When Holiness Fails
Editor - Baltimore Jewish Times
The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Elan Adler on April 28, 2007 at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville.......
A terrible thing has happened in our Jewish community, something that has caught us off guard and sent us reeling. We found out, through publicity in the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES, that even the holiest of Jewish people are only human, and that the Jewish community is not immune to sexual abuse by clergy and other people of authority.
By now you must have read the article, which was a cover story a couple of months ago, about a young man the JEWISH TIMES referred to as Steve, who was sexually abused by Orthodox Rabbis.
A few weeks ago, the JEWISH TIMES editor wrote of a group of men who gather as friends, all of whom shared experiences of being molested by Jewish teachers.
And just last week came the news of a well known and respected Orthodox rabbi whose sexual abuse was corroborated by several victims, most of them while they were kids and who are now in their 50's or 60's. The article graphically described what is known clinically as predatory behavior, by a revered teacher and rabbi who fondled and molested his students, perhaps as many as hundreds of them.
Many of you, as well as many in our community, were incensed by the article, feeling that it is lashon harah, evil gossip about someone, and further, considering that the rabbi died almost 20 years ago, the article was a disgrace of a man who could hardly defend himself against the onslaught of accusation. And besides, many of you said, he was a kind and comforting man who had the finest reputation, a reputation now being tarnished in full view of the public.
I have to say that when the most recent article first came out, and it named names which the first one didn't, I was torn. On the one hand, one teaching of our Jewish tradition kept flashing in my mind, and it actually comes from the names of the Torah portions this morning, which are Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. On their own, they are just names of portions, but when you put them together, they are a statement: Acharei Mot means after the death, and Kedoshim means holy things. Put together, it says,
After the death, you say holy things, and this has been a guiding principle for centuries, the idea that after someone passes away, you find the nicest and most complimentary things to say. In rabbinic school, when learning about how to prepare eulogies, we were taught exactly this: once someone has died, focus on the positive and desirable attributes of the person, and let the rest be.
That's how part of me felt when the recent article came out.
The other part of me was not reserved for this particular rabbi, but for any rabbi or cantor, or teacher or person of authority who would use their power and intimidation to violate the bodies of children under their care and supervision. I felt anger towards anyone, especially a religious Jew, who would repeatedly molest a child, knowing that the child would be scared to tell anyone. I felt anger for the victims, who didn't know where to turn or who to tell, and who would likely carry their shame in silence, and whose lives would be forever affected by the brazen abuser.
The story of abuse in our community in not about a deceased Rabbi, or about one particular segment of our community, or even about what should be published and what should not. In my opinion, the story of abuse in our community is how it has been misunderstood, how it has been covered up, and how it will be dealt with.
Sexual abuse has been terribly misunderstood. I know that because of the many ways confirmations of abuse have been mishandled by people who should have known better.
Do you remember when the extent of this abuse first became publicized about the Catholic Church? I remember when bishops and cardinals and others in high authority were cross-examined about what they knew, and when they knew it, and how they handled known molesters in the church.
When being asked, over and over again we heard testimony that sounded something like this: We didn't know what to do about the allegations regarding Father Dawson, but then we heard several more, and we knew we had to do something about it. So what did you do? Well, we mandated Father Dawson to seek psychological help or maybe even psychiatric help, and we thought that would cure the problem, and perhaps a month of that was not enough.
And after that month, did Father Dawson still have contact with children? Well, yes, we thought he was over the problem, and that his sessions with the professionals had straightened him out. That what the testimony sounded like over and over again. At best, not understanding; at worst, minimizing the problem, sending Father Dawson to parish after parish, where he abuses more and more, and in the wake of the misunderstood lusts of Father Dawson lay the strewn and ruined lives of his victims.
What were they thinking? Didn't they read today's Torah portion as part of the Old Testament? Didn't they read chapter 18 of the book of Leviticus, the many verses that describe the various relationships forbidden by the Torah? These verses are read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year during the mincha service, and they are unbelievable in what they forbid. Do not have relations with your mother, do not have relations with your sister, do not have relations with your uncle, do not have relations with your sister-in-law, if you are a male, do not have relations with another male as you would with a female…….you've probably read these or heard of these, and you may ask, why did you call them unbelievable?
I'll tell you why, because most people reading this list of forbidden relationships would have a one-word Yiddish reponse- Feh! Who would want to have relations with these people? What kind of sick mind would go there? And the answer is exactly what makes the list unbelievable, and this is why God had to say them- because people do have these desires and these lusts, and they need to be curbed. Why didn't the hierarchy in the church not understand this and remove the priests from the temptations? Why did they think that a few sessions with a shrink would obliterate and extinguish what God himself knows to be in the human mind?
And so they were sent from parish to parish, exponentially victimizing unsuspecting children and teens, knowing that ignorance and silence are two of the greatest allies of sexual abusers.
And, my friends, the leaders of the Jewish community may have misdiagnosed the confirmations of abuse as well. In last week's Torah portion, in speaking of the Metzorah, the one who had a leper's disease, the Torah says in Leviticus 14:54, Zot Hatorah lechol nega, this is the law for every affliction. But the Talmud in Eruvin 54a has this teaching: Zot Hatorah, this Torah, the study of Torah, Lechol nega, is good for every ailment. The teaching was a very traditional one, namely, that for whatever ails you, the Torah is the remedy- if you have a headache, study the Torah. If you have any pain or affliction, the Torah is the remedy.
