Deputy Av Beit Din, Rabbinical Council of America - New York, NY
Head of Special Beit Din (Jewish rabbinical court) investigation, Rabbi Baruch Lanner - NJ
A group of former NCSY employees and victims stated they met privately with Willig and urged him to give an accounting of his behavior, asserting that his public silence amounted to a tacit approval for Rabbi Lanner to continue to work with teens between 1989 and 2000.
On February 19, 2003, Rabbi Willig publicly apologized for the "mistakes" made during the 1989 Bet Din proceedings. He noted that since the Bet Din did not have experience adjudicating matters of abuse, they should not have agreed to take the case. According to many of those who were sexually and physically victimized by Baruch Lanner, Rabbi Willig has never personally apologized, nor has he ever offered any type of financial compensation to them for the pain and suffering he cased them and their family members..
Rabbi Wilig was born in New York. He received an undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1968 from Yeshiva University, and a graduate degree in Jewish history in 1971 from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He also was a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
- Lanner controversy surfaces at childrearing talk - Rabbi Mordechai Willig spoke to a packed room at Cong. Beth Abraham here on Sunday night (02/07/2003)
- Still Waiting For Answers (02/07/2003)
- An Injustice That Still Lingers (01/30/2003)
- Critics Charge Rabbinic Court Covered Up Lanner Abuse (01/30/2003)
- Willig talk draws protests because of Lanner link (01/30/2003)
- Victims: Rabbi failed to protect children - They criticize his handling of sex scandal (01/31/2003)
- Group opposes lecture by rabbi (01/31/2003)
- Lanner controversy surfaces at child rearing talk: Rabbi Mordechai Willig spoke to a packed room at Cong. Beth Abraham here on Sunday (02/07/2003)
- Letters to the editor: New York Jewish Week (02/07/2003)
- Lanner Attorney Deplores `Guilt By Innuendo' (02/12/2003)
- Rabbi Mordechai Willig - Statement and Sichas Mussar (02/19/2003)
- Lanner Bet Din Rabbi Apologizes (02/20/2003)
- Learning From Rabbi Willig (02/26/2003)
- Top Rabbi Admits Errors In Handling Lanner Case (02/28/2003)
- Case of Rabbi George Finkelstein
- Case of Rabbi Macy Gordon
- Case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner
- Case of Rabbi Marc Gafni (AKA: Mordechai Winiarz)
- Case of Rabbi Mordechai Willig (enabler of sex offenders)
Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Segan Av Beth Din. Rabbi Willig is the Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth Professor of Talmud and Contemporary Halachah and the Segan Rosh Kollel of the Kollel L’Horaah Yadin Yadin at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), an affiliate of Yeshiva University. Since 1974, he has been the rabbi at the Young Israel of Riverdale in Riverdale, New York. Rabbi Willig is an authority in Jewish law, with particular expertise in Jewish divorce and beth din matters.
|Rabbi Mordechai Willig - Accused of enabling a sex offender|
Jewish Week - February 7, 2003
Search For Truth:
I was shocked and saddened by Gary Rosenblatt's disrespectful attack on Rabbi Mordechai Willig, one of our Orthodox community's exemplary Torah scholars ("An Injustice That Still Lingers," Jan. 31).
It is a terribly sad commentary on our generation when an obsession with a particular story, albeit a truly painful one for all of us, can cause a talented journalist to lose total sight of derech eretz and respectfulness for our Torah leadership. Anyone who can even begin to understand the inner soul of a true scholar knows that he is guided by an eternal search for truth.
I am sadly reminded of the biblical story of Korach and his crew attacking Moses in what they thought to be a perfectly legitimate manner. I guess there is nothing new under the sun. Where are we headed with all of this? I am truly afraid to ponder the answer because it is God who is the ultimate judge of us all.
Jane Zylberman - Englewood, N.J.
Rabbi Baruch Lanner was until very recently protected by people like Rabbi Mordechai Willig ("An Injustice That Still Lingers," Jan. 31). They all knew about Rabbi Lanner's shameful behavior, but to them his word was worth much more than any of the people who spoke up against Rabbi Lanner.
Unfortunately this behavior still continues today and Rabbi Willig and others are not willing to admit it. Good for you, Gary Rosenblatt. Congratulations for speaking out against such terrible conduct.
Erika Potasinski - Bayside, N.Y.
In his continuing crusade to seek and destroy anyone related to the Lanner situation, Gary Rosenblatt has requested that Rabbi Willig publicly address personal issues unrelated to the topic on which he has been asked to lecture ("An Injustice That Still Lingers," Jan. 31).
My only knowledge of Rabbi Willig's expertise in parenting is based on my familiarity with his own sons, and I can assure you that they have all benefited from their father's erudition and skill in the area of raising children. This, however, is not the real issue. Rabbi Willig has been hired as a speaker in order to educate his audience on Torah subjects and to help foster self-improvement.
Perhaps Mr. Rosenblatt should step off his own "high horse" and devote his considerable talents to discussing many of the same issues instead of merely criticizing others.
Jay Balsam - Flushing, N.Y.
Gary Rosenblatt's column of Jan. 31 ("An Injustice That Still Lingers") was a hatchet job, plain and simple. Could you not have found a better way to move Rabbi Willig in the right direction? A public and one-sided drubbing hardly seems fair. Unlike in the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner himself, there is no imminent danger to the community.
This seems like an abuse of your soapbox. It is difficult to imagine there is no personal element involved in this.
