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Sclerosis and Goosebumps

In last week’s parsha, Pharaoh hardened his heart for the last time, and lost everything. (Too bad he couldn’t get a heart transplant from a pig.  It might have helped.)

In this weeks parsha, Yisro is heartened by the Israelite victories, yet he still gets goosebumps—vayichad Yisro—about the other side’s losses.

The suicide of Chaim Walder following the flood of credible allegations of some of the worst sorts of abuse against the children he ostensibly championed and upon which his reputation and celebrity were built engendered three distinct reactions from religious authorities here and in Israel.

The most obvious morally correct responses are not in need of much examination or analysis. Suffice it to say that that one wishes that these reactions had been the de rigeur responses, and that they would have set the tone for the overall communal response.

Excerpts (but these pieces should be read from beginning to end):

The Walder Case and Suicide: Lessons Learned and Not Learned:

“I also think that Walder’s direct victims may celebrate his death, just as Bnei Yisroel sang about the Mitzrim drowning in the Reed Sea even while Hashem silenced the angels…Walder’s apparent suicide changes nothing. We cannot allow the risk of suicide – however sincere and realistic – to prevent the exposure of predators. In this case, I can’t see how anything that was done should have been changed to prevent that outcome…The evidence that has emerged since makes his guilt certain for all practical human purposes. He committed suicide only following the emergence of that evidence, with the certainty that more would emerge.”

Our Kids Need Protecting, Not Our Community: 

“Our community is not getting bad press because we have child molesters. Sadly, every society in the world has its share. We are getting slammed precisely because some folks seem to care more about our reputation and less about the safety of our children and the trauma of abuse survivors. Our public image will dramatically improve when we direct our focus inward; reporting abusers to the authorities, encouraging victims to come forward without fear of retribution, helping them get professional counseling, and making research-based, child safety training for children, parents and educators a top priority.”

On Books in a Jewish Home, on Evil and on Chilul Hashem:

“The statements that were made at the funeral and were quoted in articles in the name of specific rabbis—whether the rabbis really said those things or not—that the big lesson from this story is the damage of lashon hara, were at best misplaced, and at worst yet another example of wicked manipulation. Even more problematic, this message has a direct impact on victims of abuse, who in the future will not come forward and report their abusers. This reality will not only hurt those victims, but it will also put all of us in danger—your children and mine—because the best friend of an abuser is silence.”

These should have set the baseline response. Unfortunately, much of the brouhaha that followed the suicide just exemplified how far off the mark the other responses were.

Like Pharaoh from the beginning of Exodus until the drowning of his retinue at the Red Sea, too many high-level responses to the aftermath of the suicide manifested Pharaonic heart hardening, triggered by yet another threat to the credibility of the doctrine of daas torah, even starker when one considers the already significant negative impact caused by the confused responses at the beginning of the COVID pandemic and the tragedy in Meron.

[Is the “Pharaonic” label fair? One can cite several precedents. Judge Ruchie Freier recalled how one principal who told her that “we don’t want our girls to think” reminded her of how the Sodomites used to “surgically” make their hotel guests fit into bed; one of the authorities I cited above said that Walder having his name dragged through the mud was akin to Hezekiah dragging the bones of his recently deceased wicked father through the streets of Jerusalem with approval from the Sages. I would go even a step further and label Walder’s works as Balaamic: full of praise for their charges while what he did to them indicates where his mind [and not just that] really was at. While we don’t need to literally drag Walder’s bones through the streets [his massive public funeral and immediate public posthumous accolades indicate it would be a well-nigh impossibility], it might not be the worst idea to send dumpsters into every community that has his books, collect them, take them to the shore of the Dead Sea, and then process them through woodchoppers into the saline lake. Velo yidbak meumah min hacherem. And—like TB Sanhedrin says about Baalam—anything that can be said lignai should be.]

In the meantime, faced with trying to make sense of—or cover up—what one frum British observer has called “the Charedi Jimmy Savile”, the wagons were once again circled at top speed:

At Present, Walder’s Books Are Permitted To Be Read:

“Every person is presumed innocent until otherwise proven. This is known in secular law as the presumption of innocence. He is not a rasha who needs to prove that he has not sinned. Nothing is yet proven…Up to this point the complaints from women were not investigated in this adversarial manner.

(Note in this case how daas torah seems to be suspended in order to allow a “secular” principle to aid the whitewash.

Silence assured:

“….he continues, it is forbidden to believe the allegations, based on the laws of “Lashon Hara.” He says of alleged victims that perhaps they are making it up or they might believe what they are saying but they could have “fantasized it.” He says in order to believe the allegations, the victims must appear before an unbiased beit din in front of the accused. The beit din must investigate both the claims and the defense and determine what is “true” after a total investigation. Until beit din rules the accusation to be true, it is all labeled choshesh (suspicion).”

