December 21, 2013
The sentencing last week of Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon concluded the trial of a prominent, charismatic national-religious spiritual leader. It also reminded us all of the dangers and distortions that exist in closed communities, particularly those based on religious faith.
There is much that is appealing in faith-based, conservative- minded communities, particularly in this age of post-modernism that has brought with it a crisis of faith and untethered value-relativism. In Israel, haredim, Muslims, Druse, Beduin and others are interested in conserving their unique identities and values. Often religion is the primary source of values and identity. For many, life is inconceivable outside their respective community.
While there may be many positive aspects to these “communities of meaning” as providers of belonging and identity, there are many potentially destructive elements as well.
In the national-religious community, as in any other closed, faith-based community, scandal – particularly sexual scandal – is often dealt with in accordance with a warped and ultimately self-destructive inner dynamic.
Community leaders exert much energy maintaining secrecy and protecting reputations. Victims of sexual harassment are denied justice, and they are often placed under massive social pressure to discourage them from filing police charges – particularly when the suspected sexual offender is a high-profile rabbi.
Self-proclaimed defenders of the community – in this case the religious-Zionist community – evoke the name of Judaism as justification for their despicable behavior.
In a cruel distortion of Judaism’s message, leaders motivated by fear that their community will acquire a bad name confuse the victim with the sexual predator.
Young men and women who dare to come forward to complain of sexual harassment are accused of transgressing the Torah’s prohibition against slander, while the revered rabbi or teacher who shamelessly exploited his student’s trust is transmogrified into the victim of a witch-hunt. Shame is a particularly powerful tool utilized to intimidate and to silence dissent. Crimes are covered up supposedly to prevent the desecration of God’s name – in the process a much greater desecration is committed.
The Takana Forum was created within the religious-Zionist community to combat this self-destructive dynamic. Similar bodies have been created in haredi, Muslim and Catholic communities. Only by providing a discreet alternative to a standard police complaint could sexual scandals be properly treated, believe the creators of these bodies. While the Takana Forum and similar bodies are an improvement to a situation in which almost all complaints are suppressed, they tend to prefer settling matters quietly, behind closed doors, even if sex offenders go unpunished.
In Elon’s case, the Takana Forum was ultimately ineffectual. Seven years ago, the forum reached the conclusion that Elon had to be banned from teaching in formal educational institutions. But despite warnings, he returned to teaching.
Even today, after being convicted and sentenced, Elon continues to teach in various frameworks, including at Or Etzion, a hesder yeshiva headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman that receives state funding. Among his circle of supporters, Elon enjoys the sort of status reserved in secular societies for rock stars and celebrities, combined with the unshakable religious belief that as a spiritual leader, he has a unique understanding of God’s will that makes him all but infallible.
Serious thought should be given to taking further steps against Elon. Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich called Thursday to prevent him from teaching at Or Etzion.
The Council of the Chief Rabbinate will reportedly be considering stripping Elon of his title “rabbi.”
It is not surprising that many people searching for meaning and belonging are attracted to closed communities.
These communities have many positive attributes. But when tight-knit, faith-based communities are dysfunctional, it is the obligation of others, whether politicians, government authorities or institutions, to step in to take responsibility for protecting the weak.