Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Misplaced Compassion

On the right side of the issue: Rav Shmuel Eliyahu (VIN)
Rav Shmuel Eliyahu is a hero. He is a principled man that stands up for justice. No matter the personal consequences. I really don’t know much about him other than that he is the Chief Rabbi of Tzefas and the son of former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. Although there appears to be some controversy about some of his past public statements, on this important issue he stands tall. He will not tolerate defending a serial sex abuser like Chaim Walder.

The winds of this controversy still blow strong. Mostly not in a positive way. After writing my own reaction to Walder’s suicide, I got a lot of pushback. One Posek that I have tremendous respect for asked me how I could  judge someone that never had his day in court? 

Even though he agreed that Walder’s guilt is highly likely and has himself urged people to remove Walder’s books from their shelves… and even criticized people that defended him, he wondered how I could publicly condemn someone that had not been tried and convicted by a Beis Din. We are only getting one side of the story. Walder did not get the chance to present his side in a court and refute their claims. Furthermore my post would surely hurt his family who were clearly in the dark about him until the news broke. They had no part in his behavior. How could I torment them?

These were all good questions. But that answers are better. As explained by Rav Eliyahu in a detailed explanation published at VIN

The damage to Walder’s family was dome by Walder. Not by the media that exposed him or by me. My post was like a drop of water in the ocean compared to what’s already out there. Although I feel genuinely terrible for his family and would happily lighten their burden if I could, my condemnation of their husband/father will not change. Nor will the indisputable fact that when a high profile respected Charedi Jew – or any Orthodox Jew - does something like this, it is a major Chill HaShem that cannot be ignored. It needs to be called out by the rest of Orthodox leadership. I am not a leader. But I do have a small public voice and I did what I could.

That said, comments by Ponevezh Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Gershon Edlestein shook me to the core.  He said that those of us that shamed Walder before his suicide by calling him a sexual predator are actually responsible for it as though we murdered him. Although I prefaced my comments by saying ‘if he is guilty’ I’m not sure that would exonerate me in the eyes of Rav Edelstein. 

I have to ask, why does R’ Edestein have  so much compassion for Walder and his family and yet does not seem extend it to Walder’s victims? 

My guess is that even though R' Edelstein is known for his honesty, integrity. and compassion, he did not hear what R' Eliyahu heard. Had he heard the direct testimony of Walder’ s 22 victims as did Rav Eliyahu, he might have had an entirely different reaction.

As others have pointed out, the intial reaction by the Charedi world was encouraging. His books were banned by  Eichler’s, a huge and very popular bookstore in Boro Park. His radio show was canceled. And his weekly column in the Yated was canceled too. 

But his suicide seemed to change everything - restoring his reputation as a near Tzadik. Can anyone begin to imagine what this does to the 22 victims who had the courage to come forward about what he did to them? And what it does to the - who knows how many others he abused that have chosen to remain silent?

Where is the compassion for the victims? Why is it reserved only for the victimizer? His suicide did not cleanse his sins. It just added another sin to his portfolio. One for which Chazal tell us he loses his portion in Olam Haba. One for which he may not be buried with fellow Jews. One for which Shiva is not observed. 

Rabbi Natan Slifkin has expressed his own justifiable outrage at all this: 

The message to all victims of sexual abuse in the charedi community, and to all those trying to help them, is clear. Shut Up. The predator may be hurting people, but it's much worse to shame him, and you could even end up being guilty of murdering an important, respected member of the community.

The message to predators is also clear. We've Got Your Back. It's already very difficult for any victim of abuse to speak up, and we will try to make it as difficult as possible.

Here is another comment I saw online:

our leaders failed us, spectacularly. All change in our community's treatment of sexual abuse victims came as a direct result of the work of activists over the past fifteen years, activists who were endlessly threatened and abused by the community in an attempt to cow them into silence. Those activists should have received medals for their chutzpah in raising the alarm. Now our community is content to forget these heroes existed, vilifying them as the evil online bloggers, and pretend that their rabbonim were always as enlightened as they were forced to become.

Whatever positive change has taken place in the Charedi world in how to deal with sexual abuse- has come from Askanim. That’s right. Askanim - activists on the part of the survivor community that  forced us to pay attention.

Thankfully Rav Edelstein’s views were countered by R’ Shmuel Eliyahu. It is my sincere hope that voices like his will increase and permanently change the ‘business as usual’ approach to sex abuse in the Orthodox world. By having more sympathy for suvivors than for the ‘Chaim Walders’ of the world - sexual predators that had stellar reputations before they were exposed.