Friday, September 02, 2016

I’m Not Sure – I’m Not Sure

R' Zechariah Wallerstein speaking at an Agudah convention (Agudah Website)
A couple of weeks ago on Tisha B’Av, in the course of a broader lecture, Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein made some very hurtful comments about survivors. I had criticized him about that angry rant – which can be summarized as follows: You were abused?! Get over it!

Those comments were excerpted and uploaded to YouTube (no longer availabe) for the entire world to see and hear. I was not the only one to criticize him for that. Just about every survivor advocacy group had the same reaction. Including RabbiYakov Horowitz, who had written his own critical piece on Facebook after Rabbi Wallerstein’s subsequent brief clarification of what he said.  In essence Rabbi Horowitz said it wasn’t enough. He hurt survivors of abuse deeply.

That clarification was more of a self promotion than it was an explanation. He said that his intent was not to criticize or hurt, but to offer hope for a better future. He mentioned that he has the only high school for girls that were sexually abused. He further said that that excerpt was taken out of context. Had people heard the entire lecture, they would not have gotten that impression. Well, I listened to it. It changed nothing. The excerpt in question remained a rant. His intention may have been to give survivors hope. But if there was ever an intention that was as poorly executed as this one was, I don’t know what it is.

Obviously telling abuse victims that they should have hope is not a bad thing.. But it has to be in the context of understanding the hurt and not an angry rant as though they are victims of their own self pity!  

It seems that Rabbi Wallerstein has had a chance to think about what he said and has come out with a new and improved apology (below). He elaborated on what he was trying to do and now understands that survivors and survivor advocates were upset by it. He clearly said that he 100% apologizes. With a full heart.

But he again tried to shift at least part of the blame for the reaction - to outside factors. He said his message of hope was tied to Tisha B’Av in the sense that even on that day of mourning for the destruction of the Beish HaMikdash, there is hope. It is called a Moed (Yom Tov) because with the advent of Moshiach, Tisha B’Av will become the most joyous time of celebration. Survivors should get on that train.

Had he said it in somber terms in the context of recognizing the pain suffered by survivors, he could have avoided the controversy. But he hardly mentioned that at all. He yelled at the survivor community for focusing on their pain instead of focusing on their future and letting go of that pain. As if ‘Abara K’adabra’ – no more pain. Emotional pain suffered through a trauma like sex abuse cannot not be turned off like a spigot. You certainly cannot yell and scream it away. 

He says he still doesn’t ‘Chap’ (get) how telling people to have hope no matter what happened to them – is a crime. I don’t think he fully understands how he hurt people. He just realizes that he did based on the reactions he was told about to that excerpt. And apologized.

I don’t mean to pile on to this man. I’m sure that his intentions were honorable. But are intentions good enough? Shouldn’t an apology be based on a thorough understanding what he said? ...and why the way in which he said it was hurtful? An not based only on the fact that he was misunderstood? ...or blaming the internet, YouTube, and his critics for not listening to his whole message of hope on that day?

There is another aspect to his ignorance of these matters that he practically admits to. He refuses to have internet access. It almost seems like he brags about it at every opportunity.  This means he has no clue about the impact of lectures unless or until someone tells him about it.

Purposeful ignorance is not the best method of accomplishing your goals. One needs to be informed. as quickly and expediently as possible. Those that try and deal with the heavyweight issues of our day and do so without the benefit of internet access are unnecessarily impeded by this handicap. While it is possible to accomplish those goals without it, why slow down the process if there is a better and faster way to be informed? Justice delayed is justice denied.

It may feel good for someone to like Rabbi Wallerstein to say ‘I don’t have the internet’. Thereby ingratiating himself to those who harangue against its evils. But it comes at a price too high.

Back to his apology. I think he was sincere. I am convinced that he never intended to hurt anyone. And that he meant well. But is it enough? I can’t answer the question. I am not a survivor of abuse. The best I can do is to quote a phrase he repeated twice: I’m not sure. I’m not sure.