Home » Bracha Rafael, jewish community, Recent Posts

Op-ed: rabbinic failures go deeper than a lapse in judgment

February 17, 2015 – 1:05 pmOne Comment

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.

Print Friendly

One Comment »

  • Ellyse says:

    “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.”

    I wholly agree that our religious leadership ought to treat child sexual abuse with the due severity necessary and that it is time that the rabbinic leadership sufficient express their condemnation of child sexual abuse.

    However I think this article confuses the actions of human rabbis with Jewish law (halacha).

    Rape and sexual abuse is forbidden in Jewish law and halacha (Deuteronomy 22:23-27) and it warrants the punishment of death by stoning. There is to be no punishment for the victim for as it says in the passuk they “cried out and there was no one to save” them.

    Furthermore, halacha is far from a blunt instrument when evaluating ones actions. There are always degrees of sin to be considered for example: what type of punishment would the sin be met with? is it a biblical or rabbinical prohibition? is it a bedievad or lechatchila situation? Halacha and jewish learning is deeply entrenched in considering the details and nuances of every action and certainly does not equivocate between all sins.

    Additionally even if the Rabbis in this case had been equivocating between the prohibitions/sins of rape and mesira there are many actions that our rabbinical leadership could have taken other than simply reporting the matter to the police. They could have removed the offenders from access to children, they could have provided the children with counselling and support and they could have excluded the offender from the community (cherem). However, they chose to do nothing. Worse, they chose to victimise, exclude and harass those who had fallen prey to the offenders.

    I put forward that a more accurate assessment of the situation is that the Rabbis involved in this situation were not thinking about what G-d wants of them at all or what Jewish law would require of them. Instead they were thinking about the reputations of their friends and their donors. They were thinking politically not halachically and for that we ought to seriously question their role in our community and their moral compass.

    Ultimately, I agree with this article’s conclusion – that we need better and more assertive rabbinic leadership to combat child sexual abuse, but I think that we shouldn’t confuse the actions of these people with Jewish law or ethics.

Leave a comment!

You must be logged in to post a comment.