I respect and admire the reasoning and cogency in Rosenblatt's pieces, this one included. His content and demands are on the mark. However, the forum is wildly inappropriate and can only serve to damage the community.
Amitai Bin-Nun - New York, N.Y.
Lanner Attorney Deplores `Guilt By Innuendo'
In letter to Jewish Week, Nathan Dershowitz says `assumptions of guilt' are `unfair' to his client.
By Gary Rosenblatt
The Jewish Week - Wednesday, February 12, 2003 / 10 AdarI 5763
Rabbi Baruch Lanner's attorney this week went public in seeking to portray his client as the victim of an "atmosphere" that fosters a sense of "guilt by innuendo."
In a lengthy letter to The Jewish Week, Nathan Dershowitz of the New York City law firm Dershowitz, Eiger & Adelson sought to distinguish between the criminal charges Rabbi Lanner faced in New Jersey last year and other accusations that have been made against him.
Dershowitz questioned the veracity of the two young women who accused Rabbi Lanner of sexual abuse in the criminal case, and characterized a 1989 ad hoc bet din [religious court] ruling as one that cleared the rabbi of "all aveiros chamuros [serious sins]."
Dershowitz seeks to counter "the significant confusion in the public mind about these two different matters," pointing out that Rabbi Lanner expects to be exonerated in the criminal case and that the bet din findings did not relate to "serious criminal sexually abusive behavior" on the rabbi's part. (See page 6 for a shortened version of the letter.)
Rabbi Lanner was convicted of sexual abuse against the two former Hillel Yeshiva High School students in Ocean Township, N.J., and sentenced to seven years in prison. He is free, pending appeal, and according to Dershowitz, "anyone who reads the record in that case must conclude that there are serious factual questions as to whether his two accusers were telling the truth."
Two appellate court judges ruled that Rabbi Lanner should be released on bail since there are sufficient legal issues to be reviewed on the appeal.
In the case of the bet din, which became the subject of renewed interest in recent days after a group of former National Conference on Synagogue Youth employees and alleged victims criticized the lead judge for its conduct, Dershowitz wrote that Rabbi Lanner was found to have used "inappropriate ... salty language" and engaged in "horseplay with youngsters," but was "exonerated" of all "serious sins."
Aside from the two young women in the criminal case, Dershowitz said he has seen no allegations of Rabbi Lanner sexually abusing females "during the last 20 years."
And he noted that two of the rabbis on the three-man bet din, Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Yosef Blau, recommended Rabbi Lanner "for various positions" even after the bet din.
Dershowitz charged that "the assumptions of guilt because of atmospherics is [sic] unfair to Rabbi Lanner, to the bet din, and to the organizations with which Rabbi Lanner was affiliated." He concluded by wondering, "if and when" Rabbi Lanner is cleared of criminal charges, "who will stand in line to give him back his reputation."
Apparently not Rabbi Blau, who criticized the Dershowitz letter as "clearly a manipulation on Baruch Lanner's part" in a "pathetic" attempt to position himself as a respected member of the community should he be exonerated in the criminal case.
Rabbi Blau pointed out that the letter made no mention of The Jewish Week articles in the summer of 2000 chronicling Rabbi Lanner's years of alleged abusive behavior toward teens or the December 2000 findings of a special commission of the Orthodox Union, whose extensive report concluded that the youth leader was guilty of a wide range of abuse of teens — physical, sexual and psychological — over many years.
According to the OU report, 10 women testified "that Lanner engaged in sexually abusive behavior toward them in his NCSY career" and "credible testimony" came from witnesses "describing abusive sexual conduct by Lanner toward 16 additional girls."
The report characterized the findings of the 1989 bet din as substantiating that Rabbi Lanner "kneed teens in the groin," used "salty language" and "engaged in `crude talk with sexual overtones.' "
Rabbi Blau said that in a meeting within weeks after the bet din, when confronted with letters from women describing past sexual and physical abuse, Rabbi Lanner admitted to him and Rabbi Willig that such incidents took place in the past, but asserted he had received psychological help and was no longer a threat.
Rabbi Willig did not return phone calls Tuesday and has a policy of not speaking to the press.
"The reason I believe the two women who came forward and brought charges" in the New Jersey criminal case, "even though I don't know them," said Rabbi Blau, "is that they were totally consistent with and follow the same pattern of behavior as that [of how Rabbi Lanner treated] the many women I do know and have spoken with."
Rabbi Blau said he did recommend Rabbi Lanner for a position as principal of a school in Australia in 1991, two years after the bet din met.
"It was a mistake on my part," Rabbi Blau said, "and part of the learning process for me to understand how sick Baruch was."
Rabbi Blau said he was motivated by the belief in teshuvah, or repentance, and noted that Maimonides instructs a person seeking to repent to start over in a new environment.
"I thought it would be a good idea for Baruch to start over, far from here, but I was wrong. It was very hard me as a rabbi to accept that a person, especially a rabbi, probably is incapable of changing," Rabbi Blau said.
Dershowitz told The Jewish Week in a phone interview that the OU report was "very, very vaguely written" and he has "problems" with it. He said he was prompted to write the letter now because of the "totally misleading" sense, from recent articles and reports, that Rabbi Lanner has been "a predator" of females "in the last 20 years."
The leaders of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Lanner's employer for 30 years, have made clear that regardless of the results of the criminal trial in New Jersey, they believe he has a long history as an abuser and is not qualified to work with young people.
