The suicide of serial abuser and known children’s author highlights three of the greatest tragedies orthodoxy has seen—the past, the present, and the future.
The past-the many victims he had, the innocent children and teens he violated, the vulnerable women he manipulated and abused, the husbands who lost their wives and homes, and the devastating pain and eternal trauma he left will continue to linger for many decades to come. We must make sure we stand with victims—Chaim Walder’s victims and the many other victims of abuse and harassment that live among us, often suffering in silence.
The present—While Chaim Walder’s suicide means he will no longer pry on innocent victims, it leaves a great challenge to parents and educators. Parents and educators need to thoughtfully discuss the importance of mental health, suicide prevention, and protecting oneself from predators. The danger of copycat suicide effects is real, and precautions must be taken. There is also a tremendous difficulty that comes with having to explain to children that their beloved book’s author, whose books champion morality and character, is a cruel predator who used his credibility to victimize others for his own pleasure. The innocence taken will never be returned.
The future—while others had little control over Walder’s actions, the handling and the aftermath of his suicide have been absolutely devastating, with negative impacts that will linger for years to come. From the huge funeral, a size reserved for great Torah scholars, to the obituaries in the Haredi newspapers, to the too many people saying Walder was “killed” by those who exposed him, too many establishment figures are choosing to turn Walder into a martyr rather than portray him for the villain he was. Israel’s chief rabbi visiting the family sitting shiva rather than visiting the victims sent a terrible message. Too many schools using Walder’s story to teach about the dangers of Lashon Hara, portraying Walder as the victim, rather than speaking about the importance of safety or the dangers of suicidality, will silence too many victims in the future. Too many kids will now fear speaking out against their abuser lest they be blamed for their abusers’ suicide.
Worse yet, too few people within the orthodox community have spoken out against Walder. The Venn diagram between those who are always there to defend orthodoxy’s public image and those condemning Walder and his like did not have enough of an overlap.
And thus, by cynically committing suicide on his son’s grave, the day the police opened a criminal investigation, writing a letter denying it all and attacking those who scrutinized him, Chaim Walder opened another wound that is likely to cause much more pain, damage, and suffering.
What actions can we take to change the future for the better?
Change the way schools and shuls teach about Lashon Hara-when teaching about the important and severe prohibition against Lashon Hara (slandering, gossip, or discussing things that will hurt others), which teach it as a blanket rule with exceptions. You can never talk negatively about others, yet there are exceptions, those being when spoken for a constructive reason, i.e., spare someone loss, damage, etc.). Yet this approach has failed us and is not authentic to the message of the Torah. Yes, there are exceptions to the restriction of the Lashon Hara. There is, however also a Mitzvah of Lo Taamod Al Dam Re’echa—do not stand by idly as your fellow’s blood is being spilled”. (Vayikra 19). This means that if you have information that can save your friend from pain, loss, suffering, or death, you have a positive obligation to share that information. We need to talk more about that obligation. All too often, people spend their days speaking negatively about others with no qualms. Yet, when asked for information that can be life-saving and helpful, they go silent. We need to speak more about the obligation to save others and spare others of damage caused by abusers and those who cynically manipulate the good ethics and values that we cherish.
Do not write yourself out of the Haredi conversation- while society as a whole struggle with our obligations to survivors of sexual abuse, Haim Walder’s abuse highlighted some of the mechanisms that help shield abusers in more insular communities. As per police statistics, the Haredi city of Beitar Ililit/Kiryat Sefer remains the most dangerous city for children in Israel. Walder was exposed by reporters who grew up in the Haredi community and reported on it from the outside. If you have the ability to support victims, expose abusers, or do anything that will bring about a safer and more wholesome community for all, do not shy away from that. I personally do not live in a Haredi community. When writing and speaking out about what is going inside, I get attached too often for just speaking out. “Leave us alone .”As the only cases in the bible recording such an argument were made in the city of Sedom )” they said, “came here as an alien. Already he acts the judge!”, Genesis 19) and by the wicked Datan and Aviram (“Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? “, Exodus 2), these are bad arguments. If you see something wrong, if you see someone’s wellbeing threatened, you do not have the right to remain silent.
I do not believe in criticizing those who do things differently than me. Even if I do not agree with the way others run their life, I have no right to tell them what to do. Yet if it is someone’s wellbeing at stake—even if that someone belongs to the other community—I do not have the right to remain silent.
The fact that the Israeli police waited for so long to open an investigation into Walder’s actions and that too few non-orthodox journalists and outlets expressed interest in the story highlights the sin of indifference we have to those who are not in our immediate community. It should not be that way.
Finally, we need to address the silent and complicit. Too often, when stories of abuse break, we hear some say: “I knew all along .”Or “he’s been doing this for years,” “I heard about this several times .”We cannot tolerate such indifference in the future. We must have more open conversations on the sin of silence when there is an active threat to our community.
May we be blessed with the words of the prophet Isaiah: “and I will make your officers peace and your rulers righteousness. Violence shall no longer be heard in your land, neither robbery nor destruction within your borders, and you shall call salvation your walls and your gates praise.” (Isaiah 60)