Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Disagreeing with my Rebbe

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow - also known as the Novominsker Rebbe - was an important figure in my life. As stated in my bio he was one of my Rebbeim in the primary Yeshiva I attended - the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie. Specifically, he was my 12th grade Rebbe. He was a great Rebbe and Baal Masbir – clearly explaining the Gemarah and Rishonim he taught us.

My class was in fact his very first one. He remembers every one of us and never fails to say hello and remind me of that when he encounters me on his visits to Chicago – which are fairly frequent.

My contact with him was not only as a Talmid. Late in his tenure in Chicago – after I was married - he became the Rebbe of a Shteibel where my father was the Baal Teffilah. In short he lived here quite a number of years and was a significant influence in my life.

Interestingly we both had the same Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik. When Rabbi Perlow came to eulogize him at the Sheloshim, he metioned that it was Rav Ahron who taught him how to learn his first Rambam.

Rabbi Perlow is now the sitting head of the Agudah Moetzes. He is a man for whom I have great deal of respect. And he deserves it. To say otherwise is to not know him. I know him and he is a brilliant Talmid Chacham. Perhaps more importantly he is a kind and caring individual who only wants to serve God and the Jewish people. He deserves to be where he is – in a leadership position. He earned it.

A few days ago he addressed the Agudah dinner and spoke about one of the most important and divisive issues of the day: Sex abuse in the Torah world. He made some very revealing comments.

I agree with him on most of what he said. I also agree that one must read carefully the words of the recent declaration by Agudah and Torah U’Mesorah opposing the Markey Bill. That bill would extend for one year the window for filing suit against Yeshivos for old claims of sex abuse by its employees.

If one reads those words carefully one can only conclude that there was absolutely no nefarious intent in them. There is nothing but a caring attitude expressed for the victims. All the strong and sometimes even disgusting rhetoric against Agudah, Torah U’Mesorah, and their leadership is unwarranted and unfair.

My position is clear. I support the bill – reluctantly. Not that I know better then Rabbi Perlow and other Agudah Moetzes and Torah U'Mesorah members do. But that I see both sides of the argument as I know they do and I favor the bill - as does the RCA and other rabbinic figures.

Of course as Rabbi Perlow points out - the Torah must always be our guide on every issue. But sometimes it is not so clear what direction the Torah tells us to take. This is one of those times – I think even the members of the Moetzes would concede that point. They ultimately made their decision based on what they truly believe the Torah would mandate. One cannot fault them for that.

One cannot fault the critics of Agudah either. They understand that the victims of abuse feel betrayed. Their hurt continues unabated. They see rabbinic leadership as once again missing an opportunity to do something concrete to help heal them.

But one must look at this objectively and see the merits of Agudah’s arguments too. One should not gloss over the words of encouragement offered by them even while they oppose the Markey Bill. They clearly would not stand in the way of better legislation that would address the victims needs toward the healing process. Here is the way Rabbi Perlow put it:

"A serious issue" has arisen in our community… "Individuals have been hurt and deserve redress, acknowledgment and empathy." There is a need for tikkun ha'ovar" - correcting the past - and for addressing the future, "creating means to guide against wrongdoing to children."

Not many people, Rabbi Perlow noted, know of the countless hours spent by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel and the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah over the past two years discussing the many complex facets, including the implications "for mosdos haTorah."

"No one really knows the sensitivity that went into this entire process," over the course of many meetings regarding "this painful parsha."

These do not sound like the words of an uncaring individual who is indifferent to the pain of abuse victims.

The reasons for their opposition are by now well known. The fear is that good Yeshivos could be destroyed because of old claims against them about incidents by people who are no longer involved with the school in any way. Entire faculties, administrations, and boards could have changed since then. The school would still be vulnerable. They feel this is an existential threat to the entirety of Jewish education. These are the very same arguments put forward by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz a champion of abuse victims rights!

It is unfair to dismiss these concerns out of hand as insincere. They are legitimate. But I nevertheless disagree because I have confidence – as does the RCA and other rabbinic leaders - that Yeshivos that do not deserve to be destroyed will not be. That is coupled with my sincere desire to see the victims get justice – any justice no matter how small. We have to start somewhere. This is the best we have now. It may be an unsatisfactory bill but it is better than nothing. And it will show the victims in a tangible way that the Torah world does care.

Rabbi Perlow also said the following:

What makes Agudas Yisroel special is that "it seeks the truth of Torah" and discerns it in the understanding of Gedolei Torah. That determination to divine what is proper for Klal Yisroel "resists even well-meaning daas baalei batim," Rabbi Perlow proclaimed, and certainly "the bloggers and the picketers, presumptuous promoters" of the notion that "they know better what is good for the Jews."

I think that this is a misreading of what the more responsible bloggers have been saying. True - there are some who seem to jump at every opportunity to bash rabbinic leaders who spend their lives dedicated to serving Klal Yisroel. But the more responsible bloggers are not saying "they know better what is good for the Jews." We are saying that we think that the victims deserve better than what they have received thus far and that - for a lack of an alternative - this is the way to start.