For far too long abusers and their enablers have used fear and intimidation to prevent survivors of abuse from coming forward. Scare tactics like creating a Chillul Hashem, or ruining an individual’s reputation, destroying their livelihood, their family-life, or potential Shidduchim for their children have also been used to keep the matter quiet. Rabbis have even invoked the Halachic concepts of Mesirah and Lashon Harah to persuade and prevent survivors and their families from reporting abuse.
But Halacha does not only permit reporting allegations of abuse to the relevant authorities, Halacha demands it of us. And while for many this is obvious, unfortunately recent events once again remind us that the Orthodox world still has much more work to do to create awareness about abuse, and create a safe-space for survivors of abuse to come forward.
The Talmud prohibits Mesirah, informing on a fellow Jew, or turning him into the authorities (See Gittin 7a. See also Rosh Hashanah 17a.).
Mesirah is such a serious offense, it is a capital crime (Rambam, Hil. Chovel U’mazik 8:10). The Talmud (Bava Kamma 117a) relates a story of how one of the sages broke the neck of a would-be informant, as the very threat of Mesirah is punishable by death (See Rambam, Ibid.). Rambam and others compare the Moser to a Rodef, a pursuant, pursuing another with the intent to kill or rape. Mesirah is considered such an imminent danger, Rambam rules: “It is permitted to kill the Moser in any place, and even nowadays when we don’t judge capital crimes” (Ibid. See also Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 388:10).
But according to many authorities, the prohibition of Mesirah is limited to informing on a Jew to a corrupt government who will not hesitate to put him to death. Mesirah does not apply in a just society, ruled by law and order.
In his Aruch Hashulchan, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein makes an important comment: “Note: As is known to ‘students of history,’ in times of old and in places far away, no person had any security in the safety of his person or property due to pirates and bandits, even if they took upon themselves the name of government. As is known even today, in some countries in Africa, where the government itself is rooted in evil and robbery. The kingdoms in Europe should be mentioned for the good, and particularly our ruler the Czar and his predecessors, and the kings of England, who have spread the wings of their rule over far-away lands in order that people should have security in the safety of their person and property. So that even the wealthy do not have to hide so that others will not loot or kill them… these rules apply only to one who informs on another to bandits and so endangers that person’s money and life…” (Aruch Hashulchan, Choshen Mishpat 388:8).
Writing in the late-19th Century, Rabbi Epstein believed that Mesirah only applies when turning over a Jew to a government of “bandits.” With the protection of the Czar in his day, Mesirah was no longer a concern. All the more so, today! And while the intent of this passage is the subject of some discussion and debate, it is cited by many later authorities as authoritative. In fact, many contemporary authorities permit reporting crimes committed by Jews in the State of Israel and the United States and other Western countries, where the alleged offender has the right to a fair trial (See, for example, Tzitz Eliezer 19:52).
Likewise, many contemporary authorities rule that one is obligated to report allegations of abuse to the relevant authorities, among them: Rabbis Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, Moshe Shternbuch, Asher Weiss, and Hershel Schachter. Not only is it not a violation of Mesirah, but reporting abuse is a matter of Pikua’ch Nefesh, saving life, as the trauma inflicted by abuse destroys lives, which we saw so tragically just last week.
Lashon Hara, ill speech, is so egregious, our sages compare it to idolatry, adultery, and murder (Arachin 15b). Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen of Radin begins his major work, Chafetz Chaim, by calculating just how many negative prohibitions and positive commandments one violates when speaking Lashon Harah.
The Torah instructs, “You shall not go about gossiping among your people” (Lev. 19:17). But the very continuation of the verse would appear to limit the prohibition: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” If your fellow is in jeopardy, than such speech is warranted – even required (See the comments of Chizkuni, Ohr Hachayim, and Ha’emek Davar, ad Loc.).
In fact, the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 236) rules that the prohibition against gossip is not relevant if the “intention is to remove [the threat of potential] damage and resolve conflict.” See also (Shaarei Teshuva, 3:221). And according to the Rambam, the prohibition against ‘standing idly by the blood of your fellow’ includes when one hears about a plot against his fellow but does nothing (Hil. Rotze’ach 1:14).
Many authorities rule that if there is a to’elet – a constructive purpose for sharing the information – one is permitted to do so (See Chafetz Chaim, Hil. Lashon Hara 10:1-2, and the conditions he stipulates there).
Is there a greater to’elet than protecting our children from abuse?
Rabbi Yisrael Isser Isserlein, who served as a dayan in Vilna in the 19th C., wrote: “All the books of Mussar make a lot of noise about the sin of Lashon Hara. I want to make noise about just the opposite – the even greater and more common sin of refraining from speaking negatively when it is necessary to save someone from harm” (Pitchei Teshuvah, OC 156).
In a responsum, Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch is highly critical of a yeshiva principal who refuses to accept allegations of abuse made against a teacher, arguing that such reports are Lashon Hara (Teshuvot V’hanhagot 5:398). Rabbi Shternbuch writes that the administration is obligated to take every accusation seriously, even when the matter is unclear, and remove the suspected abuser from the school, or place him under close, constant supervision until the matter is resolved. He concludes, “It is a great mitzvah to share any suspicion or concern, and the principal must listen and be concerned and provide all students with the greatest level of protection. And if he is negligent he is included in ‘Cursed is he who carries out the mission of Hashem deceitfully.'”
Some rabbis feel it best to handle these matters internally, quietly, avoiding publicity. But the problem with keeping allegations of abuse quiet and handling them internally is that it is often the case that abusers continue to offend. If there is reliable information – raglayim la’davar – or persistent rumors – kala d’lo pasik – it is a mitzvah to publicize in order to protect the community.
Baruch Hashem, recent years have seen an increased awareness in the Orthodox world about abuse. But it’s important we continue to speak about abuse in our communities and in our homes. By speaking about abuse, we empower survivors to come forward and can help stop the abuse from continuing. By speaking about abuse, we create a safe-space where survivors can share their story and begin to heal. And by speaking about abuse, we create awareness in our community and can educate our children, giving them the necessary tools to protect themselves.