Haredi Rabbis Must Speak Out in Child-abuse Cases

Was there not one righteous man to stand up for the boy who was allegedly starved by his mother?

During one of the stormy meetings between representatives of the Jerusalem authorities and the go-getters of the Eda Haredit, at the height of the riots against the arrest of the mother suspected of starving her son, one ultra-Orthodox man turned to defend his community by claiming that the rioters were a tiny minority gone wild.

What he meant to say was: Don't make so much fuss out the burning of a few trash bins and the closing of a couple of streets. Just like the seculars and the religious Zionists, we too have our bad seeds.

At first glance, the explanation is sensible and even soothing: Look, even the ultra-Orthodox themselves admit it's just a few hot-tempered individuals. They'll calm down in a day or two, and peace will reign over Mea She'arim for another 40 years. But an in-depth look at the "minority" excuse reveals that the leadership disease reaches all the way up to the Hasidic courts.

The protest of the ultra-Orthodox against the internment of a woman from their community can, perhaps, be understood. The notion that the rioters are a marginal minority spun out of control, offspring of the radical and anti-Zionist dynasty of Toldot Aharon, is also quite acceptable - after all, demonstrations spinning out of control are hardly a Hasidic invention. But how is it possible that there was not one righteous man among the council of Torah sages to stand up for that miserable child and demand someone look into the well-being of his brother?

Is there not one leader on the council that would dare condemn the goons terrorizing social workers? The silence of the Torah scholars amounts to an agreement that pinning yellow stars to children's clothes and calling a Jewish doctor "Mengele" is acceptable.

The speechlessness that struck the great and the wise in the face of grave suspicions of child abuse is nothing new. It struck them a year ago, around the story of Yisrael Walz, a young ultra-Orthodox man suspected (and convicted) of shaking his baby son to death. Then, too, the mentors allowed their parishes to turn things on their heads: Instead of loudly condemning and ostracizing the man who abused his son, and making him an example, they stayed silent - at best. Some rabbis adopted the attitude of presenting the perpetrator as a victim of a "blood libel" cooked up by the seculars: Who needs the National Council for the Child when you have rabbinic councils? Mothers who starve their children only exist among the secular population, of course.

Taking an abused boy from his home stains the family name, and, heaven forbid, damages his sisters' matrimonial prospects. The rabbis care considerably more for the well-being of adults, especially adults of good pedigree, than for the children.

One can understand (though never justify) the "leader of the weak," Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who used his public office to rescue a yeshiva student who deliberately ran over a parking lot attendant. After all, Yishai is but a mediocre politician who has not yet internalized the rules of the democratic game. But what kind of an example is served by the chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, who considers appointing the same yeshiva scholar to be a rabbinic judge? What kind of authority does a leader like that have to call for respect for laws?

We've learned over the years that although the ultra-Orthodox have no democracy or equality, they do have leadership and morals. It now appears that the leadership is dying out, while personal and tribal interests trump moral guidelines. It's hard to expect a reasonable person - be he secular, observant, national-religious or ultra-Orthodox - to pay any respect to a leader who turns his back on a starving child. And what possible respect could be accorded to a rabbi who does not speak out when hearing of a mother who allowed another "rabbi" to put her son in a vegetative state?

The alienation from the Zionist establishment and the hostility of the ultra-Orthodox toward law-enforcement have turned the rabbis into mediators between the local authorities, the welfare services, the hospital, and so on and so forth. This important communication channel allows us to maintain coexistence and to disarm potential conflicts when necessary.

The loss of moral authority and the erosion of the rabbis' control over their communities threaten to sever this already tenuous connection. A state cannot force elderly people to maintain this bridge. Tolerance ends where helpless children are dropped into the abyss.