Harvey Blitz, president of the OU, told The Jewish Week on the eve of the June 2002 New Jersey trial that "Lanner did terrible things. Our views are not changed on that, and it is inconceivable to me that anyone would hire him to work with students. We're not walking away from our responsibility."
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Weinreb, executive vice president of the OU and a clinical psychotherapist, said scientific evidence makes clear that sex abusers cannot be rehabilitated.
Richard Joel, the chairman of the OU special commission, said there is "voluminous and irrefutable evidence" that Rabbi Lanner engaged in "horrific behavior." He noted that the New Jersey trial was "about one specific incident" and "not the Lanner history."
Critics of Rabbi Willig, the lead judge in the 1989 bet din, are hoping that he, too, will publicly endorse the OU findings and declare Rabbi Lanner guilty not only of the narrow findings of the religious court but of being an ongoing danger to the community.
They accuse Rabbi Willig of conducting an unfair trial; advancing the impression over the years that Rabbi Lanner was not found guilty of any serious charges; serving as a reference for Rabbi Lanner; and refusing to discuss the issue.
A group of former NCSY employees and victims met privately with Rabbi Willig in recent weeks and urged him to give an accounting of his behavior, asserting that his public silence amounted to a tacit approval for Rabbi Lanner to continue to work with teens between 1989 and 2000.
At a public lecture on Jewish parenting last week, Rabbi Willig praised Elie Hiller, the whistle-blower in the bet din case, but did not address the actions of the court.
Rabbi Blau has said in the past that the court was ill equipped to deal with the case, should never have taken it and was misled by many of those who testified on Rabbi Lanner's behalf.
He came to regret the court decision and took it upon himself to monitor Rabbi Lanner's behavior for more than a decade, acknowledging that he was less than successful in effecting change, though he did counsel many young people who felt bitterness or remorse over the outcome.
Yeshiva University - February 19, 2003
The following is an edited version of Rabbi Willig's remarks delivered in the Beis HaMedrash of Yeshiva University on Wednesday, February 19, 2003. Although this was not a TorahWeb event, we are posting it because many of our subscribers have asked to see it.
Part I is a statement signed by Rabbi Yosef Blau, Rabbi Aaron Levine, and Rabbi Mordechai Willig. Part II is Rabbi Willig's own text, delivered as a Sichas Mussar.
This is also available as an MP3 audio file.
In 1989, we convened as an ad hoc bet din to adjudicate charges of inappropriate behavior that Elie Hiller lodged against Rabbi Baruch Lanner in a letter that Mr. Hiller disseminated throughout the Teaneck Jewish community. Our tribunal did not have an av bet din (chief judge), and none of the judges had ever heard before a case of this type. Our explicit mandate was to investigate the charges in the letter. Although we found three of the charges to be unsubstantiated, we concluded that Rabbi Lanner was guilty of three other offenses.
At that time, we decided, based on the accepted norms of rabbinical tribunals, to share our findings only on a need-to-know basis. This decision, as well as the pesak itself, was unanimous. Under this criterion, we read the pesak to the litigants; members of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the group that convened the din torah; a representative of the Orthodox Union, which employed Rabbi Lanner; and a representative of the Roemer shul, which had just appointed Rabbi Lanner as its rabbi.
The December 21, 2000 Public Summary of the Report of the NCSY Special Commission placed in the public domain the matters of which we found Rabbi Lanner guilty, namely: kneeing teens in the groin; using salty language; and employing crude talk having sexual overtones in his interaction with female students and female NCSYers.
In this public statement, we desire to go beyond our 1989 mandate as a bet din and state our opinion as three individuals. We state categorically that, in our opinion, Rabbi Lanner, based on the misdeeds of which we found him guilty and our understanding of abuse in 2003 (which was inadequate in 1989), is unfit for communal and youth work. The numerous affidavits that corroborate Mr. Hiller's charges of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse against Rabbi Lanner, stated in the 2000 Summary Report, cited earlier, reinforce our opinion. Although the compilers of the Report do not have the halakhic status of a bet din and, therefore, their Report does not constitute a pesak, we nevertheless feel that we may rely on it for our opinion.
During the last six weeks, we met twice with Mr. Hiller and a number of concerned individuals. In the intensive interactive dialogue with this group, encompassing 11 hours, we tried to reconstruct the 1989-bet din experience. We have learned new facts and gathered new insights from these encounters.
For the record, our hearing in 1989 spanned eighteen hours. We reached our conclusions based on the information we had and deemed credible at the time. We, however, realize now that at that hearing we made errors in judgment and procedure that caused unnecessary pain and aggravation. We accept responsibility for those mistakes. Furthermore, members of the bet din made mistakes in organizing the din torah.
More fundamentally, with the hindsight made possible by the deepened understanding of abuse that has emerged in the last decade, we now realize that the diverse charges appearing in Mr. Hiller's letter fall under the rubric of abuse of various sorts, including physical, psychological, and sexual. Although we had responded many times as a unit to the call of the RCBC to serve as a bet din in monetary matters, in retrospect we should have refused to hear the abuse case Mr. Hiller's letter precipitated. We did not realize that abusive behavior could inhibit potential witnesses and distort the testimony of those who do appear.
We take responsibility for our mistakes. We apologize to Mr. Hiller, his family, and anyone else who was hurt because of our mistakes, be they witnesses and other victims, or their families.
We express our heartfelt empathy with the young people who have suffered from sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Our empathy extends to the parents and families of the victims as well.