‘No Leniency In Lashon Hara Permits People To Spill Blood And Murder A Jew’:

“…even if according to halacha we need to beware of someone, there is no leniency or even hint of leniency allowing people to spill blood and murder a Jew. It is obvious that this is deemed murdering him and it is obvious that the murderer has no portion in the World to Come. It is clear that the great pressure he was under led him to lose his sanity and kill himself. This is called murder.”

The Chaim Walder Parsha:

“When the story broke, I chose to say little. I wasn’t there and neither was the supercilious writer for Haaretz, one of Israel’s left-leaning dailies. I had heard his name before. His career is built on exposés and he spares no effort time or (probably other people’s) money on digging up anything he could about the observant community that he abandoned. Often times people who leave the path of Torah remain scrupulous about some mitzvos. I don’t know him personally, but I know that one mitzvah that he treats lightly is telling the truth. As time went on, it turned out that some of Israel’s most respected authorities, world class dayanim associated with the most respected courts were conducting interview after interview. Their conclusions were hair-raising and undisputed. One thing must not be forgotten. I am not sure what the sentence would have been if he were tried in a court of law, and sentenced, but I am sure that we don’t have a punishment called Death By Shaming.

And the administration of one prominent US girls school had this to say:

“In light of the recent horror that has occurred in Eretz Yisroel in regard to a well-known children’s author, I urge you all to exercise extreme restraint when discussing this…In truth, this subject should never have reached the ears of our children in the first place. As a community, we need to be more vigilant about what we share with our children and what we allow them to view, read or hear. We are partially the cause of this unnecessary crisis of how to support our children who are now grappling with too-much-information. Let’s be more careful. I therefore ask that you do not include your family in this discussion. If they bring it to you, please seek counsel from a Rav on how to address it. After consulting with Daas Torah, we suggest that where possible, it is best to remain vague…

Then there were “clarifications” that followed some of these proclamations:

Official Response To Walder Affair… ‘These Matters Must Be Dealt With Confidentially’:

“An official response to the Chaim Walder affair has been published in the name of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. VINnews published a response immediately after the suicide but since then we have learned from Rabbi Edelstein’s family that the response (i.e. that adulterers receive the World to Come but public shamers do not) was based on what Rabbi Edelstein told Chaim Walder himself before the suicide. The addition stating that the suicide was murder (because he was driven to it by those criticizing him) was not apparently said by Rabbi Edelstein himself but was said by some of his close disciples.”

Betrayal:

“I have a confession to make. I wrote my last letter when I was suffering from the “Say it isn’t so” syndrome. … I wasn’t fully informed. Until I heard the dayanim who investigated the abuse had found the accusations to be true, I could not allow myself to let the emotions that I now feel to surface but, the reason that I don’t blindly trust anti-religious journalists is not because they don’t wear the right kippahs or that the stories they choose are juicy. Their policy of denigrating the religious community (and not only the chareidim but also the “settlers” and any one else who is not them) is not a deep secret. Don’t simplify a complex issue.

These “apologies” themselves were Pharaonic in that one knew they were more exercises in PR damage control rather than expressions of sincere regret for the damage caused to the victims of Walder’s crimes, the students who looked up to these authorities and who now were openly questioning their credibility if not their moral fitness to lead, and to the overall perception of Torah as a moral lodestone in general. There is a specific halachic term for that last scenaraio, and I don’t have to spell it out, because one of the first three rabbonim I quoted delineates how this particular offense was committed multiple times with aggravating factors:

“All of these actions send one of two possible messages to the community: Either Walder was innocent and we don’t believe that he did anything wrong, or even worse, that even if the accusations are true and he did something wrong, it isn’t that important. Each of these messages, and particularly both together, are a chilul Hashem.

Ironically, before the suicide, the heart hardening was relatively muted: even with the references to daas torah and the hope that the allegations weren’t true, the fact that major religious retail chains were convinced enough of the credibility of the charges to pull his books from circulation was a big step, and was acknowledged was such, irrespective of whether it was in reaction to market forces or whether it was driven by actual moral concerns. Mitoch shelo lishma bah lishma.  But that all went to hell after the suicide, and the Pharaonic reflexes kicked in with full force. Almost as if vayaar ki haysa harvacha—they saw the opportunity created by Walder’s self-martyrdom and couldn’t resist taking it.

One could hope and pray that, like in Beshalach, this Pharaonic heart hardening is the last one. But that’s unlikely: one principal in the daas torah community told the mother of a victim that she was allowed halachically to go to the police, but he would still kick all her children out of his yeshiva if they did. Clearly a lot of the daas torah community already knows that there’s no real halachic basis for their insistence to not moser predators to the police; like baseball before Jackie Robinson broke the color line, where baseball “tradition” maintaining its culture even with no real written policy keeping it in place–because the they knew one wasn’t needed–an ostensible cultural “tradition” trumped an actual halacha.

Then there were those who almost got it right.  Maybe even 99.44% right.

