The “Guardians of Halacha” and the Failure of Leadership

David Cheifetz (The Times of Israel)
June 7, 2016

Last week, I visited Israel and met up with my friend Manny Waks. Manny has become a leading spokesperson for sexual abuse victims in the Jewish community. I too came out publicly three years ago as a victim of sexual abuse at an Orthodox Jewish sleep away camp in the United States when I was 13-years-old.

Manny and I spent the day on the beach in Tel Aviv soaking up the rays of the sun, cooled by a comfortable breeze. Afterwards, we retired to the lounge in the Sheraton until late in the evening.

So what did Manny Waks and I talk about in the many hours that we spent together?

In addition to laughing and joking around, we had serious discussions about the whole “awakening” across the various sectors of the Jewish community worldwide around the topic of sexual abuse, particularly of minors. We spoke of the parallels between the very different communities in which we grew up: Me, in the yeshivish and, later, Modern Orthodox communities; and Manny, in the Chabad community in Australia.

One of the core commonalities that we discussed is the fundamental hypocrisy and intellectual dishonestly of much of the institutionalized rabbinic and lay leadership in their failure to adequately address the topic of sexual abuse.

The rabbis describe themselves as messengers of Torah, as the keepers and “Guardians of Halacha.” Even when there are halachic differences, the rabbis stand by the rules that they teach, the Rules of the Divine. And these are indeed the Rules of the Divine, for in the mainstream view of tradition, at least in mainstream Orthodoxy — including Modern Orthodoxy and the Chareidi communities — Torah is indeed Divine. Torah is MiSinai, given at Mount Sinai, and rules not captured in the Torah itself are themselves Halachot LeMoshe MiSinai, laws handed down by the Divine to Moses on Sinai, and passed down orally throughout the centuries.

So, if the halachot, the religious laws, are Divine, and the rabbis are indeed the guardians of our precious legacy, how is it that many rabbis and rabbinic institutions turn away, “hide their faces”, when it comes to addressing the issue of sexual abuse?

This includes situations when children and young adults are being sexually abused within Jewish educational or other institutions, and the abusers are not stopped because they are beloved rabbis or principals or related to the wealthy or well connected. Or when acknowledgement of the abuses will bring reputational harm to the institution and possible financial liability.

And so, the “Guardians of Halacha” are in fact not its guardians at all. Rather than restrict the access of suspected abusers to victims — in situations where complaints have been lodged and in many cases validated — the rabbinic institutions enable continued access. They fail to act, and as a result enable ongoing abuses to continue and enable new abuses, new victims, new broken souls.

My own abuser, a 28-year-old rabbi in Camp Dora Golding in 1979, was quietly let go at the end of the summer, and he went on to a 30-year career as a rebbe in Staten Island. How many more victims were caused by this unwise (and illegal) handling of my abuser.

This same pattern existed with Nechamia Weberman in Williamsburg, in NCSY with Baruch Lanner, in Chabad in Australia, in Lakewood with Yosef Kolko, in Israel with Motti Elon, and at MTA, the high school of Yeshiva University, aka “The Vatican of Washington Heights,” and continues to exist in Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel, in Israel and the UK, in Toronto and LA, and everywhere there are Jewish educational institutions.

And what of the “Guardians of Halacha”? Where is their lifelong commitment to Halacha when it comes to stopping sexual abuse?

And what about the needs of the victims.

There is an ongoing struggle to change the laws regarding the statute of limitations in New York State and elsewhere. Where in the Halacha is there a “statute of limitations” when it comes to issues of personal damages? It does not exist, because there is no statute of limitations in Halacha.

Yet Agudah in New York is opposed to the changing of the statute of limitations, and Yeshiva University, the “Vatican of Washington Heights”, in fact hid behind the statute of limitations to avoid any financial culpability to the tens, or perhaps hundreds, of abuse victims of George Finkelstein and other abusers in MTA in the 1970s.

Manny and I finished our evening by learning Torah. Yes, we learned Torah, specifically the Laws Related to When One Person Harms Another Person, in the Talmud, Babylonian Talmud Baba Kama, perek chet (chapter eight).

The Talmud tells us of the five elements of reparations due a victim who is harmed by another human being. They are:

— Nezek: Compensation for the actual damage caused

— Tza’ar: Compensation for the pain

— Ripui: Compensation for the medical treatments compelled by the damage

— Shevet: Compensation for the “opportunity cost”, the lost wages or other losses associated with a person not being able to perform his/ her profession as a result of the damage

— Boshet: Compensation for the embarrassment and humiliation.

These laws are clear. They are discussed in the Talmud, and debated by subsequent generations of rabbis, not regarding whether they apply, but regarding how such damages should be calculated.

And so, again, I ask, what of the “Guardians of Halacha”? Where is their lifelong commitment to Halacha when it comes to addressing sexual abuse, stopping abusers, and addressing the needs of the victims of abuse?

So if the rabbis, the institutionalized rabbinic and lay leadership, the “Guardians of Halacha”, do not focus on addressing sexual abuse and supporting victims, inspired by the Halacha that they so proudly hold up as their leadership mandate, then who will?

And if victims and others look at the rabbis who fail to meet their responsibilities as “Guardians of Halacha”, how can many not conclude that, in fact, the Emperor has no clothes?