We wish Mr. Hiller and his family, and all victims and witnesses who testified to support Mr. Hiller's allegations, and their families, berakha ve-hatzlaha. We commend them for having the courage to come forward. Similarly, to those critics whose intentions were le-shem shamayim, we wish berakha ve-hatzlaha. And if there were any critics who did not act le-shem shamayim, nevertheless, we offer them a complete mehilla.
Let us look to the future. We must do everything in our power to protect potential victims from abuse. This includes reporting accusations of abuse to Jewish and, at times, to secular authorities. When a potential victim of abuse faces imminent danger, there should be no doubt that the principle of lo ta'amod al dam rei'akha, "Do not stand idly by as the blood of your neighbor is shed" (Leviticus 19:6), overrides other halakhic concerns, and one should immediately report the allegations to the secular authorities. In this brief statement, it is impossible to summarize the intricate halakhot of when to report abuse to secular authorities. We hope, however, that soon one or more of us will address the public on this question.
If there is anyone who wants to discuss any aspect of the 1989-bet din and its aftermath, we encourage him or her to contact us.
Once again, we apologize for the mistakes that we made.
Yosef Blau (212-960-5480, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Aaron Levine (email@example.com)
Mordechai Willig (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Every human being makes mistakes. I am no exception.
There are many things that I see now, which I did not see in 1989. Some are facts that I did not know or uncover then. Some are insights that even experts did not know then. After all, ein le-dayan ella mah she-einav ro'os: (1) a judge, or any expert, decides only on the basis of what his eyes see.
My field of vision also contained blind spots, which, while I did not see, I should have seen. These represent mistakes in judgment for which I bear responsibility. These mistakes continued after 1989 as well. I apologize for all of my mistakes, and regret any negative consequences that they may have caused.
The recent criticism of the beis din's actions, and my role in particular, enabled me to discover the biggest blind spot of all. A person is blind to his own faults. "Kol ha-nega'im adam ro'eh chutz mi-nig'ei atzmo," "All nega'im a person sees except for nega'im of his own," (2) which literally refers to tzara'as, extends, homiletically, to all blemishes. (3)
How does one not see his own mistakes? Let us go back to history's first mistake: the sin of eating the forbidden fruit. Adam, instead of admitting his own mistake, blamed Chava, who, in turn, blamed the serpent. (4) In the 1989 case, it is easy to blame others.
In history's second mistake, Cain, like Adam before him, initially was not confronted with his mistake. He was merely asked, "Where is Hevel your brother?" When he failed to acknowledge his sin, Hashem told him how terrible murder is. (5)
I thank Elie Hiller and his concerned friends and supporters for helping me during the last six weeks to understand my mistakes. I wish we had spoken earlier.
Let us look at mistakes of kings in Sefer Sh'muel. The Talmud contrasts Sha'ul and David. Sha'ul sinned once, and lost his kingdom and dynasty. David sinned twice but maintained his kingdom and dynasty. (6) Why?
Maharsha explains that David admitted his mistakes, whereas Sha'ul did not. (7) Why not?
First, Sha'ul's sin was unintentional, as his failure to destroy Amalek was based on his understanding of Talmudic logic, a kal va-chomer, which was, in fact, wrong. (8) Second, the people had mercy on Agag and the best of the sheep, and were not willing to destroy them. (9) When Sha'ul finally confessed, he still justified his behavior by saying, "I feared the people." (10)
By contrast, David confessed immediately and unconditionally. In one case, the sin of counting the people, he realized the mistake on his own. (11) In the other case, his taking Batsheva and his role in the death of Uriya, he confessed his sin as soon as Nasan Ha-Navi explained it to him with a parable of a rich man taking a poor man's only sheep. (12)
In the 1989 case, I believe my mistakes were unintentional.
Furthermore, I listened to the people who supported me. For example, my talmidim, whose loyalty I very much appreciate, reacted sharply to the ad hominem attacks, ascribing all sorts of motivations and hidden agendas to my critics. This led to self-denial of even the smallest mistake.
Let me be clear. I bear no grudge against any of my critics, be they victims, supporters, or journalists. I wish them b'racha ve-hatzlacha, and I beg, even command, that my talmidim do the same. After the primary goal of protecting our children, my next goal is to restore shalom in our Yeshiva and beyond. I hope that in four weeks, on Purim, we will all dance together to the music of Jordan Hirsch, and with all our neshama, in the spirit of shalom.
I thank my closest friends and colleagues, no more than a handful, who helped me in this painful process of recognizing the mistakes that I made. They were my Nasan Ha-Navi.
My first apology goes to Elie Hiller. In reconstructing the events of 1989, although I only said things that I thought were accurate, I now see that some of them were not.
Aside from the passage of time, I repressed certain facts. This is the blind spot of which I spoke. I now understand how people who were totally committed to truth and honesty could make an objectively false statement. In their minds, it was true.
When confronted, my first response was, "It could not be true. How could I have done that? It must be false." It took corroborated, objective facts to open my eyes.
Some people go through life in such denial. I do not fault them. I did the same. But now I learned more about human nature. In life, I have committed countless errors, and have tried to admit to them when I realize them. But, until very recently, I did not realize that what I insisted and believed to be true was definitively not true.
One day all of us will have to give a reckoning, in the Court that I fear the most, for all of our words and actions. The records there are complete and eternal: ayin ro'ah ve-ozen shoma'as ve-chol ma'asecha be-sefer nichtavim. (13) Thanks to Elie Hiller, I have a chance to beg forgiveness in this world.
