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Sorry seems to be the hardest word

The victims of sexual abuse at Yeshiva University deserve a genuine apology, not ambiguous expressions of remorse

Earlier this year, I was deposed by a private firm investigating sexual abuse allegations at Yeshiva University High School.

I can understand why they wanted to talk to me. Though one of the main alleged offenders, Macy Gordon, was before my time, I knew the other, George (Gedalia) Finkelstein quite well. My father served under and eventually succeeded him as assistant principal of YUHS for Boys, also known as MTA, and as rabbi of our shul. He was also our neighbor, in the next apartment building over on Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan. His daughter was my first crush.

But apparently, there was a lot I didn’t know about George. I didn’t know about his habit of “wrestling” students in the 70’s and 80’s, although apparently then-YU President Rabbi Norman Lamm did, as reported by The Forward’s Paul Berger. The door was taken off his office to prevent this from recurring, but eventually he “was quietly forced out” in 1995. Don’t worry, he landed on his feet, taking over a huge Jewish school in Florida before making aliya a few years later to work for Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. Complaints have been lodged here as well–with our old friends at Takanah.

When these allegations surfaced late last year, current YU Pres. Richard Joel issued the following statement:

The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible. The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for. They have no place here, in our community, or anywhere at all. The thought that such behavior could have occurred at our boys’ high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past, is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the University, my deepest, most profound apology.

It’s a forceful statement, until you analyze it a bit. Joel is reacting to the Forward, what they “allege” and what they “attribute.” He does not mention any victims, except to talk about the great YU guidelines for aiding theoretical people. After all, it’s just a thought of such behavior, and only in that context does he “express… my deepest, most profound apology.” Are there victims? Did any of this occur? Did Rabbi Lamm say this? Who knows!

A week later, they hired a firm to investigate these allegations, and their report came out yesterday, with another statement from Joel:

There are findings set forth in this report that serve as a source of profound shame and sadness for our institution. On behalf of the Board of Trustees and the entire University community, I express my deepest and most heartfelt remorse, and truly hope that our recognition of these issues provides some level of comfort and closure to the victims. Although we cannot change the past, we remain committed to making confidential counseling services available to those individual victims in the hope they can achieve a more peaceful future.

Now that he has an actual report, he’s not apologetic, but remorseful. I guess we should be happy that he acknowledges the existence of victims, although he does not offers apologies or remorse to them. The problem here is that remorse (from the Latin remorsus) refers to a gnawing sense of guilt, pangs of conscience. However, what does not appear in this statement are the words “sorry,” “apologize,” “regret,” “teshuva,” “repentance” or “forgiveness.” But that might imply liability.

After all, people have informed me on social media, and I quote, “This is as good as it gets when you are being sued for $680 milllion.” Well, it’s true that more than a dozen of the victims filed suit against YU for $380 million in July. Hmm, maybe they should thank George for this potential windfall. I mean, once you sue, you’re not a victim anymore, right? And it’s inconceivable that there are other victims out there who didn’t sue, right? Phew, glad that’s over.

So why am I “fixated on a word,” to quote another commenter? Because this sort of stuff matters to abuse victims. Check out Yerachmiel Lopin’s Frum Follies blog or follow Dorron Katzin on Twitter; they are excellent at covering these scandals. You’ll quickly get a sense of how important a clear, unambiguous, direct apology can be. Moreover, the lack of consequences for associating with abusers after their crimes have been exposed was recently dissected by former RCA Pres. Rabbi Heshie Billet. YU can and must do much more right now, even though Joel’s through-line seems to be “we cannot change the past” and touting the awesomeness of the university’s guidelines for the future. What about the present?

Indeed, Sir Elton, sorry seems to be the hardest word. In fact, one of the classic questions about this season of penitence is the following: Why does it matter? Why should saying “sorry” or “we have sinned” change anything? Isn’t it just an empty ritual?

No, it’s not. It means something, because it implies the need to do something to rectify the error, as best we can. At least that’s what I thought until Pres. Joel set me straight:

…on Yom Kippur, Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second set of luchot, the Ten Commandments. These tablets differed from the first in that they were written by God and yet fashioned by Moses…

In the season of introspection, we must fortify that relationship by recommitting to the ongoing work of creation. If our future is to align with the ethical and personal imperatives of our sacred Torah, then we must not wait – we must make it so, not merely in word but in action.

Did you think Yom Kippur was about past misdeeds? No, it’s about moving on. Take two new tablets for that remorse, and don’t call me in the morning. Assuming you can sleep through the night.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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