There is a big problem, noted again recently in the media, in the ultra-Orthodox community of not reporting child abusers and protecting them, rather than the victims. What can we do to stop this, get the criminals arrested, and protect the innocent victims? Does this reflect Jewish values, and is it in line with Jewish moral behavior?
A question like yours, while critically important, demands a reply that is fair to all concerned. Your question asserts that there is a “big problem in the ultra-Orthodox community of not reporting child abusers.” However, the dimensions of the problem are not as critical as the ethics of the issue: even one instance of protecting an abuser would be disturbing. It is not feasible to get accurate statistics from any community about the true extent of something that, by its nature, is hidden. Hence, it is probably not possible to assert assuredly that the problem of abuse is worse in the ultra-Orthodox community than elsewhere. Given, however, that there is a culture in the ultra-Orthodox community that discourages reporting cases to secular authorities, it is likely that there is a higher “failure to report” rate in the ultra-Orthodox community than elsewhere.
Any failure to report known abuse may potentially represent an obstruction of justice and is wholly unacceptable. Since, though, the ultra-Orthodox community has social norms that are unique to that part of the Jewish spectrum, it is important to address how to deal with the problem there specifically. When the problem arises in other parts of the Jewish spectrum, different approaches may be needed.
The other part of your question that adds to the complexity is that it is not clear who constitutes the “we” seeking to know how to stop this behavior. Plainly, the answer will be different if you are asking the question as an “outsider” to the community, or as an “insider.” It will be different if you are asking as a leader of that community, or as a regular member. I am going to assume that you are asking the question as an outsider to the ultra-Orthodox community.
As an outsider to the ultra-Orthodox community, it is important to realize that simply preaching publicly to another community that their community is doing the wrong thing is likely to be counterproductive. Any community that perceives itself to be under attack – even if the substance of the attack is reasonable – is likely to close ranks and be defensive. This might well delay or even prevent the process of justice that you appropriately seek.
On the other hand, child abuse is a heinous transgression of the first order that should never be “swept under the rug,” or only dealt with behind closed doors. The Torah has a commandment which articulates “Hochiach Tochiah et Amitecha,” (Leviticus 19:17) – “You shall surely instruct (rebuke) your colleague’s” misbehavior, with the goal of bringing him back in conformity with the commandments of Judaism. While this “correcting” would normally be private, there is value to speaking out about misbehavior in public so that people are fully aware of the extent of the horror that is associated with this type of transgression.
As regards the ultra-Orthodox community specifically, it is worth remembering that the pronouncements and leadership of the rabbis of the community are probably more critical in terms of molding normative behavior than is true in almost any other part of the Jewish spectrum. Hence, what ultra-Orthodox rabbis say and require can have a very powerful impact in their community. Insofar as the culture in the ultra-Orthodox community is currently reluctant to bring abusers to justice, cultural change is critical. Specifically, this will require rethinking the culture that currently regards the reporting of abuse cases to secular authorities as an act of “mesirah” (informing on a fellow Jew). This type of cultural change, while vital, will likely take time, and will certainly necessitate the active participation of the community’s rabbis.
The fact that it is cultural change that is needed, as opposed to a change in Jewish law, has been demonstrated by the Chabad movement. In 2011, a Chabad rabbinic court declared that the prohibition against mesirah does not apply in cases where there is evidence of abuse: “One is forbidden to remain silent in such situations,” said the ruling. Clearly, it will be important to effect cultural change in order to gain more widespread adoption of rulings of this type.
I would, therefore, propose a two-pronged approach to the problem:
1. Speak out loudly and regularly, with concerted effort, about the horror of child abuse, and the danger, injustice, and illegality of protecting abusers throughout society. Do so without singling out one community or another. Establish powerful and public norms in this regard. The ultra-Orthodox community, while distinct, is not impervious to these types of campaigns – particularly if they are not being singled out. Framed in the right way, love for children (which is obviously at least as great in the ultra-Orthodox world as elsewhere) and the desire to defend them, can be a powerful motivator for bringing perpetrators to justice.
