Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Confronting Abuse In The Orthodox Community

© (2003) by Rabbi Yosef Blau
- Reprinted by Permission - Originally Printed in Nefesh News, 7:9, July 2003

Rabbi Yosef Blau
It is no longer possible to ignore the tragic reality that sexual, physical and emotional abuse exists within the Orthodox community. Recent revelations about rabbis and teachers abusing adolescents, often continuing to abuse for decades, dramatically remind us that our existing mechanisms are failing to deal with the problem. I am not aware of any statistics which clarify whether the numbers of offenders is substantial, but even a small number can traumatize hundreds of victims.

The full measure of the horrendous nature of abuse is not always apparent from a technical halakhic perspective. Two teenagers touching each other inappropriately are guilty of the same sin as a forty-year old rabbi touching a thirteen-year old female student. We intuitively recognize that the rabbi has used his position as an authority figure to manipulate a vulnerable child, though she is an adult according to halakha. A pedophile who abuses minors, even if he gets their approval, is halakhically a rapist, but not if he does the same with an adolescent boy or girl.

It is even more difficult to pinpoint the sin when dealing with emotional abuse and manipulation. While one can make similar technical arguments in other areas of halakha, its significance in this context is its use as cover for the many who do not want to deal with the full implications of confronting rabbinical abuse. Not wanting to see themselves as lacking sympathy for victims, people can claim to be concerned about preserving halakhic standards. How rare it is to have two witnesses who saw the abuse.

Even when the pattern of abuse is clear, the question remains how to effectively deal with the abuser in a way that at least limits his ability to move elsewhere and continue to abuse new people. Schools fire abusive teachers, who then move to another community and start teaching (and abusing) in the new yeshiva. Going public is seen as causing a hilul Hashem and going to secular authorities as mesira.
Virtually all poskim agree that if there is danger to future victims then there is no halakhic issue of mesira, but practically the taboo of mesira remains. Victims are discouraged from coming forward on other grounds as well; it will potential hurt shiddukhim , not only for the victim for members of his family as well. Compassion is expressed for the reputations of members of the abuser's family as well. The probability that family members may have suffered abuse themselves and continue to suffer from being in ongoing contact with the abuser, is not understood.

Taking the accusation to a Beis Din, unfortunately, is rarely effective. Few rabbis have any training in recognizing abuse and rabbinical courts have no investigative arm. Some abusers are charismatic leaders and have followers who will say whatever they ask them to say. Perjury to a Beis Din is not punished and in many cases the witness, in support of his mentor, has no difficulty with distorting what occurred. The cultic element in the guru's leadership is hard for us acknowledge. A rabbi promoting Judaism is seen as incapable of being a cult leader.

Newspapers, particularly Jewish newspapers are assumed to be anti-Orthodox. Speaking to them is almost the act of a traitor. Yet at the present time the media have played a primary role in the increased awareness of this problem; an abuser whose name has appeared in the newspaper is unlikely to be hired by a new school or youth movement.

Two recent cases point to differing approaches now being used. In one story from Israel, a commission including a rabbi, psychologist and a judge evaluated allegations and the accused was fired from his teaching position. He hired a lawyer and is fighting for reinstatement. The Israeli media have picked up the story. A recent article in Maariv broadened the discussion to quote varying views about rabbis counseling married women.

The other case involved allegations that been investigated twenty years ago and a resulting agreement that an individual would leave Jewish education, which was not effectively enforced. After two decades it became difficult to reconstruct what had occurred. Supporters of the accused spoke freely to the media while victims used pseudonyms. New allegations surfaced and a major expose appeared in the papers and a new Beis Din was formed to decide how to deal with the accusations. While no formal announcement has been made, their apparent decision was to send the case to a religious court in Israel that will deal with the charges.

Despite growing awareness and concern, no consensus has yet emerged. Rabbis are not trained to recognize abuse nor given an approach to aid them in responding when they realize that it is occurring. Principals are not equipped to respond to accusations against teachers in their schools. Rabbinical organizations do not have rules of appropriate conduct. Accused abusers retain membership in these organizations without any process to remove their names.

Our community has not been educated to recognize abuse nor to appreciate the ongoing trauma of victims. Headlines in newspapers are not effective educational tools. Often the response is to express anger at the paper and then ignore the abuse. Until the mentality of the community changes little progress will be made.

Even if a method will be developed to get rabbinical approval for victims to go to the police, much of the problem will remain. Not every manifestation of abuse involves criminal behavior. "Rabbis" who seduce women as a part of outreach or marital therapy are not guilty of a punishable offence. Proper utilization of secular authorities is a necessary step but clearly not a total solution.

In Chicago after there were a number of serious incidents, a special Beis Din whose members are respected across the Orthodox spectrum was established to deal with accusations of abuse. Similar rabbinical courts in other major cities, whose judges would be trained to recognize abuse and would have appropriate mental health professionals as consultants, should be introduced. Creating special rabbinical courts is a powerful statement that a serious problem needs to be addressed.

Nefesh professionals have a critical role to play in educating the Orthodox community, in treating and supporting victims and in serving as consultants for schools and organizations. Only people who are trained can lead a systematic campaign explaining the nature of abuse and the need to confront it openly. Stigma has to be removed from victims. When the identity of an abuser is revealed the response of far too many is "We have known that for years." Enabling abusers to continue, covering their crimes to protect the image of the community, contributes to innocents being traumatized. Judith Herman in her book on trauma points out that both the abuser and the victims turn to others for support. The victim needs action while the abuser only asks for our silence.

It is time to stop the silence. The true hilul Hashem is that we allow victims to continue to suffer in order to preserve our community's image.

Rabbi Yosef Blau is Mashgiach Ruchani of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a past executive board member of The Awareness Center, Inc.

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