My second apology is not limited to Elie. It relates not to a sin of the mind but to a sin of the soul.
Al tadin es chavercha ad she-tagi'a li-mkomo, do not judge your fellow until you have reached his makom, his place. (14) My Nasan Ha-Navi told me this. Indeed, he acknowledges that it is likely that in 1989 he would not have ruled any differently in my situation. Moreover, my defenders said that those who had the benefit of hindsight were unfair for ignoring this rule. Indeed, all of this may be true.
Yet, I am guilty of a similar mistake. Until last month, I could not understand why the victims and their concerned supporters were complaining so harshly about me. Had I spoken to them earlier, however, I believe that I would have understood their complaints. To his credit, Rabbi Blau has spent the last few years speaking to and empathizing with the victims and, therefore, he reached their makom much earlier. In contrast, I did not speak with them until last month, and, therefore, I am only trying to reach their makom now.
On my journey to their makom, I am beginning to realize the terrible pain that my deeds or words inflicted on Elie Hiller; the witnesses whose testimony supported his claims; the victims; and the families of all of the above. Moreover, my aggressive questioning of witnesses, who may have been abused, was not an appropriate style for this case, although it may be proper in cases involving commercial transactions. Even last month, in our first meeting, I did not understand the special sensitivities of such victims. I am still learning. I apologize to all victims to whom I was insensitive. I regret any pain my action or inaction caused.
It tortures me that my deeds or words caused Elie such terrible pain, and that he suffered stoically for years, while I was completely oblivious to it. I am devastated by the fact that I caused another person such searing pain and that, for so long, I did not even realize it.
This is a sin of the soul, and Elie is its primary victim. My soul, my neshama, my heart, is broken. I pray that he finds a place in his heart and soul to forgive me.
However he responds I owe him a b'racha. As Rabbi Levine said to him last week, may the verse, "Samcheinu ki-mos inisanu," "Gladden us according to the days You afflicted us,"< (15) be fulfilled for him and his family. B'racha ve-hatzlacha be-chol ma'asei yedeichem.
I now understand that although our p'sak contains findings of sorely inappropriate behavior referred to in our joint statement, there were many other complicating elements. After rereading the p'sak in 2003, I now realize that it should have placed greater emphasis on the inappropriateness of this behavior. In 1989, an honest person hearing the p'sak might have readily concluded that the sorely inappropriate behavior, in the broader context of the p'sak, was insufficient to disqualify a person from communal or youth-oriented work. Again, to his credit, Rabbi Blau recognized this before I did.
Some general statements about beis din procedures are in order. So that there is no misunderstanding, the organizers of the beis din should inform the litigants, in advance and in writing, when the session(s) will take place. Furthermore, notwithstanding the ultimate p'sak, the dayanim should treat the litigants and witnesses with respect and appropriate sensitivity. Moreover, the dayanim should make every effort to ensure that all material witnesses be given the ability to testify. Last, it is improper to order a litigant to issue a formal written apology before completing the beis din proceedings.
This Shabbos, we will read about the cheit ha-egel, the sin of golden calf, a sin for which Am Yisrael suffers to this day. (16) The Talmud links this sin with that of David and Batsheva. (17)
Both David and Am Yisrael were on a high spiritual level. They had overcome the yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination), and, as such, should not have been overcome by it. Logically, they should not have sinned.
Hashem decreed that the yetzer ha-ra should rule over them and cause them to sin. Why? So that no one should say, "I will not be accepted." Neither an individual such as David, nor a community, such as Am Yisrael, should feel that t'shuva is impossible. According to this interpretation, based on Rashi, these two sins were specifically chosen because of their gravity.
May I suggest a somewhat different interpretation? These sins were selected because of their subtlety. Many explain that the Golden Calf was not meant to substitute for Hashem, chas ve-shalom, but merely to be an intermediary, not unlike the k'ruvim in the Mishkan. (18) The Talmud teaches that whoever says that David was technically guilty of adultery is mistaken. (19)
In this light, we are taught a crucial lesson. Hashem ordained these sins so that every individual and every community should be able to recognize misdeeds rather than rationalize them. This, after all, is the first step in the t'shuva process.
For me, this is the most important lesson to be drawn from this entire ordeal. Perhaps my experience will assist you, my talmidim, especially those of you who will become rabbanim, to try to eliminate the blind spots of self-denial. And, when you become aware of a mistake on your own or through your Nasan Ha-Navi, admit and take responsibility for it immediately and unconditionally. Even if the mistake was unintentional, and even if you share the blame with others, if you contributed to it, say chatasi.
Yesterday, after reading a draft of this sichas mussar, I suddenly remembered something.
On motza'ei Shabbos, January 25th, I led a kumsitz here on campus. Many of you were there, and we sang together, "David melech Yisrael chai ve-kayam," "David king of Israel is alive and enduring." I asked: "Why?" I answered: because he accepted responsibility for his actions. This distinguished David from Sha'ul, and enabled David's kingdom and dynasty to endure.
I said this just a few days before a new round of criticisms of me became public, but it was not until yesterday, after I finished preparing and writing a draft of this sicha, which refers to the same idea, that I remembered having said it. Why? Because when I said it, I did not see that it relates to me!
At that time, I asked: "From where did David receive the strength of character to make an embarrassing confession?" I answered: "From his progenitor, Yehuda."
