Redeeming captives and protecting abusers

During the thousand years of exile Jews suffered from anti-Semitic and corrupt governments. Redeeming captives (פדיון שבויים) was translated into keeping Jews out of governmental prisons. Saving Jews is described as a great mitzvah and outweighs other obligations.

In the democratic Western world (America, Australia), governments are perceived as basically fair and not anti-Semitic. Orthodox Jews have been convicted of crimes and their being sent to prison has been accepted.

A significant component within Orthodoxy has questioned this distinction. The complicity of the Western powers in allowing the Nazis to murder six million Jews confirmed their assumption that all gentile governments are anti-Semitic. The majority of American Jews, based on their experiences, would reject this comparison. While there is anti-Semitism in America, it clearly does not come from the government. Some extreme elements suspect a secular Israeli government of prejudice against religious Jews and will try in different ways to keep Orthodox Jews out of Israeli jails. This is the only context that can partially explain the level of opposition — including the willingness to break the law! — done to prevent the extradition of Malka Leifer.

Over 30 years ago, Avrohom Mondrowitz, a Haredi Jew, was accused of using forged documents claiming that he was a PhD psychologist and a rabbi, and using these credentials to obtain access to troubled youth. Rabbinic leadership was informed of accusations of abusing hundreds of victims. When the police were about to arrest him, he was aided in escaping to Israel. The case for extradition dragged on for decades and the Israeli Supreme Court ultimately ruled that too much time had elapsed for the accused to get a fair trial in America. Enormous financial resources were spent in protecting the accused.

This justification does not explain why one does not hear about similar efforts extended for Orthodox Jews accused of embezzlement or even murder. The seriousness of those offenses mitigates the concern of a religious person being incarcerated. Only when the accusations are about sexual abuse does this argument gain critical importance.

Much of the Orthodox world, including the rabbinate, does not grasp the seriousness of abuse of children. Both the reliability of the accusations and the devastating impact of the abuse are questioned. The lack of physical signs indicating damage to the victim coupled with no outside witnessing of exactly what occurred reinforces the difficulty in believing that a religious person could have seriously hurt a child.

Rabbis are accustomed to think in halakhic terms, but in many abuse cases there is no clear halakhic category to be applied. Trauma is a term introduced by modern psychology, a discipline which some Orthodox rabbis reject as anti-Torah. There is no understanding of the risk that seeing the unpunished offender being honored in the community might retraumatize victims. Age does not diminish the likelihood that abusers will continue to abuse. The level of denial has been somewhat reduced, but skepticism about the reliability of the accusers has remained.

A lack of sex education limits the ability to appreciate that a female principal had sexually abused her adolescent students and seriously damaged them. The prominent rabbis who offered to take responsibility for taking care of Mrs. Leifer were apparently unaware that an unrepentant abuser is an ongoing danger.

More than 30 years have passed and little has changed. The secular court system is not perfect but there is no other existing mechanism that successfully responds to accusations of abuse.

We can try to understand a mentality that sees an outside world as hostile. Protecting one’s own, while not always just, is a common human characteristic. Choosing to protect a community’s predators, however, and at the expense of their victims, from within the community, no less, is indefensible.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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