Op-ed: rabbinic failures go deeper than a lapse in judgment
By Bracha Rafael:
I want to dig into what is fundamentally wrong with the current generation of rabbinic leadership in this country, as exemplified by one Rabbi Tzvi Telsner. The Royal Commission is giving a lot of airtime to a paradigm that goes largely unchallenged. I am interested in challenging this paradigm because children’s safety depends upon it.
This paradigm is worlds away from mainstream society. It is worlds away from most religious homes. And the expression of this paradigm — as clear in Rabbi Telsner’s evasions, half-answers, and omissions as it is in what was said — is giving rise to fury, but not much discussion. I am hoping to name this problem so that we can fix it.
The problem is the terrifying moral equivalence that the rabbis are still struggling to shake themselves from. Rabbi Telsner’s testimony is the most recent illustration of this.
Most people hold child sexual abuse apart from just about every other evil they can think of. The report title Little Children Are Sacred spells it out clearly: when secular society uses religious terminology, you know it cares very, very much about the matter at hand.
But it is clear from Rabbi Telsner’s testimony that for our rabbinic leaders, child sexual abuse is just another evil, just another sin. It is merely one way that God’s will can be thwarted. Eating bacon is another way. Lashon hara is yet another.
The Torah and halacha does not encourage scholars to rank sins from bad to worst. This is helpful for discouraging sin altogether but is not helpful when two sins need to be weighed against each other. Until 2011 the rabbinic leadership weighed the evil of allowing children to be harmed against the evil of reporting on fellow Jews and favoured the former.
The religious leadership has changed its mind on that issue (due to Manny Waks changing the terms of the debate) but Rabbi Telsner’s statements indicate that the above approach is alive and well. We, the lay people, find ourselves in the bizarre position of questioning the moral compass of our religious leaders.
This is the failure of the rabbis coming before the Royal Commission. They are failing to spell out, in clear terms, that abuses against children constitute a violation of God’s will several orders of magnitude greater than the other common aveirot they are normally faced with. This is what we want to hear, and they are dancing around this point.
Perhaps it is simply the case that there is not room in the halachic system to accommodate this paradigm shift. That to place child sexual abuse apart from other sins (sins, not crimes) is intellectually dishonest. If this is true, then the rabbinic leadership must abdicate authority on this matter. If halacha does not allow them to ensure that their institutions are safe for children, then the lay leadership must do so.
If one is inclined to be generous to Rabbi Telsner — and I am not, particularly, but here goes — there is a smidgen of entrapment in the questions he was posed. He did not draw the link between paedophilia and homosexuality: he was asked to comment on it by a lawyer.
All he needed to say was “I object to these terms of reference. The two issues are nothing alike.” But he didn’t do that. He retreated to academic possibility-granting, to probablies, and I-can’t-recalls.
Let me be very clear. I do not believe that homosexuality is a disease. I do not believe it is wrong to be gay. I think it is cruel — oppressive — to suggest either of the above. However, the point that Rabbi Telsner was making was that oppression, or rather, repression can work. Put enough effort into it, and you can convince gay people not to have sex. Put enough effort into it, and you can convince paedophiles not to offend.
The first is an act of oppression, motivated by homophobia. The second is straightforward rehabilitation, and is necessary for the safety of society. Most paedophiles do not serve life sentences. They will one day re-enter the community. So we do need ways to keep leashes on former offenders. If therapy helps to do that, fantastic.
Which brings me to yet another problematic element of Rabbi Telsner’s testimony:
“I thought we had cured him.” Again, to be fair, Rabbi Telsner didn’t say this. Rabbi Groner did. But Rabbi Telsner was asked to explain this statement, essentially, to explain why Rabbi Groner would have thought it reasonable to allow a paedophile — reformed or otherwise — to continue to work amongst children.
Because even if therapy can be effective at helping a paedophile not re-offend, surely we shouldn’t be making it harder for them to do so. By which I mean: why on earth would you allow anyone with a history of hurting children anywhere near children?
And again, to be fair, we, the community, don’t actually want an explanation. We want an apology. Because the answer here is foregone: it is indefensible that David Cyprus was allowed to continue to work amongst children. At best, that was the outcome of reckless naiveté, at worst a shocking indifference to the pain and suffering of children. Either way, it speaks of a rabbinate that must change radically or must hand over certain responsibilities.
This is why we have Working With Children Checks. Why recovering alcoholics don’t touch alcohol. Why I, as a paramedic, am required to consider a patient’s past abuse of opiates before I administer morphine. The principle at work here is that re-exposure interferes with recovery. A paedophile who truly wishes not to re-offend would make every effort to deny themselves the opportunity to do so.
This principle exists in halacha as well. It’s why we have fences around real prohibitions, so that we do not even come close to sinning.
Rabbi Telsner’s testimony, like Rabbi Feldman’s, fills us with fear and fury because we are not being permitted to feel confident that things will get better. And if the leadership can’t change themselves, then our children are still at risk.
I invite religious scholars and leaders to make a halachic case for the protection of children. And I invite the community to judge it. Do we have faith in our religious leadership on this matter? If the answer is no, a restructure is in order.