Yehuda was confronted-- not by Hashem, as were Adam and Cain, not even by a navi, as were Sha'ul and David. Nor was he confronted directly. He was simply presented with objective proof of the facts. (20)
His response was, "tzadka mimeni," she is more righteous than I. (21) As the Rambam explains, Yehuda had done nothing against halacha, and correctly sacrificed valuable personal items to avoid public discussion of sexual matters. (22)
Tamar, the potential victim, was ostensibly guilty of deception. (23) Nonetheless, since her intention was le-shem shamayim, Yehuda said: she is more righteous than I. (24)
Targum Yerushalmi adds to Yehuda's admission: better for me to be ashamed in this world than in the future world. Better for me to burn in the weaker fire of embarrassment in this world than in the all-consuming fire of the World to Come. (25)
Yehuda's statement was so powerful that it enabled his brother Re'uven to confess his own sin publicly for the first time. (26) And, if my p'shat is correct, it enabled Yehuda and his descendant David to merit an enduring dynasty. Let us all learn the enduring lesson for life of this live and enduring king, to accept responsibility for our actions.
1. Sanhedrin 6b.
2. Nega'im 2:5.
3. Midrash Sh'muel Avos 1:7.
4. B'reishis 3:11-13.
5. Ibid. 4:9-10, Rashi 4:9 and 3:9.
6. Yoma 22b, Rashi, s.v. "Kama."
7. Op. cit.
8. Yoma 22b, Tosafos Yeshanim ad loc., s.v. "U-le-Divrei."
9. I Sh'muel 15:9,15,21,24.
10. Ibid. 15:24.
11. II Sh'muel 24:10.
12. Ibid. 12:1-13.
13. Avos 2:1.
14. Avos 2:5.
15. Tehillim 90:15.
16. Sh'mos, Chap. 32; see Rashi 32:34.
17. Avoda Zara 4b-5a; see Rashi. See also Michtav Mei-Eliyahu I, pp. 165-66.
18. Ramban Sh'mos 32:1, Beis Ha-Levi Parshas Ki Sisa.
19. Shabbos 56a.
20. B'reishis 38:25.
21. Ibid. 38:26.
22. Moreh Nevuchim III:49.
23. B'reishis 38:14-16.
24. S'forno 38:26.
25. B'reishis 38:26.
26. Sotah 7b, Rashi s.v. "Yehuda."
Lanner Bet Din Rabbi Apologizes
by Gary Rosenblatt
The Jewish Week - Feburary 20, 2003
Rabbi Mordechai Willig, speaking for himself and on behalf of a 1989 bet din critics felt was too lenient toward Rabbi Baruch Lanner, has acknowledged the religious court "made errors in judgment and procedure that caused unnecessary pain" and accepted "responsibilities for those mistakes."
The highly respected rosh yeshiva at University offered a full and highly personal apology before hundreds of students and others at Yeshiva University on Wednesday night.
Rabbi Willig had come under heavy criticism in recent weeks from a group of victims of Rabbi Lanner and their supporters. The group mobilized after Rabbi Willig began making public presentations about parenting without addressing his role in the bet din that appeared to absolve Rabbi Lanner of serious wrongdoing while censuring Elie Hiller, a former NCSY employee who sought communal action against Rabbi Lanner.
First speaking for the bet din, Rabbi Willig said that its members now believe Rabbi Lanner to be "unfit for communal and youth work," and endorsed the findings of the Orthodox Union special commission report of December 2000 that found Rabbi Lanner guilty of widespread and long-term sexual, physical and psychological abuse of teens while helping to lead the OU's youth arm, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.
Rabbi Willig's critics faulted him for not speaking out over the years against Rabbi Lanner's behavior, adding to the impression that the youth leader was innocent of abusive behavior. Rabbi Lanner was convicted of abusing two teenage girls in the 1990s and was sentenced in June to seven years in prison; he is currently free pending an appeal of the conviction.
In his personal comments, Rabbi Willig acknowledged that he had "blind spots" over the years that "represent mistakes in judgment for which I bear responsibility. These mistakes continued after 1989 as well," he said, apologizing to Hiller and his family and all Lanner victims. He said he "bear[s] no grudge against any of my critics, be they victims, supporters or journalist, and I wish them bracha v'hatzlacha [blessings and success], and I beg, even command, that my talmidim [students] do the same.
He said it was only very recently that he realized that "what I insisted and believed was true was objectively untrue." Further, Rabbi Willig faulted himself for not speaking to Lanner victims and their supporters until last month. He credited his colleague, Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual adviser to students at YU and one of the three members of the bet din, for speaking to and empathizing with the victims for many years. Now, Rabbi Willig said, "I realize the terrible pain that my deeds, or words, inflicted on Elie Hiller and other victims as well.
"My soul is broken," he continued, "and I pray that he [Hiller] finds a place in his heart and soul and forgives me."
Hiller, who was not at the talk, told The Jewish Week on Thursday he would like to "thank Rabbi Willig, on behalf of my family and me, and I accept his apology and hope it was meant for the other 14 witnesses as well" who testified against Rabbi Lanner at the bet din.
At the time, Hiller was castigated by Rabbi Willig, and later by Orthodox rabbis in Bergen County, N.J., for going public with his complaints about Rabbi Lanner's behavior.
Learning From Rabbi Willig
By Gary Rosenblatt
Jewish Week - February 26, 2003
An e-mailed Letter to the Editor received last Tuesday from a student of Rabbi Mordechai Willig at Yeshiva University was addressed: "Dear Inspector Javert," a reference to the villain of "Les Miserables," the obsessive policeman who spends years tracking down the play's innocent hero.
