When the news broke, several weeks ago, that the internationally famous Haredi author Chaim Walder was accused of sexual assault on minors, it was hard for many of us in the Orthodox world to accept.
Beyond his immediate Haredi circle, many children across the Orthodox religious spectrum have been exposed to his literature. We could not believe this seemingly empathetic man had a such a dark side to him. It is not as if the Orthodox world has not been disappointed before by charismatic figures whom we once admired. There are too many examples of educators and public figures who have similarly exploited and defiled our faith in them.
Something, however, felt different in this case.
For one, there is no closure. Instead of facing his demons, as he so often advised his fan base and as he illustrated in his stories, Walder took the easy way out. His suicide deprived the victims of confronting him in court and ultimately satisfying themselves that justice had finally been done.
We will never discover the riddle to his personality, and what motivated him to engage in such monstrous misdeeds. Perhaps this is a mixed blessing. At least he cannot fool and manipulate us again with some clever emotion-laden story of what drove him to do what he did.
There is something more to this story. Other personalities may have touched us here and there, but they did not set out as their mission the gift of sensitivity or freedom to express our emotions.
Walder was meant to understand us, and he was supposed to be gifted in understanding children. Instead, he abused the trust vulnerable children placed in him and ultimately ensured that the world they had originally feared was murkier and scarier than it was before they met him.
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His threats that followed his molesting robbed these victims of their ability to speak out. Not only were they physically and psychologically assaulted, there was no one with the equivalent degree of community sanction they could turn to unload the secret of their abuse, their feelings and their scars.
We ask ourselves how such a gifted storyteller, who exposed his insular Haredi community to new vistas and opened the world of psychology to them - how could such a man also be such a monster?
Faced with such a paradox of the human condition we look at our friends, our teachers, ourselves and we ask: Could that happen to us as well? Do we too not have a dark nature that may lead us astray? What can we do to restrain our worst impulses? How do we let our children roam free when such monsters inhabit our world?
For those of us with deep abiding faith this is also a trying time. We as Jews strongly believe in freedom of choice, of our own responsibility for our actions, and when humans stumble we do not blame God. No human is perfect, but how could someone seemingly infused with faith until his dying day not restrain himself?
No one expects, or should expect, a religious person to be a saint, and many have fallen and will continue to do so. Nonetheless, we wonder how someone could be so cruel to defenseless human beings and the next day claim to be as a servant of God.
There has been a raging debate as to what should be done with the books left behind. In my own family, my teenage children are sharply divided as to whether it is possible to separate the author from his work.
On the one hand there is a very real possibility that some of the people in Walder’s stories were victims of the author’s abuse. The fact he could still write about them, and profit from their misfortune, certainly has an effect on his writing, even if subliminal.
On the other hand, many have been encouraged by his writings, and but for this discovery would continue to be inspired. Sometimes art can be separated from its creator. If it were up to me I would allow Wagner, whose music is the subject of a long-standing taboo in Israel, to be played here. Whether Walder’s case is analogous waits to be seen, but it is yet another sad dilemma that we have to deal with.
What can we do to redeem this horrific story and find some meaning? Firstly, we should shift focus, from the villain to the heroes of this sorry saga.
Courage is a rare commodity, and sometimes it takes determination and empathy for it to be revealed. The fact that some of the victims are now sharing their deep pain is not only liberating for them: It is also a testament to their human spirit. It emboldens us and reminds us that while humans can be frail, they can also be tough. While some sin, others courageously remove evil from the land.
Secondly, we should learn from the unwise and uncritical lionizing of any one leadership figure, enabling his longstanding impunity.
Thirdly, Haredim and religious Jews of all stripes have had legitimate gripes against the secular Israeli media that does not always understand them. Haredim in this case owe a great debt of gratitude to the Haaretz journalists who exposed this affair and prompted many to bravely testify against someone who was once untouchable.
The hurt in Bnei Brak is deep and many must be very frustrated at this expose. Yet eventually they will realize that thanks to this newspaper, many of their precious children were saved further suffering at the hands of an unrepentant and serial offender.
For the rest of us, we should be far more compassionate and responsive to accusations of misdeeds. But we should also realize that for every evil impostor, there are many unsung heroes in our communities and beyond who want the best for humanity. And in that, we should take some comfort.
David Fachler has a Masters in Law from South Africa, and a Masters in Contemporary Jewry from Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is currently completing a doctorate in historical studies at the University of Cape Town