There is a very perplexing and somewhat complicated but insightful incident recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 55, a) about a woman who arrives at court to describe the physical and sexual abuse she endured. According to the narrative there are at least two rabbis known to have heard this woman’s account and her tears of pain. The more senior rabbi Shmuel and a more subordinate Rav Yehuda. Shmuel listened but did not respond to the woman’s cries. Rav Yehuda is extremely troubled by Shmuel’s silence and exclaims his disappointment to his superior. “If one closes his ears to cries of the poor, he too will have no advocate to answer his pleas.”
Shmuel responds that it is true that he may be punished by god for not reacting to the woman but that Mar Ukva, the head of the court, Shmuel’s senior and the one who has the power to judge the case will suffer the most significant consequences for not responding to the woman. To bolster his position Shmuel quotes a verse from Jeremiah (21, 12). The verse includes the phrase “Execute justice in the morning and rescue the robbed from the robber, lest my fury go forth like fire…” The implication is clear, those who are most responsible for aiding others are the most responsible in addressing their needs and providing proper judgement and assistance. Clearly, the Talmud included this story as a cautionary tale. And unfortunately, the warning remains relevant in our time.
Two incidents reported last week harken back to this ancient account. A report of a recording made of rabbi Moshe Dror Tzanani, a rabbinic leader in the Shuvu Banim Hasidic community in which he rationalized his senior rabbinic leader Rabbi Eliezer Berland’s sexual offenses to a complainant was circulated. () Berland was convicted in 2016 for indecent acts against women and assault and served 10 of the 18 months he was sentenced to. Tzanani met with an unidentified man who apparently came to complain that a relative of his was groped under her blouse by Berland. According to reports of the audio Tzanani can be heard saying that Berland is not guilty because “he has no body at all.” Berland is, according to Tzanani, so holy that “he has no (physical) feeling (of arousal) at all” and can even cure illness by kissing. It is true that a religious court issued an edict against Berland that said in part “Those who guard their souls must stay away from him.” In fact, three Hareidi courts issued similar edicts against Berland. Yet, he remains in a position of power in the community despite being jailed presently on charges of financial fraud, tax evasion and exploitation.
Rabbi Moti Elon, once a prominent religious leader, was convicted in 2013 for sexual assault against a minor and received a sentence that would have been more appropriate for a traffic offense, six months of community service. He returned to a rabbinic role and was then again accused of similar charges in 2018. A movement to have the Chief Rabbinate revoke Elon’s accreditation to serve in a rabbinic role led to a declaration that Elon agreed not to seek any public office for ten years following his initial conviction. That agreement would have allowed him to return to rabbinic office in 2013. Given the 2018 incident several organizations have petitioned Israel’s high court to pressure the Rabbinate to have Elon’s credentials revoked. The response of the chief Rabbinate to the court was that it had apparently come to an agreement with Elon that he would never again seek public office and would not officiate at weddings. This again is hardly an appropriate sentence.
These two cases imply failures of both the rabbinic and legal leadership. Elon and Berland have managed to minimize any significant consequences for the sexual harm they have caused. Despite the accusations and convictions and even some of the legal and rabbinic proclamations both men have not received consequences commensurate with their horrendous deeds. Their followers continue to proclaim innocence albeit in a more limited way and advocate for their continuing leadership.
Isolating sexual offenders is an important requirement to protect members of the community. Neither of these two convicted reprobates have been sequestered for a period commensurate to their actions and to act as a warning that they are being monitored and will be disciplined harshly if they continue to abuse. Agreements are just statements, words that are ultimately unenforceable. Twenty-five hundred years ago we were taught to “execute justice” particularly to protect our community from sexual and physical abuse. That admonition seems to have lost its power and passion. As Shmuel noted, there is a price that will be paid for these limited reactions.