I realize that in calling on Rabbi Willig to apologize for his behavior in conducting a 1989 bet din that appeared to absolve Rabbi Baruch Lanner of serious charges of abuse, a group of critics and I were perceived as unfairly hounding the highly respected Yeshiva University rosh yeshiva and Riverdale spiritual leader.
But a day after Rabbi Willig's detailed, emotional apology for his actions at the time, and for his subsequent silence on the Lanner matter (see story, page 8), I received a letter expressing regret from another YU student who had earlier criticized my reporting. "Rabbi Willig's talk tonight was moving and inspiring," he wrote. "I hope it will initiate a wave of healing both in the community and on our campus."
To which I can only add, Amen.
The impact of Rabbi Willig's act of contrition — on his students and many others who revere him for his scholarship and good works — cannot be overestimated. He not only made an important statement in endorsing the findings of the Orthodox Union special commission report of December 2000, that Rabbi Lanner was guilty of physically, sexually and psychologically abusing youngsters in his charge over many years, but he offered up a powerful first-hand lesson in the act of teshuva, or forgiveness.
Here was a leading Orthodox rabbinic figure publicly acknowledging, in front of hundreds of students and others at Yeshiva, that he had, until "very recently," a "blind spot" that led him to deny the truth. Who could not be moved to hear him apologize to the whistle-blower in the case and plead for his forgiveness?
Beyond the particulars here, Rabbi Willig was underscoring that rabbis — even Torah scholars — are human, make mistakes, and are accountable to the community. This is a vital message for Modern Orthodox Jews, some of whose leaders have moved closer to the haredi concept of Da'at Torah, the belief that a rabbinic authority's views must be followed on virtually every issue, not just those dealing with halacha, or Jewish law. Rabbi Willig was instructing, by example, that we are all fallible and prone to poor judgment at times. No one is beyond reproach.
Part of the problem, we recognize in hindsight, is in equating Torah scholarship with exemplary ethical behavior. But that, alas, is a mistake. Many of Rabbi Lanner's rabbinic colleagues, aware of his brilliance and depth of knowledge, assumed that a man of such faith and Talmudic expertise simply could not be guilty of the accusations made against him. They were dazzled, and blinded, by his rabbinic standing. They need to follow Rabbi Willig's brave example in implicitly acknowledging that reverence for a rabbi's erudition can be a stumbling block to the truth.
There is a lesson here as well for Jews of all denominations who have seen a few rabbinic leaders violate the sacred trust of their congregants and yet be protected by the great reluctance — well meaning but misguided — of followers to take appropriate action against clergy, even to safeguard their children and community.
To suggest, in the 21st century, that rabbis are only human may not seem like a great revelation. But at a time when segments of the Jewish community remain in denial over cases of rabbinic failure, and even abuse and criminal behavior, it is time to confront these issues directly.
Let me be clear here. Rabbi Willig was, at worst, an enabler. But there are still abusers at large, and we must ask ourselves: Are we any better prepared to deal with the next Rabbi Lanner than we were three years ago? Too often the pattern is to spirit away the perpetrator, allow him to leave his pulpit or school quietly so as to avoid a scandal rather than alert the authorities. But the result, inevitably, is that he reappears somewhere else, perhaps with another name but with the same compulsions that led him to abuse in the first place. And it is only a matter of time until he repeats the behavior that got him in trouble at the outset.
To allow this to happen — for a community to fool itself into thinking it has solved the problem when in fact it has only diverted it toward another unsuspecting group of innocents — is short-sighted, selfish and unethical. Unless and until the pattern is stopped, we will have learned nothing from the pain of past abusers and victims.
We should take a page from the medical and legal professions, which have established healing programs for doctors and lawyers who have gone astray. A lengthy article in The New Yorker several years ago, entitled "When Good Doctors Go Bad," describes a program that evaluates physicians with addictive behavior, recommends them for treatment in long-term care facilities, and establishes criteria that must be met before they can return to their profession.
The Jewish community needs such a program for clergy, as evidenced by the latest reports of rabbis in trouble with the law for sexual deviancy, alcohol or gambling. Harriet Rossetto is ready to offer her services toward "prevention, intervention and redemption" in dealing with troubled rabbis. She is the director of Beit T'Shuvah in Los Angeles, the only Jewish addiction rehabilitation program for adults in the country, where at least three of its current 100 residents are rabbis.
"The more you hide it, the worse it gets," says Rossetto. She was speaking of the yetzer hara, or evil inclination, which according to Jewish teachings struggles constantly with the yetzer tov, the positive spirit, within each of us. But her adage could apply as well to the danger of keeping these issues under wraps.
In his talk at Yeshiva University last Wednesday night, Rabbi Willig went a long way toward clearing the air, redirecting us toward teshuva by describing his own struggle and encouraging his students and followers to learn from what he called his mistakes. He cited the Talmudic comparison of King David and King Saul. They each sinned, but David was forgiven; he kept his throne while Saul did not. The difference, Rabbi Willig noted, was that Saul justified his behavior while David realized his mistake and confessed fully.
One can only hope our community will be more open and honest in acknowledging our blind spots. We must recognize that the only way to resolve our problems is to confront them with sensitivity and humility, knowing full well that to ignore them is to sentence the next generation to untold shame and suffering.