2. Use appropriate private channels to help strengthen the resolve of the community’s rabbinic leadership to confront this issue, and to adopt an approach similar to that of Chabad. The rabbis know that protecting child abusers leads to further dangers, is against Torah teachings, impedes justice, and is apt to reflect badly upon the community. Help them to understand that the secular authorities need not be seen as their adversaries in this area. It will be important to find trusted and skilled partners who might be able to assist them (privately) to find strategies to change the internal culture on this issue so that the community can indeed be a haven for justice.
Neither of these approaches will produce overnight outcomes. But together they represent a way forward that could potentially yield results.
This is a painful question. It is one to which there are seemingly easy answers, but applying those answers in the reality of much of the so-called Ultra Orthodox community is very difficult.
The problem is NOT that the overwhelming majority of the UO community does not agree that molesters and child abusers should be removed from society and punished – harshly.
In my humble opinion, the problems are fourfold:
1) Denial – There are still many people who do not believe that such things happen “amongst us”; rather, they believe that it is “our detractors” who seek to embarrass us , and who therefore will find some lost soul who will engage in a modern form of a “blood libel” to defame us.
2) Protection of Abuser’s (and the Victim’s) family – Within the UO world, one’s reputation, and that of one’s family, is everything. It is virtually impossible to make a living, buy a home, get one’s children accepted to the right schools, and – most of all – find good marriage partners for one’s children if there is even a hint of scandal associated with the family, let alone something as awful and frightening as sexual abuse. Unfortunately, all too often, the first instinct will be to hide and keep the story from getting out, even to the extent of attempting to silence the victims who are publicly making a “shonda”, while preferring to help the victims very quietly and privately.
3) Mistrust of the Secular Court System – This topic has been partially addressed before on jvo. Briefly, the UO community consciously lives very much apart from the mainstream culture, including its governmental institutions. The reluctance,therefore, to get the secular authorities involved in these cases is based on three over-riding reasons:
a. A deep desire to stay away from the excesses of the depraved culture that has produced so much that is antithetical to traditional values
b. A deep distrust of the fairness of the non-Jewish court system, due to centuries of anti-semitic corruption and perversion of justice
c. The notion that although a presumption of innocence is officially recognized, the fear is that all too often the UO person will be seen as guilty in the court of public opinion immediately upon being charged.
For these reasons, there is a great resistance to allowing the secular authorities to deal with these issues, preferring to allow the Rabbinic and communal leadership to do what they see as best for the community
4) Protection of “Lesser Abusers” – An additional problem is how to deal with a person who has violated what the current secular law and society considers sexual abuse, such as an unwanted touch, or words, or other offenses which - while wrong and inexcusable – are not seen as worthy of prosecution and a criminal record and public humiliation of the person and their family (see above). Rabbis will be faced with the dilemma of deciding whether a “one time offender” can be dealt with internally, i.e. hoping that once he/she is made aware that the behavior is known about, wrong and unacceptable, the behavior will end, or whether this in fact is a serial abuser who must be reported to the police.
Of course, this is a terrible and ongoing problem. Awareness is growing, and the leaders of the UO community, who are the only ones who can really effect a change, are coming around to appreciating the extent of the problem and the need to protect the victims above all other considerations. It will, however, take time until long held attitudes, about frightfully embarrassing and harmful issues, can change.
May we all hope that the basic decency that a Torah way of life that is lived by the overwhelming majority of this community will force this terrible phenomenon to end, and quickly.
Question: There is a big problem, noted again recently in the media, in the ultra-Orthodox community of not reporting child abusers and protecting them, rather than the victims. What can we do to stop this, get the criminals arrested, and protect the innocent victims? Does this reflect Jewish values, and is it in line with Jewish moral behavior?
Contemporary studies indicate that child abuse is a problem in the Jewish community, much as it is in many societies around the world.As such, we Jews have a moral mandate to report all such incidents to the proper authorities.Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a regular contributor to Jewish Values Online, has addressed the problem of not reporting child abuse in his JVO answer to this question: “Is there any legitimate basis today to the Jewish concept of mesirah (the prohibition to inform to a secular government) when it comes to child abusers/molesters? Either in Israel, or anywhere else in the world?”That answer can be accessed through this link: http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/rabbi.php?id=11 .
