Toward the end of last week, the New York Times published an expose on the Ultra-Orthodox community for ignoring a child molestation problem and for, in some instances, actually shunning and ostracizing the victims instead of seeking justice for them. How is this happening? Well, the Hasidic community reasons that by delivering the suspected pedophile over to the police for investigation, you are therefore transgressing Jewish law as a moser, or an informer. A moser cannot turn his fellow Jew in to a secular non-Jewish authority as derived by Maimonides’ extrapolation of ha’poresh mi’darchei tzibbur, or one who actively separates himself from the rest of the community. While I doubt that our great sage Rambam meant to protect the the lowest of the low, some Hasidic communities are nevertheless manipulating the learnings of our elders and in turn, sheltering these deviant monsters.
While I’m not entirely surprised that this sickening predatory activity is plaguing some shtetls (after all, there was even a Law & Order episode about it), I am saddened and shocked by the various reactions. And I don’t mean the delusional justifications and rationalizations of the Hasidic community leaders–I mean, the Jews living outside of the Williamsburgs and the Borough Parks. Based on the conversations I have had over the weekend since these necessary articles appeared, I would like to suggest some potential responses to our collective propensity to sweep shamefulness under the rug.
1. “The New York Times likes to pick on the Jews.”
This is a complaint I hear whenever the Times covers Israel, Jews, Israeli Jews, the banks, and/or brisket. And in truth, it may have some validity to it. The New York Times known for its liberal slant can oft portray Israel as oppressor, even when it’s not warranted. But that’s neither here nor there, and it’s also something you and I can never prove. Yet when I discussed the two aforementioned articles on the Hasidic community written by Ray Rivera and Sharon Otterman with someone I knew well, he said something along the lines of, “Well, of course, when it comes to the Jews it’s a big story. But what about the Church? Why don’t they talk about abuse in the Church?”
If you do a search for the words “abuse” and “church” on the nytimes.com, you will find 431,000 results. If you were to however limit it down from the last 150 years to the last seven days, you will still get 19 results. Deflecting the attention from ourselves to another fundamentally flawed and troubled religious system will by no means make our problems go away. Child abuse is a problem regardless of the house of worship, and kudos to the New York Times for bringing this to light even if, according to many, the daily paper still may hate Israel.
2. “It’s not worth ruining someone’s reputation especially if the accusations aren’t true.”
First and foremost, shame on Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, for having a response similar to this. And this is coming from a media outlet that once photographed Roseanne dressed as Hitler. Zwiebel, along with his extremely influential and powerful Orthodox organization, determined last year that Orthodox Jews should not report allegations to the police unless a Rabbi has given permission to do so. He also said that “you can destroy a person’s life with a false report.” Incidentally, you can also destroy a person’s life by putting your hand down his pants without permission. Zwiebel also added that “you speak it over with a rabbi before coming to any definitive conclusion in your own mind,” which implies that after an incident, it is important that you first consult with a rabbi so he may convince you that it was not molesting, but just tickling.
3. “I understand the secrecy. After all, if could ruin the shidduch (impending marriage proposals).”
It’s hard to believe but this was actually said to me, but it was. And it wasn’t said in an effort to implicitly justify the cover-up attempts–the person who had this reaction was simply channeling the Hasidic community’s emphasis on yichus, or legacy. If, hypothetically, someone’s brother or sister had been accused of being a child molester, this would affect the siblings’ chances of getting married. It’s sadly accurate in a community that weighs worthiness on, for example, what kind of China they set the Shabbos table with.
I think in an ideal world everyone would agree that one should not be held responsible for his or her family member’s actions. However, that is very much the case in the Ultra-Orthodox world. Families have and always will go to extreme measures in maintaining an uncontaminated facade like hiding their televisions in cabinets, keeping diseases or sicknesses obsessively secret, and in some cases, even protecting the identity of a pedophile. Maybe, though, once it would be known that someone’s brother was forcibly abusing children and as a result, his sister went years without a suitor, the community would only then react with less tolerance.
What I’m suggesting here is that if there had an old maid problem in Williamsburg, the rabbis would then maybe speak out against child molesting.
4. “We should be able to handle this within our own community. No need to get the police involved.”
In March, the Times notes, Satmar Hasidic authorities in Williamsburg posted a Yiddish posters in synagogues warning adults and children to stay away from a community member who they said was molesting boys. But the sign didn’t recommend calling the police: “With great pain we must, according to the request of the brilliant rabbis (may they live long and good lives), inform you that the young man,” who was named, “is, unfortunately, an injurious person and he is a great danger to our community.” This is a step in the right direction, but sadly, it is not very effective.
I know of one definitive example in which a serial child molester–I’m speaking of at least two-dozen individual accusations–left the country, rebuilt his life in Israel, and currently works with children. You would think for this not to be the case, considering the small Jewish geography we occupy, but it’s incredibly easy for a violator to re-root his life in another Jewish community and pick up exactly where they left off with a trail of unvindicated victims in his wake.
5. “It’s not as bad as “they” make it out to be.”
When it comes to harming young children, there should be a zero tolerance policy. I don’t care if it only happened once or twice. However, according to journalists Sharon Otterman and Ray Riveria “in recent months, a new program called Kol Tzedek, the Voice of Justice, has contributed to an effective crackdown on child sexual abuse among ultra-Orthodox Jews, saying it had led to 95 arrests involving more than 120 victims.” 95 arrests. 120 victims. Williamsburg, we have a problem.
6. “The rabbis understand things we cannot so we must accept it.”
The overwhelming response to the reposting of the Times articles on the comprehensive Orthodox Jewish blog Vo Is Neius is that the notion of moser should never apply in regards to abuse especially when considering “dina d’malchusoh dina,” that we are obligated to follow the laws of the land we occupy. These commenters and readers are for the most part observent G-d fearing people, yet allowing the police to intervene seems obvious to them. This shouldn’t be seen as a contradiction.
If, in eventuality, the rabbis’ devotees, the frequent shul goers, and the check-writing participants speak out and demand a zero tolerance policy, maybe the molesting business wouldn’t be so good. But by the communal passivity, rabbis remaining silent, and the continued blind eye, they are ostensibly supporting the continuation of it. And it may come to a point when the crying of our children gets too difficult to ignore even as the words of some rabbis try to drown them out.