by Ben Kamin
SAN DIEGO — The New York Times has now published an article that carefully chronicles a disquieting, alarming social reality brimming inside the fundamentalist Jewish community of Brooklyn: adult members of the enclave who have reported the sexual abuse of youngsters on the part of rabbis, teachers, and other professionals are being shunned and excoriated by others in the area.
This kind of medieval syndrome, a sad blend of paranoia and sanctimony, is condemning innocent children and protecting evil people who need to be condemned. It rehabilitates no one in need of serious clinical intervention and perpetuates the stranglehold of power-hungry old men that have no concept of ecclesiastic privilege and responsibility. It is locking kids into a spiritual ghetto that has nothing to do with either American or Jewish enlightenment.
There isn’t much of a distance between the perpetrators of such heinous acts and those who are effectively complicit by actually ostracizing their informants. No amount of Torah-waving, self-righteousness, or pious rationalization can possibly whitewash the fact that this trend, this hypocrisy, is scandalous, immoral, and quite possibly criminal.
There is certainly nothing in the Jewish textual tradition that supports this shameless practice; it is simply an outgrowth of the growing fiefdom of hardline rabbis whose power is viewed by their devotees as unyielding, boundless, and which even flouts the laws of the state. A number of journalists are looking into the comfortable relationship that seems to exist among the rabbis in Brooklyn and other heavily Hasidic towns and boroughs and the local or regional district attorneys. The sages are steeped in prayer and in electoral privilege—this writer will leave it to others to figure out whether it’s about money or reverence.
In any category, it is horrifying and needs to be addressed. I learned a long time ago, while preparing for the rabbinate, that Israel is often compared to a lamb. When any part of the creature is hurting, even its paw, the whole being is affected. This aphorism is Talmudic, as is the signal declaration by Rabbi Hillel: “In a place where are no human beings, you strive to be human.” In other words, the insular, detrimental, reactionary mindset of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who regard state laws as somehow incidental to rabbinic edicts, who incredulously condemn their neighbors who have the integrity and courage to report sexual criminals to the authorities (so as to protect the community reputation) have turned their backs on Jewish values, on biblical ideals—and on their own molested children.
Brooklyn is an eclectic, vibrant, and increasingly diverse city. Two hundred fifty thousand fundamentalist Jews live there—they are as thick as blackberries in the streets and parks and storefronts. They study texts and sing psalms as old as God. They publish great books and maintain sacred traditions and they look to the heavens for their inspiration. But even Heaven is not above the law.
Ben Kamin is a freelance writer based in San Diego.