Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Time to Come Out of the Closet

Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn
For the vast majority of Orthodox Jewry, the subject of child sexual abuse is an important issue. One would not be human if they did not consider it of vital importance. First because of the need to protect our children. And second to express our support for the victims. But it is equally true and unfortunate that  in spite of the high import we place on this subject, even if we give it the highest priority, it is still only a subject. Once we leave that topic of discussion, we go on to other things that are important in our daily lives.

Most people I would guess hardly give that subject a second thought throughout the day. I am not saying this as a form of admonishment. But if it didn’t happen to you or a loved one - it is human nature to do so.  And an understandable fact of life. There are indeed other very important things going on in any typical Jewish life that require full attention. Such as Parnassa, raising children, maintaining Shalom Baysis,  day school tuitions… I need not list them at all. They are many and they are obvious.

Unless you are a survivor. For survivors that ‘subject’ never goes away. They live with it constantly. They suffer immensely. I need not go into the upheaval and devastation that occurs to victims who have survived abuse.  The very word they use to describe themselves, ‘survivor’ tells the story. It is the same word that surviving victims of the Holocaust use about themselves. In both cases their experiences never leave them. They are haunted by them.

At one extreme some survivors – as we all know – have attempted and have even been successful at committing suicide.  At the other extreme some survivors have been able to functionally overcome their ordeal and have gone on to lead normal and productive lives.

But in all cases the memory stays with them and affects their lives to one degree or another. Psychologists call it PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As I said - it never goes away. They live with it constantly. It can affect their sleep, their personal relationships, and their jobs. If they make their experiences public, they live with the stigma – as does their family… with all the attendant problems inherent in families where there has been sex abuse.

I bring all this up because of an enlightening post by Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn on his Daas Torah blog. Therein he describes the ‘progress’ we’ve made in that it has become commonplace to criticize rabbis for failure to deal with abuse. 

Rabbi Eidensohn does not mean the legitimate criticism made by the media and the public. That has been going on for years. And is currently one of the hottest topics of discussion in virtually all media - print or electronic. He is referring to prominent rabbis criticizing prominent rabbis.  He begins by describing what it was once like. A few years ago when he wrote a book about sex abuse he was advised not to publish it. There were 2 reasons given: 
1) "We don't talk about abuse." Stores told me they would not sell any book that had the word abuse in its title or used the word "sex" in it. Someone who had initially offered support for the book, withdrew it when he saw that I actually explicitly discussed sexual abuse in the book.
2)  "You can't criticize rabbis for failure to deal with the issue." Or rather I was told I can't make the claim that rabbis were not following halacha - it was viewed as an oxymoron. Obviously rabbis follow halacha because that is what rabbis do - at least Chareidi rabbis. 
He was even threatened with being put in Cherem  if he published it - and that no booksellers would be willing to sell the book. Nor would anyone be willing to buy it! It was Rav Moshe Sternbuch alone who urged him to publish.

Today, his experiences have done a 180 and are very illuminating. Here is how he describes them: 
1) After kayaking on the Jordan River - someone gave me a seat on the overcrowded bus returning us to the parking lot. In the ensuring conversation, I discovered that he had a kollel for Choshen Mishpat. I mentioned that I was dealing with child abuse and C.M. 388.
He responded that the rabbis either didn't know halacha or were grossly misapplying it in regards to abusers. Furthermore he had quit a good teaching job at a yeshiva because of his disgust with the school's failure to deal properly with child abuse. Thus after a few minutes of first meeting another Chareidi Jew we were openly discussing the problem of abuse and the failure of rabbis to follow the halacha.
2) I had a long talk with a relative who is a solid talmid chachom learning in Kollel. He is a very strict about lashon harah, respecting rabbinical authority and is strongly against Internet, smart phones and believes in Daas Torah and only reads the Yated. Yet he readily acknowledged that he personally knew cases of abuse that were mishandled by rabbonim and is fully aware of the cowardice of poskim in  dealing with the issue of mesira and calling the police. He also expressed surprise that I thought that any rabbi would apologize for making a serious mistake.
3) Today I met a very well known Yerushalmi posek and rav that I haven't seen for years. He remembered who I was and asked me what I was working on. When I responded, "Child abuse" - he readily expressed strong approval.
When I told him my biggest problem was that the rabbonim don't follow the halacha - this well known exemplar of the rabbinic establishment's immediate response was, "I can tell you some really good stories about that." There was no hesitation, no defensiveness. It was simply an obvious fact - such as the sun rises in the morning or objects fall when dropped. 
Yes, we’ve come a long way. But these rabbis are not the first ones to feel this way. There are some pioneering rabbis who have long ago noted this terrible phenomenon publicly, including Rabbi Eidenshon himself.

The problem is that these newly aware rabbis apparently still refuse to come out of the closet on this issue. They feel strong enough about it to express their opinion privately to a colleague. But they do not have the courage of that colleague to identify themselves… and make their criticisms public. Until that is done, organization like Agudah who insist on things like reporting all credible suspicions of sex abuse first to rabbis will continue to be the rule.

I understand their fear. And I respect their right to remain anonymous. Public exposure about views that are contrary to the conventional wisdom of ‘Daas Torah’ can cause you to be called Amalek by prominent rabbinic leaders. They can lose their reputations and their careers as Rabbis or Poskim. They can become total outcasts in their communities.

But I weigh that against the pain suffered by survivors of abuse and the need to go the distance when it comes to the protection of our children. Suspicions of abuse must be reported to the police. Abusers must be punished and prevented from harming others. There must be universal recognition that there is no such thing as successful reparative therapy for a pedophile. They have an abnormal and unalterable sexual attraction to children for life. 

Our children must be protected. Rabbis need to ‘see the light’ just like these newly aware rabbis and the rest of us have. Protecting pedophiles under the guise of hurting people falsely accused has to stop. 

Rabbis who are now freely criticizing rabbis who err on the side of the accused must come out of the closet and state publicly what they told Rabbi Eidensohn privately. Let that Yerushalmi Posek who said ‘I can tell you some really good stories about that‘ actually make those stories public. And name names!

If and when that happens, perhaps then we will finally be able to turn the corner one of the most pressing problems of our time.