I can relate to you at least a dozen times where I've heard a parent of a formerly religious child, who had severe psychological problems or who was dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, when asking their Rabbi for help, the Rabbi would say, "if he studied the Torah more, if he davened better, if he performed more commandments, everything would be fine.”
It's a traditional teaching, but it's terribly misguided. Someone who is a sexual predator and abuser and molester needs heavy duty professional help over long periods of time. It doesn't matter if they're Orthodox, conservative or reform, reconstructionist, humanist, secular, Buddhist or Moslem, and to say that study or observance will take care of it is irresponsible and inexcusable.
So one story of abuse in our community is how it has been so gravely misunderstood and therefore minimized to the detriment of the innocent victims.
You may say, Rabbi, we didn't know then what we know now, about human behavior and how to treat people who abuse. That may be so, but another story of abuse in our community is those who knew, and continue to know, and who say nothing.
They say nothing because they don't want to shame or embarrass their institutions. They say nothing because they don't want to embarrass the family of the abuser, or because they feel it will affect the "marriagability” of the abusers children or even the abused. Or they say nothing because they think the problem will go away, or because they pity the abuser who can't control himself but who is otherwise a very nice person.
Those who know, and who don't report, are shameful accomplices to the shredded and humiliated lives of the victims. Are there such people in our community? You decide.
This is from a letter distributed by the Vaad Harrabanim to all Orthodox households prior to the JEWISH TIMES article:
"In the past, many mistakes were made in handling situations. Abusers were often not recognized for what they were, as it was too difficult to believe that otherwise good people could do such things, nor was it sufficiently appreciated what damage such acts could cause. It was often thought that if the abuser was spoken to or warned, and perhaps moved to a different environment, he would never do those things again. In responding this way, many terrible mistakes were made and tragic consequences resulted. We have seen too often the immediate or eventual failure of these "behind the scenes” agreements to keep the perpetrators away from others.”
I was one of the rabbis who signed the letter. But I did not write the letter. Behind the scenes agreements is something I should have asked about prior to signing the letter. When were these agreements made? Twenty years ago when rabbis were more naïve, or 20 days ago, when it could signal a coverup?
Are there Rabbis and principals and leaders in the know, who know, but won't say anything? This is something that needs to be investigated, and investigated with seriousness and speed. If there are abusive ticking bombs in our community, and we don't do everything we can to prevent another abuse, and people are being protected, it should make us feel tremendously uncomfortable.
So this story is not about a deceased rabbi, or just about one particular segment of our community, or about what should be published or what should not. It is about how it has been misunderstood, and how it's been covered up and may continue to be, and it's about a third area, how it will be dealt with from now on.
There is no question that if we know of a sexual predator, especially one who abuses children, Jewish law or halachah that this abuser is called a rodeph, literally a pursuer, one who is effectively poised to destroy innocent lives and therefore, virtually any means may be used to stop him and bring him to justice.
Not just from hearsay or innuendo, but once an abuser has been reported and corroborated by at least two other sources, we must speedily stop that person and expose him. In many cases, the most effective method to protect the community is to publicize the abuser's name.
Some may consider that a shanda, but we must be mindful that what the person has done, the crime committed and the shame borne is silence is an even bigger shanda. We have an obligation to protect not only current victims, but also all future victims, and these future victims are not only the future victims of the abuser, but also the victims of the victims themselves- there has been shown to be a significant correlation between being abused and then abusing others. Unless someone is stopped in his tracks, the ripple effect of abuse can be staggering.
Whether alive or deceased, the perpetrators must be exposed. Even the deceased are not entitled to go to their graves in peace while the pain and shame of their victims finds no rest or comfort. The deceased abuser cannot defend himself, but neither can he have the luxury of remaining guiltless in the eyes of humanity while so many of his victims continue to suffer a life of torment and pain.
And while we diligently root out the perpetrators of such heinous behavior, that takes advantage of the most powerless in society by the most powerful, we need to tell the victims that they can come forward to a receptive community that will hear their anguish, not be judgmental about how or why anything happened, and help them to be liberated from their nightmare and be supportive as they begin their healing.
Yes, a terrible thing has happened to our Jewish community. We found out that we are not immune to the same ills and disgraces that plaque our neighbors. We thought we were immune, and that our Torah study and Torah observance can protect us from such behavior. We thought that a religious personality couldn't possibly do such a thing. But if we did, we missed a critical teaching of our Torah portion today. Leviticus 19:1, Kedoshim Tihiyu, you shall be holy. This means not only in the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law. Nachmanides made an insightful comment when he taught, "someone who only observes the letter of the law can easily become a degenerate with the permission of the Torah, for such a person can perform the technical requirements of the commandments, WHILE SURRENDERING TO SELF INDULGENCE, GLUTTONY AND LICENTIOUSNESS.
If you can keep strictly kosher, daven three times a day, keep every aspect of Shabbat, and meticulously observe the commandments, and then molest and abuse and scar an innocent child for life, whether living or deceased, you are not entitled to the mantle of holiness.
You are entitled to the contempt of the community which so faithfully put its trust in you.
May God help us to bring the perpetrators to justice and the victims to find their solace and strength from a community anxious to hear and help.