Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Writing a Sefer Torah is Not Teshuva

Celebrating a Sefer Torah donated by a convicted sex offender (Forward)
The current popularity of writing a Sefer Torah and donating it to a Shul is something that has been troubling me for some time now. One may ask, why this Mitzvah is so troubling to me?  Well, it isn’t the Mitzvah per se that is so troubling, It is the fact that millions of dollars have been poured into this project. Jewish money that could have been used far more wisely.

If money grew on trees, I wouldn’t be so troubled. If charitable institutions weren’t so desperate for funds (just to stay alive in some cases)… especially our day schools, high schools and Yeshivos, I’d be fine with it. I would even be supportive of doing it if there was a shortage of Sifrei Torah in the Jewish world.

That was probably why this phenomenon started. There was a shortage. But surely there no longer is a shortage. And yet it seems like every Monday and Thursday we see another Torah dedication ceremony where someone spent well over $50,000 to have it written. They are often donated to Shuls that have plenty of Sefrei Torah of their own.

Imagine if all of this money went to our schools instead of yet another Sefer Torah?

But I am not here to talk about that. I just had to get it off my chest. I am here to talk about a specific Torah dedication that an individual from Chabad  organized. From the Times of Israel
An event...was held in Golders Green a fortnight ago honouring a Sefer Torah and its donor. Chabad news outlets describe “over 1,000 men, women and children” participating in a “joyous” event.  
Ordinarily I would have just shrugged this event off as just another Torah dedication. A Torah written with money that could have been put to better use. But this case was different, as Yehudis Goldsobel, the author of that article, notes: 
I was made aware of this when a journalist contacted me for my thoughts considering the scroll’s donor, a convicted sex offender, is the man who abused me. I read the article with the accompanying photos and felt the air knocked out of me. There, in the pictures, were prominent members of Chabad Lubavitch – the same Lubavitch that don’t want to include me. This is the community that shunned me. 
The event was attended by many of Chabad of the UK’s top rabbinic brass. As Yehudis also notes, there is no way they could have not known about what the donor was convicted of. It was well publicized. And yet they celebrated the Torah dedication and the fellow that donated the Torah as though he was some kind of hero for doing this! 

Now it is common to make a public display of donating a Sefer Torah. It is usually done with much fanfare. It includes a traveling band and a marching processional that accompanies that SeferTorah under a Chupa as various dignitaries are honored by giving them turns to carry it under that Chupa. The processional starts at the donor’s house and proceeds toward the Shul in which it will be housed. There’s lots of singing and dancing... lots of people from the wider religious community either participating or observing. Chabad is particularly concerned with such publicity seeing it as celebration that can also be used as an outreach tool.

This is what happened here. But that is not all that happened. Other organizations in the British Jewish community responded like this:
Rather than instant condemnation of this behaviour of Chabad Lubavitch UK, the Board of Deputies issued a statement about “remorse” and “genuine repentance” of offenders, closely followed by the Jewish Leadership Council using the moment to boast about its member organisations having “robust policies” in safeguarding.
Yes, repentance is important and ought not be sneered at. Everyone has a right – an obligation even – to do Teshuva.  But donating a Sefer Torah is not Teshuva. Even great remorse at having committed a sex crime is not Teshuva. Although that is certainly part of it, it is not nearly enough. 

Teshuva requires that a penitent first asks forgiveness from his victims. Without that, no matter how remorseful they may be the Teshuva is not accepted by God. You cannot ask forgiveness from God without first asking for forgiveness from the person you hurt. In this case it was obviously not done. The sex offender just skipped over that part as though spending money to write on a Sefer Torah was enough.

Surely these Jewish leaders in the UK know this. It is basic. Teshuva for violating sins between man and one’s fellow man requires the fellow man’s forgiveness first. They completely ignored that. And along with the donor’s victims. If anyone wants to know how victims of abuse feel – one can just tune in to the nightly news and watch victim impact statements currently taking place at the sentencing phase of serial sex abuser Larry Nasser’s trial 

Chabad of the UK seems to have been completely oblivious about what an event honoring a sex abuser must feel like to his victims. They did eventually condemn the event and the donor – and rejected his Safer Torah. But it was only after two weeks of media outrage and the strong condemnation by UK Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis.

Hopefully Chabad of the UK will have learned something from this experience. I hope it is this: Instead of talking about the importance of a sex abuser doing Teshuva and thereby restoring his reputation without him doing what is necessary, they will instead focus their attention on the victims, their rehabilitation, full acceptance back into their community, and eliminate once and for all the stigma of being survivors in the Frum world! When Chabad puts their minds to something - it gets done. Let's hope they put their minds to this.

As for that donor, if he really wants to do Teshuva,  I’m sure he knows what he must do first. One thing he has hopefully learned by the all of the negative attention he got from this is that self promotion via a Torah dedication is not it.

Post corrected and updated Wednesday 1/17/18 at 7:27 PM