Chaim Walder:

“Taken at face value, Rav Gershon offered a simple equation. Walder was guilty of some sexual indiscretions. Others were guilty of retzichah. Retzichah is worse than adultery. Therefore those who unnecessarily contributed to his death are worse than Walder. That, however, is simply wrong. Molestation of children and teens is also murder. Don’t we all know that by now? …it might very well be that those whom Rav Gershon is critical of killed one person – but Walder may have killed many, many more. … The actual numbers are irrelevant. So is Walder’s innocence or guilt. If the presumption is allowed to stand that he may only have violated an aveirah of gilui arayos, we have a much greater problem on our hands. If this is what we will share with our families, we can be certain that there will be many more victims in the years to come. Some of them will kill themselves, r”l. Whom will we fault then? If Rav Gershon doesn’t realize all of this, responsible people close to him will certainly share the blame if they don’t convey to him what the fine people at Amudim, the parents who have lost their children, and the properly trained therapists who deal with their trauma all know.”

Still—

Rav Gershon Edelstein’s shlit”a’s words are a powerful reproach about how we use speech”…

…the notion that one could parse that particular statement as just an imprecation against the evils of social media generally without it portending another wagon circling in order to protect the ultimate reputation of the criminal and the community he represented is—bewildering, to be charitable. Especially since the author recognizes the effects of the offenses much more than those he considers to be leaders of his community, as well as recognizing that said leaders seem to have that blind spot when it comes to this issue.

(Referencing the David/Batsheva narrative is no accident: it’s an oft-used tactic of defenders of miscreants from daas torah (and other) communities to use the ostensible sexual indiscretion as the worst offense in need of forgiveness, as opposed to the horrifying abuse that they still seem to be unable—or even unwilling—to address from within halachic sources. Also, as this specific reference to adultery is spoken in the Talmud by King David himself, it isn’t unusual to hear “well, King David made a mistake and he did teshuva”, simultaneously whitewashing the crime in question AND elevating the miscreant to the spiritual level of a King David.  This was heard a lot when the long criminal history of Baruch Lanner was revealed in 2000.)

As one of the other authorities above noted—one who has been at the forefront of trying to get the more fervent Orthodox communities to face up to and deal with the abusers in their midst—this was not a time to be theologically didactic:

“…those who are toiling to promote the public relations of our community without expending at least an equal amount of their energy improving child safety are making our public image worse[,] not better, for they are just hammering home the points our detractors are making.”

The focus on the didactics as opposed to the crime is wholly inappropriate, particularly in a case like this.

Another rabbinic analysis also left no wiggle room for Walder or his defenders and gave pointers on how to explain why his books were being removed—but still, without even mentioning daas torah or ostensibly even meaning to buttress the concept, he still seemed to give it underserving if unwitting props. While he did instruct “Tell your children that if they are Chas V’Shalom touched, they did nothing wrong, and they should never feel ashamed to tell you”—he left open exactly to whom the predator should be reported, possibly because he’s aware of the aforementioned strong cultural discomfort (extreme understatement) with getting secular law enforcement involved.

More specifically, the author still felt compelled to repeat the notion that Yichud has a prominent role in keeping children safe (“Make sure laws of Yichud are always followed very stringently”), which is—well, let’s just say exhorting the populace at large to be more shomer yichud as if that would be the panacea for some of the worst possible behaviors that could be committed by a public Torah personality is a nonsequitur at best, and a distortion at worst.

Yichud didn’t save children from Walder. Yichud didn’t save Kolko’s talmidim. Yichud didn’t save Malka Leifer’s students. BECAUSE YICHUD DIDN’T APPLY IN THOSE CASES. Making a nonsequiturian, Pavlovian connection between Yichud on one hand and prevention of predation on the other ultimately does a tremendous disservice to that halacha in particular, and halacha in general.

Furthermore, the implications behind the lectures on being “more tznius” and “more careful about yichud” is almost always by default directed at women; one can say with certainty that that is the perception, and if it isn’t the reality, one gets the idea that those doing the exhorting wish it were. If these lectures were directed at the men who were the potential “sinners”—let alone the potential predators—with equal emphasis and vigor, we might see decreased criminality, and maybe even better (more “halachic”, even!!!) behavior in general. (Maybe Malka Leifer was so makpid on yichud that she only assaulted girls.) Instead of telling the victims to cover up and seclude themselves, potential miscreants need to be urged to yeshev badad veyidom—sit alone in silence—before they end up doing that for real in jail.

(Although, to be fair, the notion isn’t just limited to the daas torah community: a prominent Orthodox feminist who is legitimately critical of many Orthodox inconsistencies—from both the daas torah and more modern communities—made the same miscalculation.)

In these cases, because of “yichud”, we have “vayichad”—Rashi notes that the goosebumps last “ten generations”. The reflex to defend daas torah prerogatives is so ingrained that the real message will always be distorted.

But one should remember the Talmudic maxim: “the world exists on the breath of schoolchildren.”

There is no parallel statement “the world exists on daas torah.”

About the Author
Jon Taub is an ex-Upper West Sider, now-married Riverdalean who has two MA's, plays three instruments, and consults for biostartups.
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