Top Rabbi Admits Errors In Handling Lanner Case
By Nacha Cattan, Forward Staff
The Forward (NY) - FEBRUARY 28, 2003
A revered Orthodox rabbi accused by critics of withholding information about convicted sex-abuser Rabbi Baruch Lanner apologized last week in front of hundreds of students at Yeshiva University for his "mistakes" and "blindspots."
Rabbi Mordechai Willig, head of a prestigious post-rabbinical institute at Yeshiva University's rabbinical seminary, addressed a packed religious study hall February 19 in Manhattan to "beg forgiveness" from Lanner's alleged victims. Willig came under fire in recent weeks by alleged Lanner victims and their families for keeping from the public for more than a decade a ruling of a 1989 rabbinic tribunal that found Lanner guilty of abuse. Willig's critics accused him and the two other members of the 1989 rabbinic tribunal, or beit din, of perpetuating the misconception that Lanner was innocent while Lanner continued to have contact with children.
"I regret any pain my actions, or inactions, caused," Willig told some 400 students in his 45-minute speech. "Until very recently, I did not realize that what I insisted, and believed was true, was objectively untrue."
In a statement issued on behalf of the 1989 rabbinic tribunal, Willig said, "we made errors in judgment and procedure that caused unnecessary pain and aggravation. We accept responsibility for those mistakes."
Several alleged Lanner victims and their families said they were satisfied with, and even moved by, Willig's apology. But some said Willig did not go far enough, and they protested Willig's assertion that abuse be reported to Jewish authorities and only "at times" to secular authorities.
Observers, however, noted the significance of the publicity-shy rabbi admitting his mistakes to the future rabbis of the Orthodox community regarding so controversial a subject. It is especially momentous, said some at Y.U., at a time when critics claim the school's spiritual leaders are increasingly seen as flawless and divinely guided, a sign, critics say, of a rightward shift at Modern Orthodoxy's flagship institution.
In his statement, Willig said: "Perhaps my experience will assist you, my talmidim [students], especially those of you who will become rabbanim, to try to eliminate the blind spot of self-denial."
"Rabbi Willig's apology has the educational value of teaching students that great people make mistakes, acknowledge them and grow from them," said Rabbi Yosef Blau, who served on the 1989 rabbinic tribunal with Willig but has since become a vocal opponent of Lanner. "It's certainly a statement of responsible leadership that doesn't claim infallibility, which some have accused [Y.U.] of moving in the direction of," said Blau, who is a counselor to students at Y.U.'s rabbinical seminary.
Lanner, a former leader of the Orthodox Union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth, was convicted in June 2002 of sexually abusing two teenage girls during the 1990s, while he was their principal at Hillel Yeshiva high school in Ocean Township, N.J. Lanner was sentenced to seven years in prison by a Monmouth County court but is out on bail pending an appeal.
A report prepared in 2000 by a special commission appointed to investigate the O.U.'s role in the Lanner affair stated that Lanner had sexually abused women and teenage girls and physically abused boys and girls while he was a leader at NCSY. The report also cited the failure of members of the O.U. and NCSY leadership to take effective action, allowing Lanner's conduct to "continue unchecked for many years."
The commission was chaired by Richard Joel, international director and president of Hillel, who will succeed Rabbi Norman Lamm as president of Y.U. and its rabbinical seminary in June.
"What [Willig] did was terrific," said Elie Hiller of West Orange, N.J., an alleged Lanner victim whose public accusations about Lanner's behavior sparked the 1989 rabbinic tribunal. "Rabbi Willig clearly articulated that child safety precedes all other concerns whether they be halachic or otherwise," said Hiller, whom Willig named in his apology as the primary victim of Willig's "sin of the soul."
But some family members of alleged Lanner victims were less than satisfied with Willig's apology.
"I see no reason to put Willig on a pedestal and offer him absolution just because he figured out at this late date if he wants a future he better speak up," said Laurie Kurs of East Windsor, N.J., whose son was allegedly abused by Lanner when he was a student at Hillel Yeshiva. Kurs told the Forward it is too late for Willig to apologize, but "not too late to clear up mistakes. He needs to call up people who are victims and call the court and say Lanner" was not exonerated by the beit din.
But other critics of Lanner said Willig's motives should not be questioned and that although not perfect, Willig's statement was revolutionary.
"Was it everything it should have been?" asked Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, associate dean of the Jewish Educational Center school system in Elizabeth, N.J. "No. The comment about reporting to Jewish authorities hurts. Deeply. But there was an admission of movement on [Willig's] part. Of acknowledging his personal mistakes," Teitz wrote in an e-mail. Teitz is a member of the Parental Oversight Committee of the Etz Chaim region of NCSY in New Jersey, a group formed in response to the Lanner affair.
Another member of the parental oversight committee, Murray Sragow, praised Willig's speech but added that the community, and particularly the Y.U.'s rabbinical seminary, should take follow-up steps to ensure Willig's message is not lost. Sragow said the seminary should instate sensitivity training courses on sexual abuse.
The dean of seminary, Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, said the rabbinical school offers courses and mandatory lectures that tackle abuse detection and intervention. "We continue to review and update our rabbinic training program in all subjects, including sexual abuse," Charlop added.
Willig said in his speech that after the "primary goal" of protecting children, his next goal is to "restore shalom in our yeshiva and beyond."
Several observers said the remark pointed to rifts between Willig's students and supporters and those who spoke out against Lanner, such as Blau.
Willig did not return phone calls seeking comment.