Last week in a bold and unprecedented move, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau penned an open letter to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) educators cautioning them to “deal seriously” with instances of child abuse that have been reported at educational institutions and in some homes. “Burying our heads in the sand is not the answer to these difficult and painful issues,” Lau wrote, urging members of the community to take responsibility for the atrocities.
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Lau’s letter came in the wake of a report that as many as six teachers from a Hasidic school in Tel Aviv have been charged with abusing almost two dozen preschool and elementary school students. This is by no means an isolated incident: In the last few months at least three Israeli Torah scholars have been accused of sexually abusing women and girls, and in two of these cases the victims involved close members of the perpetrators’ families.
To make matters worse, such abuse within the ultra-Orthodox community has not been confined to Israel. Similar abuse cases, in which rabbis preyed on nave young women, have been reported in the United States and the United Kingdom, while Australia has established a royal commission to investigate why a school had concealed the abuse of its students for 20 years. We know about these cases because the authorities have managed to prosecute and punish these criminals. There are other cases where offenders have evaded punishment by exploiting the Law of Return and escaping to Israel. Sadly, there are some rabbinical miscreants who not only go unpunished – they continue to occupy their pulpits owing to the victims refusing to press charges and the communities that wish to sweep such allegations under the rug.
This shocking situation obviously does not mean that the ultra-Orthodox community is uniquely guilty of sexual abuse. A community as large and diverse as this one surely deserves the presumption that most of its adherents are decent individuals who strictly uphold religious law. Indeed, the overwhelming majority frowns upon any sexual impropriety, and barriers are set up to avoid such eventualities. Men and women are rarely on a first name basis and meetings between the sexes are always held with open doors to prevent any hint of intimacy. Children, from a young age are not placed in close confines with relatives of their extended families of the opposite sex, and religious teachers are trained to spot and report suspicious signs of child abuse.
The problem is that the community often fails to report and publicly protest crimes such as child and sexual abuse – a failure that may be traced to Haredi culture. From a young age, the Haredi child is taught that emunat hakhamim, belief in Torah sages and rabbis, is such an important principle that it renders many sages infallible in their eyes. They are also familiar with the dictum that the Torah serves as an antidote to one’s evil inclination. These combined beliefs place Haredi children in a double bind, so that not only are their teachers “incapable” of erring, they have also been “immunized” from committing evil acts.
Given such a framework, what is a Haredi child (or naive adult) with personal knowledge of sexual crimes meant to think when he knows the perpetrators are Torah scholars? How can he contemplate that his teachers or mentors are sexual deviants? And if these perpetrators are so evil, why is it only the Chief Rabbinate that reacts? The only body that counts within this community is the Council of Torah Sages; while it regularly calls for mass protests when it feels its religious lifestyle is under threat, the council has remained eerily silent on the subject of abuse. How are these children to know that such actions are intolerable and that any Torah taught by such offenders is worth very little?
Sadly, they probably won’t. A child growing up in an insular Haredi neighborhood will learn by the ever-present posters he sees, and by the demonstrations he attends, that sexual deviancy is not all that important. It certainly does not trump the issue of dead bones being exhumed to make way for a highway or hospital. It is no more important than secular Jews wishing to enjoy themselves at the cinema on a Friday night, and is probably no less evil than a Haredi traitor who dares put on an army uniform.
In such an environment, why should there be any incentive to report sexual offenses? This is especially true where reporting comes at a cost: whistleblowers and victims are keenly aware that any exposure severely harms their own and their progeny’s marriage prospects. Is it any wonder then that abuse continues as long as it does until one courageous man or woman has the guts to go to the police?
Unfortunately, this situation is not mitigated by the argument that the Haredi sector’s individual members and organizations have done much to benefit society as a whole. And yet a society that ignores its own internal problems, that refuses to rally against its own criminals at least with same roar as it rallies against other sectors of society, and that steadfastly conceals its misdeeds, is indeed doing a lot of harm to itself.
If the Haredi community in Israel and abroad is to reclaim the public’s trust it must shun all acts of sexual abuse. It must act seriously and it must act now. The time has come for the community to demonstrate to itself as well as to others that there is zero tolerance for harming the sexual integrity of anyone created in G-d’s image, especially children.
David Fachler has a Masters in Law from South Africa (LLM) and a Masters in Contemporary Jewry from Hebrew University, Jerusalem (MA). He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org.