In that answer Rabbi Dorff refers to and quotes from his t’shuvah (responsum – a rabbinic response to a question of Jewish law) on family violence submitted to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.That t’shuvah can be accessed by using this link:
If a man's wife was construed as his possession in the past, all the more so were his children - a tenet that is shared by American law and that only recently has been challenged in the court case of Gregory K. “‘Portable property’ was Emerson's term for children, and most people believe kids do belong to their parents, body and soul. As a practical matter, the courts have tended to uphold that view.”
Similarly, if discipline was the major justification for Maimonides for beating a wife, that rationale applies all the more for children - at least in some Jewish sources. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” has firm roots in the biblical Book of Proverbs:
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod he will not die. Beat him with a rod and you will save him from the grave.” This is applied to mothers as well as fathers: “Rod and reproof produce wisdom, but a lad out of control is a disgrace to his mother.” Along these lines, the Rabbis specifically exempt parents and teachers from the monetary damages usually imposed on those who commit assault on the theory that beating a child is sometimes necessary to carry out the parental duty of teaching the child Torah in its widest sense, including the difference between right and wrong. (The teacher is, in the Rabbis' view, simply an agent to enable the parents to fulfill this responsibility of theirs.) Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, goes even further: it states that parents may bring a “wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father and mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him” to the town elders to be stoned. In the latter case, of course, the physical damage to the child is to be inflicted by public authorities and not the parents, and that is a significant difference, but the parents are still the instigators of this procedure.
One must immediately distinguish, though, between discipline of a child and child abuse. It is arguable whether striking a child is ever a good way to discipline a child, but if it is, that constitutes one end of a spectrum. Presumably, at that end the parent would hit the child only when the child's behavior was so unusually vile that, in the estimation of the parent, milder forms of reprimand would not work.
At the other end of the spectrum is child abuse, wherein the parent's striking of the child is frequent, uncontrollable, unprovoked, and excessively severe. Hitting the child is not responsive to the child's behavior or needs, but rather acting out the parent's frustration. This occurs especially when the parent either does not understand the needs of the developing child or has expectations of behavior that do not match the child's capabilities. Parents also abuse children when they do not know alternative, effective methods of discipline. Striking the child, then, is the parent's misdirected attempt to calm his or her own inner anxiety and is either not responsive at all, or is not properly responsive, to the child's behavior in his or her social and developmental context.
In between those extremes are cases in which the line between legitimate discipline and child abuse is harder to discern. Even granted such ambiguities in the middle of the spectrum, though, we surely have a problem in our society when ten to twenty percent of university students retrospectively report that as they were growing up, both they and other family members were beaten to the point of producing, at a minimum, bruises or bleeding.
At most, then, verses like the ones from Proverbs cited above legitimate striking a child only for reasons of discipline, and then only when no milder form has been effective in correcting the child's behavior. We moderns, though, no longer think of children as the parents' property to do with as they will, but rather as the parents' blessings and the parents' responsibility to raise into moral, informed, caring, and productive adults. Moreover, we also now recognize that hitting a child is usually not the best way to accomplish those ends. Consequently, while we Conservative rabbis would acquiesce to a light smack on the buttocks (a “potch”) or even striking the child elsewhere on the body with an open hand (but not punching or pummeling with a fist), only those types of contact that do not produce bleeding or a bruise would be permissible. In contrast to the verses cited above from the Book of Proverbs and to the practice permitted in times past, however, we forbid striking a child with a rod. belt, or instrument of any kind. We also hereby declare that, as we interpret and apply the Jewish tradition in our day, it clearly and emphatically prohibits a parent's use of corporal punishment to the point of abuse - i.e., where the child is seriously harmed or where the punishment is clearly excessive as a response to the child's misdeed.
After all is said and done, though, the use of corporal punishment, even within permissible parameters, is questionable. That same biblical Book of Proverbs that advocates the use of physical force in raising children also says, “Educate a child according to his own way.” The Talmud understands this to mean that parents should make age-appropriate demands so as not to put their children into a situation inwhich corporal punishment would be called for. In other words, parents have a duty to set reasonable standards for their children so as to avoid even being tempted to use physical forms of discipline. They must not put a stumbling block in the way of their children fulfilling the commandment of honoring them.
