Finally, when pushed by the interviewer (“but if the police do investigate and find the accusation to be true, what then?”), he answered: “He should be hanged! If it is found to be true, they should do as necessary in such situations.” Within hours, however, Rabbi Druckman issued a clarification, stating that the phrase “he should be hanged” was not meant to express what he believed to be the appropriate action if Rabbi Tau were found guilty. Rather, it was “a criticism of the over-the-top public discourse in Israeli society which seeks to pass judgment before the police have completed their investigation.” Once again, at the end of his life, Rabbi Druckman refused to take charges of sexual abuse against senior rabbis seriously, nor would he acknowledge his own responsibility as rabbinic leader to protect the community from abusers.

We can now turn to the appropriate reaction to such behavior. The Talmud teaches:

If an Av Beit Din (senior rabbinic judge) sins, he is not to be excommunicated. Rather we should say to him, “Keep your honor and stay at home” (II Kings 14:10). If he sins again, he should be excommunicated due to the chillul Hashem.” (Moed Katan 17a)

This should have been the religious Zionist community’s response to Rabbi Druckman’s behavior regarding Moti Elon. The communal leadership should have relieved him of his public roles and allowed him to retire in dignity. Certainly, there should have been no place for him as the most senior rabbinic figure in the international Bnei Akiva youth movement.

Severe moral failure

The religious Zionist community has come a long way in protecting its children from abuse, but there is not yet sufficient awareness that fighting this scourge requires taking an uncompromising stance not only against the monsters who commit these acts, but against the otherwise normative, even wonderful, people, who, for whatever reasons, chose to enable these predators. There can be no room in our communities for rabbis, leaders, or educators who have a record of brazenly protecting child abusers and endangering children. It should not matter what other great merits, abilities, or accomplishments such an individual has to his credit. Protecting our children from abuse must be our supreme value.

But Rabbi Druckman was not pushed out. There was much public criticism of his actions at the time, including by some of his own students, and in the end, it had no lasting impact. Rabbi Druckman remained in his positions of authority. In the ensuing years, he would rise to almost unprecedented stature in the religious Zionist community and Israeli society at large. With the passing from the scene or death of many of his contemporaries, Rabbi Druckman achieved the status of the elder of the religious Zionist community, accruing vast communal and political influence.

That an individual who had engaged in such egregious behavior was allowed to rise to such heights was a severe moral failure on the part of the religious Zionist community. It sent a message to all that, in the eyes of the community, protecting and enabling sexual criminals was ultimately not that serious an offense. To those in positions of responsibility who might be tempted to protect an abuser by omission or commission, it said that they need not worry that should their deed be revealed, it would necessarily end their careers in the rabbinate, education, or communal leadership, or even hinder their advancement. To our children, it said, if God forbid you should be abused by a rabbi, don’t be so sure that other rabbis will necessarily do what is necessary to protect you and your friends, or even take your claims seriously. After all, the most revered and beloved rabbinic leader and educator of the generation promoted and legitimized a convicted sexual predator.

It is imperative that precisely at this juncture we tell the full story of Rabbi Druckman’s career. Now is the time to begin the conversation about his complex legacy. If we do not take action now, his stature will likely only grow in coming years, with babies, schools, and streets named in his memory, children’s biographies published, and annual yahrzeit gatherings to celebrate his legacy. It will only become more difficult to make the full story of Rabbi Druckman’s career — the good, the bad, and the tragic — part of the community’s collective consciousness. The critical lessons of this story will be lost. We need to learn both from Rabbi Druckman’s triumphs and from his failures.

Even more importantly, our leadership must rise up and ask forgiveness for not taking action against Rabbi Druckman when it was needed. It must promise that never again will a known, unrepentant protector of sexual criminals be allowed to hold a position of power or responsibility in our communities and institutions. We owe this to the many victims of those whom Rabbi Druckman protected or sought to protect; we owe it to our children, and most of all we owe it to ourselves.

About the Author
Professor Moshe Shoshan teaches Rabbinic Literature at Bar-Ilan University. He specializes in talmudic stories about rabbis, especially those dealing with issues of rabbinic authority.
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