Rabbi Zev Leff is a highly respected teacher and lecturer who has taught in various seminaries and yeshivot in Israel.
He recently gave a lecture about the Chaim Walder episode that I found to be extremely troubling. Many of the difficulties were expressed by Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll in a recent Facebook video, but I want to elaborate on some of the additional problems which stood out to me.
He declares his sympathy for victims of abuse while acknowledging the severity of the effects of abuse. However, 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).
The dishonesty that is displayed in this lecture is astonishing. Either Rabbi Leff is ignorant as to the facts of the case or he is deliberately deceiving his audience for some unknown reason.
As is well known, a beit din was convened by HaRav Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Tzfat and the court ruled definitively that Walder was guilty of abuse against women and girls and boys. Walder was invited to be present at the beit din, but refused. Rabbi Leff makes no mention of the beit din or its ruling. Even if he had an issue with this court and its decision, to present this lecture as if the accusations are exaggerated, fantasized, or made up trivializes and demeans the victims and ironically is the actual “Lashon Hara” in this case.
Based on the Q and A after the lecture, it’s clear that he gave this class to a group of young women. This makes it all the more concerning. He is in essence telling these girls that if, Heaven forfend, they were to be abused, speaking out would be futile as it would virtually impossible to prove their claims unequivocally based on the qualifications he has presented.
He argues that Walder’s books should still be supported because they are not expounding his personal philosophy but rather consist of children’s stories that he merely compiled and edited. Therefore, even if he happened to be found guilty his books would still be permitted because the material is unrelated to his crimes. Oh, but it is related and horribly so! Claiming to be a safe space for children to speak and then using that safe space to take advantage and abuse people who trusted him makes the entire enterprise treif! Keeping those books in circulation is a slap in the face to the children who know first-hand the damage of sending out these sort of mixed messages that are a hotbed for victim grooming. Books that took stories based on trust and then used to abuse should never be read. It is morally wrong. Period.
He further states that the only reason to have banned his books would be to not give him a level of “chashivus” (importance), which is no longer an issue now that he is dead. Banning his books at this point would only hurt his family’s livelihood, therefore, buying the books is simply supporting an innocent family, and “what could be wrong with that”?
I’m not sure how he could say a dead Chaim Walder can’t get “chashivus” when every time we learn Torah we specifically give chashivus to dead people by quoting them with ZT”L (may there memory be for a blessing), for we believe every time we quote or reference the deceased their souls are elevated.
We should feel sympathy for his family who has also suffered because of his behavior, but that still doesn’t make it right to promote his books. The community can find other ways to make sure they get the support they need that doesn’t compromise any ethics or values.
One of the students asked Rabbi Leff if someone was found guilty of a serious crime what recourse does the beit din have. He replied that the beit din has limited power today but can refer the accused to the secular authorities if they feel that he presents a future threat. He then adds that in a case like “that” (abuse) which happened in the past he must give some restitution and is not handed over as he shouldn’t go to jail for such a thing. The implication is that a serial child molester and rapist does not warrant a referral to the police and further that such abusers don’t present a future threat.
The ideas expressed in this lecture are extremely concerning, particularly as they were taught to young women. They deserve better from our rabbis and teachers. We all do.