Even in the worst of cases - the kind described by Deuteronomy - the Talmud could not accept anything like the death penalty. The Rabbis, therefore, legislated evidentiary procedures that made it impossible ever to attain a capital conviction in such a case. Once having created these barriers, they themselves said, “A wayward and defiant son [subject to execution according to Deut. 21:18-21] never was and never will be.” If the Rabbis insisted that even courts not go to the limit available to them under biblical law in physically punishing children, parents should certainly limit the physical punishment they inflict - or, even better, refrain from it altogether. After all, if the parents' duty is to teach the child proper behavior, they should not, in the process of doing so, do to the child exactly what they do not want the child to do to others. Educationally and pragmatically, then, as well as Jewishly, the best policy is not to use physical punishment at all.
One especially troubling aspect of this picture occurs in instances where parents beat retarded children. While there is minimal justification for beating a normally intelligent child for purposes of discipline, retarded children often cannot even understand why they are being subjected to blows, and so the abuse loses much of its justificatory cover. One can understand the extra measure of frustration that parents might feel in raising a retarded child, and one can certainly appreciate the additional demands that that entails over those involved in rearing a child of normal intelligence, but parents of retarded children need to get help so that they can respond to those aspects of parenting their special-needs child in appropriate, non-violent ways.
The same rules that apply to the discipline of children - but with even less endorsement for striking the child - apply to family-like situations outside the family where adults are in charge of children. Thus teachers, youth group leaders, counselors, coaches, and the like may, at the very most, give a light slap on the buttocks to children to get them out of bed or going to the next activity. They may not strike the child in any form of corporal punishment.
None of the above, of course, is intended to prohibit hugging a child so as to comfort him or her or putting an arm around the child's shoulders as an expression of congratulations in, for example, a ball game. On the contrary, parents who refuse to hug their children or kiss them thereby deprive them of some of the most effective and needed forms of love. All of the above strictures, then, are with reference to acts of violence against the child, differentiated from acts of love or friendship by both the intention and context of the parties and the form and energy of the physical contact.
A thoroughgoing presentation of a Jewish approach to personal ethics can be found in Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s excellent work, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself (Jewish Publication Society, 2003).
You are absolutely right, this is a big problem! And while the media attention is on the Ultra-Orthodox community, it's something we all need to be mindful and attentive toward. There has long been a taboo in the Jewish community, that somehow Jews don't suffer these kinds of issues, but it does happen and as individuals and communities, we need to reach out and support victims and make sure they get help.
Here are some things we can all do, adapted from a list of practical mitzvah ideas written by Miriam Heller:
1. PUT HOTLINES IN SYNAGOGUE BATHROOMS: arrange for your synagogue to place a small sign (or handouts) in the stalls of women's (though I would add men's) bathrooms about domestic violence and child abuse, accopmanied by cards with domestic violence hotlines. In our area Jewish Family Services has such a hotline, but if your area doesn't, please have your community reach out to those groups that do provide emergency support.
2. EDUCATE THE PUBLIC AND PROMOTE AWARENESS: Get the word out that abuse and violence does exist in our communities and cannot be tolerated! Arrange programs in your synagogues, schools, and youth groups.
3. DO PRACTICAL PROJECTS TO HELP SUPPORT THE ABUSED: throw a Chanukah party at a shelter. Volunteer to help. Donate toiletries and beauty products for the moms/parents who are abused.
4. MAKE SURE YOUR COMMUNITY IS A SAFE SPACE: make sure your rabbis/clergy/educational staff know how to report abuse and will do so. Promote the idea that people who are abused can share what's going on in confidence with the aforementioned, so that they can get the support, counselling, or shelter that they need.
5. RAISE TZEDAKAH: it can be donated to shelters, counseling centers, etc. Money can be used proactively for educational programs for men, women and children.
Just as Meir of Rotenberg (The Maharam, c. 13th cen.) wrote that a man has to honor his wife more than himself and beating is grounds for a forcible divorce, so to do parents, teachers and other adults have an obligation to protect our children.
Copyright 2020 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.