Tuesday, July 14, 2009

But the greatest evil of Rosenblum's column lies less in what he says than in what he doesn’t say.

Jonathan Rosenblum’s recent attempt to wish away child sex abuse allegations in Ramat Beit Shemesh (“Think Again: Those Primitive Haredim – Yet Again,” Jerusalem Post, June 11, 2009) is so full of false assumptions and disingenuous gibes aimed at anyone audacious enough to challenge Orthodox rabbis on the issue (critics just don’t like the haredim, he suggests, even when the critics are themselves haredim) that no short response can do justice to them all.

But the greatest evil of his column lies less in what he says than in what he doesn’t say. For in Rosenblum’s head-in-the-sand world, when a fact reflects poorly on haredi rabbis, it doesn’t even get to see the light.

You’d never know, from Rosenblum’s writing, that anyone had made more than a few careless accusations about child sex abuse in Ramat Beit Shemesh. But of course they did: the complaints – all quoted in the Ha-aretz article Rosenblum responds to – were both specific and severe. A mother complained that when she reported her own child’s abuse (with “proof,” according to the article), the rabbis in Ramat Beit Shemesh “called me a liar and said that this kind of thing does not happen here.” Another parent, whose abuse allegation was supported by professional evaluators, spoke of “a combination of denial, protecting your good name and not involving the secular world” which, he said, characterizes his community’s rabbinic leadership. In fact, he told the reporter that “his family was threatened and pressured by community leaders not to pursue the matter with the police,” and even the abused child was “ostracized by most former classmates.”

How does Rosenblum deal with those charges? Simple: he doesn’t.

Nor does Rosenblum, who boasts of his acquaintance with Ramat Beit Shemesh’s “young, worldly and energetic” rabbis, ever tell the reader what those vigorous sages actually know about child sex abuse. One of them is quoted as prescribing “vigilance”; but all their energy and worldliness combined cannot give Rosenblum’s readers a single clue about what they look for in an alleged child sex abuse case, or how they look, or whom they consult, if anyone.

Rosenblum is even silent on what may be the most important question of all: whether these rabbis encourage their congregants to report to police without first seeking a rabbi’s specific approval. Rosenblum suggests vaguely that they must favor police reports on suspected offenders because a prominent haredi rabbi has authorized the practice. (He doesn’t name the rabbi, perhaps because – if Rabbi Elyashiv is the one he means – he misrepresents Elyashiv’s published view as more pro-reporting than it really is.) But if, in fact, the Ramat Beit Shemesh rabbis insist on being the ones who decide whether an allegation may move on to secular authorities, Rosenblum’s defense only means that the rabbis may support reporting a given case, assuming that they themselves are persuaded of the sufficiency of the evidence. How is that standard to be satisfied? Again, Rosenblum doesn’t say.

The disingenuousness of Rosenblum’s silence on these critical points is particularly offensive when juxtaposed with his sanctimonious outcry against the critics of Ramat Beit Shemesh’s rabbis. In attacking the parents, and David Morris, who has supported them, Rosenblum is uninhibitedly nasty: he accuses Morris, for instance, of making a “wild claim” and demanding that “a teacher should be automatically fired the first time any student complains of untoward behavior, and he and his family stigmatized for life.” Of course, Morris never demanded any such thing.

But more important, Rosenblum’s choice of targets – his selective invective – exposes the real point of his defense. It really doesn’t matter to Rosenblum, finally, whether the rabbis deny the reality of sex abuse charges, cover up for the guilty, and blame the victims. If they do all that, it’s simply proof to Rosenblum that blaming victims for telling the truth really can be better than taking action against those they accuse. The only thing certain is that one cannot criticize the rabbis.

Rosenblum even strengthens this bizarre implication with one of the strangest claims I have ever seen in print: that rabbis choose to stand between victims and law enforcement for the victims’ own good:

The rabbis’ preference for working behind the scenes derives . . . from a considered philosophy about what is best for victims, their families and the community. The knowledge that incidents will be publicized can keep victims or their parents from coming forward. In addition, publicity can lead to hysteria . . .

Well, there you have it, folks: the reporting of child sex abuse cases actually inhibits the reporting of child sex abuse cases. Even worse, it can cause “hysteria.” Wouldn’t want that, now, would we?

All in all, Rosenblum’s column – which claims to disprove the existence of child sex abuse cover-ups in Orthodox communities – is itself a kind of cover-up. Not only does Rosenblum refuse to discuss any of the key questions, he simply assumes they don’t exist.

As a contributor to the first book-length treatment of child sex abuse in Jewish communities (Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals, Brandeis University Press, 2009), I must add that Rosenblum’s denial is depressingly familiar. But if our communal spokesmen don’t start doing any better than this, we can only be headed for disaster in the long run. The political philosopher Leo Strauss once said of such empty theorizing that it amounted to “fiddling while Rome burns” – and he added these ominously relevant words: “It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.”

Michael Lesher
22 Leitch Place
Passaic NJ 07055
(973) 470-0212