As many of you, I have been following the news about sexual abuse allegations against Rabbi Chaim Walder and have been horrified and disgusted that this renowned ultra-orthodox Children’s book author and therapist is now accused of abusing the same. Like community Rabbis (e.g. Rabbi Barry Freundel) or Jewish educators (e.g. Stanley Rosenfeld), this phenomenon of using a privileged position to take advantage of women and children is certainly, by this time, not new and remains a stain on the Jewish community, no different than that of the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts for the abuse by its priest and leaders on those that trusted them and the religious values and ideals they represent.
Truly, these horrible acts of hurting, abusing, and scarring for life women and children (including boys) are regrettably all around us, whether with domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, and human trafficking. But fortunately now they are at least “out of the closet” where rather than have the community deny the possibility that such evil exists or even circle the wagons to wholly protect the perpetrators (before fully investigating the facts), we now have greater recognition and are working towards accountability of these wrongs, and hopefully, far greater protection for people in the future.
In light of this tug-of-war between good and evil in this world, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a Tanya class this week. The Tanya is the Chabad handbook for Chasidic philosophy and Jewish spiritual mysticism (Kabbalah), and in this particular class, the Rabbi taught about the differences between holiness and goodness (kedushah) of thoughts, words, and deeds on one side; the totally impure or evil (Sitra Achra or Kelipot) on the other side; and in the middle (Kelipot Nogah) which are the secular or material phenomena that we can either elevate to holiness, use benignly and meaninglessly, or abuse for evil. In my understanding, examples of these are as follows:
- Holiness/Goodness: Acts of subservience to G-d and of compassion and kindness (Chesed) to others is holy.
- Impure/Evil: Idolatry, murder, sexual abuse and other acts of desecration of G-d (Chillul Hashem) and hurting people or the world is evil.
- Between these, we can use worldly, material things to recognize and worship G-d like saying a blessing before eating your food or keeping the Sabbath to elevate the mundane of life’s time and space to holiness or we can just go through life focused on materialism, excess, greed, and our pleasure and self-satisfaction as the meaningless end points.
Clearly, using a position of trust to take advantage of others, such as sexually abuse mentioned at the outset fall, into the category of evil.
An important point that the Rabbi brought up is the alignment of ourselves inside and outside, of our heart and soul with our deeds. How do we transform ourselves such that our outwardly religious observance accurately reflects our motivations, intentions, and true person inside? I connect this to our central Jewish tenet and prayer of Shema Yisrael, where we say (Deuteronomy 6:4-5):
Hear, O Israel: The L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one. And you should love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
In short, the Shema is telling us that your heart, soul, and might need to be in alignment to really love G-d and acknowledge His oneness. In other words, being “religious” means not only acting it on the outside, but meaning it on the inside. “We will do, and we will listen” (Na’aseh v’Nishmah) doesn’t mean that we do and never get to really listening, understanding, and meaning it. In other words, hypocrites need not apply!
It’s interesting, all of this came together for me, when I remembered that my dear father, Fred Blumenthal (זצ״ל) used to teach me two seemingly contradictory things:
- “The Torah is your guide.”
- “Follow your conscience.”
Well, which is it? Should I blindly follow the holy Torah, or should I follow my inner conscience that tells me right from wrong, good from evil?
Now I understand how my father’s words fit perfectly together to create alignment of character and behavior.
- The Torah is the soul, the spark from G-d that He puts in every one of us (and the breath of life he breathed into Adam). This is the fire of our soul that creates the light in the deepest of darkness and is our mission to be a “light unto the nations.”
- The conscience is our heart, where our inner voice and passion tells us the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. We know it when we see it and can usually smell it a mile away! This keeps our following of the Torah pure and the substance of it on the truth track.
Only when our soul (Torah) and our heart (conscience) are in alignment for good, can we be genuinely true to ourselves and our life’s mission for holiness. However, in situations where people profess to be religious, but in reality behave badly, then we know there is misalignment between the person’s heart and soul, beliefs and conduct.
Moreover, if someone tells you something is “Torah,” but your conscience is telling you something doesn’t feel right then you need to examine it to make sure you are not being led astray by self-righteous and -proclaimed scholars, prophets and messiahs.
Whether rabbis or priests, leaders or educators, or even the regular lay person whose heart and soul diverge, that is where falsehood, hypocrisy, evil and abuse lie. That is where bad things happen in the darkness, and where the victims scream out to stop, for mercy, and ultimately for justice.