Friday, March 11, 2011

Two Kinds of Tsunamis

I'm Starting With The Man In
The Mirror
I'm Asking Him To Change
His Ways
And No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
(If You Wanna Make The
World A Better Place)
Take A Look At Yourself, And
Then Make A Change

So go the words to a popular song of a few years ago. Better Mussar has never been written.

8.9 is the number on the Richter Scale of the latest earthquake to hit the earth. It is the largest earthquake to ever hit near the coast of Japan (about 80 miles away). It is the 4th largest earthquake to ever shake the earth ever since scientists began measuring earthquakes in 1900. A Tsunami - a virtual wall of water 33 feet high has hit the coast of Japan and has rolled inland causing death and destruction in its path.

Images coming in on TV are horrific. Homes and other buildings are being buried under a sea of water as the Tsunami sweeps across the country. Left in its wake are piles of rubble from what was just moments before typical modern structures of a city. Homes and business wiped out. Oil refineries are reported to be burning infernos. Nuclear plants are in danger of being destroyed with who knows what kind of nuclear consequences. As I write this the death toll is already in the hundreds. That number is sure to increase.

The response throughout the ages among Jewish leaders to world events such as this is to first see it for obvious horror that it is and then to reflect upon our own behavior. It is a sort of ‘but for the grace of God – there go I’ feeling. We are urged to look inward and do a Cheshbon HaNefesh - an examination of our own personal lives and see what we can do as individuals - and as a people - to improve our behavior in the eyes of God.

This should not be mistaken as any attempt to explain the tragedy. Anyone who tries to do that is being foolish. We cannot know the mind of God. But at the same time an event such as this cannot be ignored. In this vein community gatherings are usually called by rabbinic leaders to speak about it.

The last time something like this happened the admonitions were about Tznius in women’s clothing. It was felt by many rabbis that this is the area that is most problematic for us as a people. That even in the most right wing circles there were Tznius violations in spirit if not in technical observance. The clothing that some of the most right wing women wear - though covering all parts of the body required by even the most stringent standards of Tznius - are nevertheless often skin tight completely undermining the spirit of those Halachos. Perhaps they have a point.

But there is another area of Tznius that is far more serious and in fact is a Tsunami all by itself. It is perhaps the most talked about issue on the internet – the issue of sex abuse.

By coincidence the Orthodox community of Baltimore had its own community gathering last Monday. Addressing the crowd was Rabbi Mark Dratch who is the head of JSafe. JSafe is the Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment.

He began his speech by citing statistics to show just how big the problem of abuse is in the world. The fact is that these statistics probably apply just as much in the Orthodox Jewish world as they do in the world at large. That there may be a lower number of such incidents statistically among Orthodox Jewry may be due to our reticence to report sex abuse. That’s because of the stigma attached and the very real negative consequences to the victims and their families.

Rabbi Dratch added that even if we halved or even quartered the statistical number of incidences abuse among Orthodox Jews, that would still leave the number of abuse victims in the thousands in a community like Baltimore! Can we stand by and pat ourselves on the back just because we believe our numbers are so much lower? What - Rabbi Dratch asks - would be an acceptably low number for us?

The answer should be obvious. Zero. Even if only one child is abused, to him or her (and their family) it is a tsunami! And obviously the number of abuse victims is a lot greater than than just one!

Part of the reason this is happening is because there simply is not enough rabbinic leadership who are willing to stand up and address it in more effective ways. It’s not that they don’t do it at all. There has been much improvement in this area. What used to be an attitude of sweeping everything under the carpet has changed to one of trying to deal with a problem that is almost universally acknowledged (with the possible exception of Satmar type Chasdidm).

As recently posted here in a few of essays, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, an outspoken advocate for victims of abuse, has taken a courageous step forward in pledging to show up in court where he will stand with the victims at the trial of a sex offender. Other Charedim have since called upon all of us to join him in a strong show of unified support for victims.

This is all a very positive development. But Orthodoxy is a slow lumbering giant that has been moving too slowly on this issue. In the mean time pedophile and rapist predators still continue to seek out the most vulnerable among us to satisfy their aberrant urges.

Let me be the first to suggest that we all look in the mirror. Yes, we can all improve our behavior in the eyes of God - if we think about it. And by ‘all’ I include our leaders. We should all use this tragic event as an opportunity to examine what we can do to make things better in the eyes of God for ourselves - and for our own brothers and sisters.

In addition to admonishing the crowd to do more introspection let the Rabbis who speak at the next community gathering do some self reflection on how they have handled sex abuse. Let them speak with more urgency about it and advise more vigilance in protecting our children.

Let them stop playing games with children who are victims of abuse and urge immediate reporting of any abuse to the authorities as Rav Elyashiv has urged. Let them worry more about the well being and future of the victims than the reputation of our community or the reputation of an accused abuser and his family.

I realize that protecting an innocent man from being falsely accused is an important consideration and all means should be used to protect the innocent. But no one is more innocent than a child who is abused. And no one will suffer more negative consequences than that child if the focus is to protect an accused molester instead of supporting the victim. Victims have for too long been subjected to abuse upon abuse by being accused of lying about it. Often an abuser is a respected member of the community which causes disbelief and denial. And thus - causes a victim to be further victimized.

In my view public introspection by rabbis addressing a community wide gathering will go a long way toward finally eradicating this problem from out midst. Let us all look inside ourselves and improve our own behavior and perhaps we can then spare the world from future tsunamis of any type!