On Apologists

By Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, Pacific Jewish Center
June 5, 2012

This weekend, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel granted Mishpacha Magazine an interview. I presume that when a orthodox Jewish publication interviews an orthodox Jewish public figure, the idea is to give the public figure an opportunity to set the record straight on any ambiguous issues and paint the public figure in a positive light. This is what makes this interview so odd. It didn't quite work out that way.

Rabbi Zwiebel briefly addressed what has become a cornerstone issue for most sane people, sex abuse in the orthodox Jewish community. The expressly stated position of the Agudath Israel of America on this matter was ostensibly formed by the Moetzes Gedolei Yisroel. These Torah giants have determined that an orthodox Jew who is told about abuse should speak with a rabbi who in turn will advise them if they should proceed to the police. There is no central list of qualified rabbis to address this hairy question. Unluckily, Rabbi Zwiebel is constantly in the extremely difficult position of defending this position.

Invariably, Rabbi Zwiebel changes the discussion from the policy to the bloggers, or the falsely accused, or the assault of Daas Torah to deflect the criticism. It's a poor strategy and it is not working. A couple weeks ago, an Agudah employee asked his Twitter followers and Facebook friends, I fit both categories, what Agudah could do to change the negative public perception about their abuse policy. I responded that they should change the policy. They haven't. The point is that Agudah is aware of the public backlash.

The Mishpacha interview was more of the same and it spawned two very strident posts by my two favorite bloggers, Rabbi Slifkin and DovBear. When strident posts like theirs are written, the apologists take to the airwaves. In their best attempt to mete out measure for measure, the apologists counter attack. They call those who dare question the authority of the great rabbis heretics, rabble-rousers, angry, no longer orthodox, and a litany of other offenses.

What strikes me is that the apologists often wind up championing positions or ideas that those they are defending would not agree with. In other words, the rabbis these people are defending tooth and nail don't necessarily agree with their world wide web warriors.

I can attest to this. When I questioned the folly of disallowing women from attending the Asifa, I was called all kinds of names. But the truth was that the rabbis who these name callers were defending actually agreed with my position. They wanted the women to attend. I can't be a jerk or kofer for suggesting the very thing that the rabbis wanted. When I questioned the wisdom of a one-size-fits-all Internet solution I was lambasted. I subsequently discovered that several Gedolim agreed with that position as well. How can I be a horrible person for agreeing with some of the Gedolim?

I think a little of the same thing happens when people attack Rabbi Slifkin and DovBear. The apologists take more hardline positions than those who they are defending. They invoke crazy svaros and obscure statements from earlier rabbis, that the ones whom they are defending would never use. Their positions are always more nuanced than their apologists. The other side of the same coin is that the dissenters oftentimes understand the position they take issue with as more extreme than it was intended.

Apologists come in many shapes and forms representing many ideologies and positions. In politics I see the same thing. Politicians from either side of the aisle are much more willing to compromise than their constituents. It's easy to be an extremist fundamentalist when you have no responsibility or consequences to your actions. But when the fate of others rests in your hands, and you are a good person, you are going to consider more than your most fundamentalist position. Public policy, whether it is religious or political is usually a combination of compromises. There are no true socialists and no true capitalists in government. They realize that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I think the apologists for the Gedolim need to take a deep breath and realize that the American Gedolim generally do not choose extremist positions. Similarly, most of the educators in our schools are not as extreme or unreasonable as the parents of the children in their schools. We cannot allow the apologists and extremists to hijack or become the leaders of orthodox Judaism.

That being said, on the issue of abuse, the time has come for the Gedolim to really learn and appreciate what happens to victims of abuse. I honestly do not think they understand the gravity of the situation and perhaps if we educated them, their policy could change. If you would like to assist me or direct me in how to do this, please be in touch.

And for the record, my charedi poskim do not agree with the position of the Moetzes and they recommend going to the authorities.