Accepting the Unacceptable
By Nicole Phillips
As a united Jewish community, we must no longer accept the unacceptable. We have been complacent and have had the fallacious assumption that we cannot expect change in Orthodox thinking. It has been shockingly too frequent that we read or hear of Orthodox Rabbis’ comments or behaviours that are outside the boundaries of acceptable moral standards. Regarding the sexual abuse at Yeshivah College, the cover-up came from the highest level. Rabbi Glick, Yeshivah Principal from 1986 to 2007 told a concerned parent, “Rabbi Groner would not permit Cyprys to work as a security guard if he was a threat to anyone.” In any hierarchical structure, where there is unquestioning following of a ‘highly respected leader’, who has ultimate control – the last word – there develops a breeding ground for all types of abuse. In this structure, there is a subservient second tier, those who work with or for the charismatic leader, honoured to be in the inner circle of influence. They do nothing to ‘rock the boat’. The highly subservient third tier live in the belief that their best interests are taken care of by tiers one and two. They have handed over their trust completely and therefore their ability to question and possibly even important aspects of their autonomy. In addition, in such cultures, avoidance of shame is paramount. So, a woman being beaten by her husband cannot tell a friend for ‘fear of gossip’, cannot tell police for fear of people finding out and bringing ‘shame’ to the whole community and cannot leave, as the burden of shame of divorce, diminished marriage prospects for her children, or just the hardship of being a solo mother to many is too overwhelming to contemplate.
The unquestioned power of the male Orthodox Rabbis at work seems to be mirrored at home. In an article in the Australian Jewish News, 17 June 2011, entitled ‘Guardian of the Western Wall’, Rabbi Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall, when asked about his reasons for not allowing women to pray there, stated, “The Kotel is a home for all Jewish people. If a father has 10 children and each goes around the world, picks up his own traditions and comes back to his father’s house and insists on practising them, there will be a huge catastrophe there. If we want everybody to be in the same house together, the best way is to follow the father’s way.” There are multiple implications in this statement. Children are discouraged from questioning authority (father and Torah), finding their own path in life, thereby remaining stunted emotional and intellectual versions of their potential. The house, belonging only to the father, will descend into chaos if this did occur (no dissent will be tolerated). There is a clear prescription for all members of the family to obey the father absolutely – the climate for abuse has been established.
Rabbis’ attitudes to homosexuality can also no longer be tolerated. Rabbi Glick stated in 2012 that in the 1980s, students were advised “it was not Jewish practice” to be homosexual and would not be asked to leave the school “unless they were promoting these practices”, but: “My understanding is that homosexuality can be cured.” Really? And we have allowed such men to educate and nurture our young people. Many Orthodox gay youth descend into mental illness, marry and live a lie or flee town, losing everyone they love and everything familiar in order to be true to themselves. Many develop internalised homophobia as they have been taught to feel self-hate and disgust.
I have heard the Torah invoked to explain such attitudes. My response is simple: Where we have been required to adapt, we have done so – otherwise we would still be stone-throwing polygamous barbarians! (at least the men anyway, no extra spouses for the ladies!)
Of course, this discussion applies to all patriarchal, hierarchical religions. Cardinal George Pell has stated: “There is a right way of living, and it is our task to try to find it and follow it.” He has dismissed climate change concern as “a symptom of pagan emptiness” and preaches about the sins of contraception, abortion, homosexuality and sex out of marriage. A decade ago, a Melbourne man alleged that Pell was the man who molested him as a 12-year-old, and after a church-appointed inquiry, Pell said he was “grateful to God” for being exonerated. He has also allowed known paedophile priests to continue working within the Catholic Church. However, we have to leave this disgraceful mess to the Catholics and clean up our own back yard.
The time has come. We must expect our Rabbis to learn outside of the teachings of the Torah. They must bring their attitudes in line with community expectations. They need to understand that power and control do not keep people close. Listening, accepting, being open and kind do. They have nothing to fear and everything to gain. Orthodox women must be part of this discussion.
We, as a united community, can no longer accept the unacceptable.
Dr Nicole Phillips is a psychiatrist in Armadale, Melbourne. She has devoted most of her career to the special mental health needs of women and, in addition, for the last 10 years she has held a voluntary position as medical advisor to ME/CFS Australia and is medical editor of the Association’s journal, Emerge.(Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome is a widely misunderstood serious medical NOT psychiatric illness