R. Yosef Blau on the Role of Rabbis in Confronting Abuse

I thank Harry Maryles for letting me put up this post which first appeared on his blog, Emes Ve-Emunah. Rabbi Yosef Blau is mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University (YU). He is an experienced administrator who was a principal for the schools of Rav Pinchas Teitz (Elizabeth, NJ), Rav Aaron Soloveitchik (Chicago), and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Boston) and he is a former Vice President of Torah Umesorah.

For decades he has been one of the most articulate and active voices in the effort to confront and root out sexual abuse in the orthodox world. Though this post does not use his name, it is clearly written in the context of and with some reference to the Meisels’ seminaries scandal.

The Role of Rabbis in Confronting Abuse in the Orthodox Community
by Rabbi Yosef Blau

Rabbi Yosef Blau

Rabbi Yosef Blau

Sexual abuse is criminal behavior and the police should be contacted. This does not imply that there is no role for the rabbinate and the community leaders in confronting abuse. In many cases the victims are unwilling to cooperate with the police often because of community pressures. Even when they do there is a need to remove an accused offender from a position where he is a potential danger before the slow process of a police investigation and prosecution is completed.

The recent case of the head of a seminary in Israel accused of sexual misconduct with students is an example of the need for rabbinic action. While according to Israeli law the behavior is illegal it is unlikely that American students, who have returned home and know little Hebrew, will go to the Israeli police. Only pressure from an external בית דין  (religious court) will cause the offender to resign his position.

Since he created the school and chose its staff a thorough investigation of the circumstances is necessary to determine if others were negligent and guilty of enabling the abuse or covering it up. This would require speaking first to all the students who were abused or witnessed any questionable behavior and to ascertain if they informed anyone on staff of their concerns.

After such an ordeal the community has to provide support for the victims. The impact of discovering that the primary religious personality of a critical year of Torah learning was an abuser often has a devastating effect on the students who attended the seminary. Rabbis should meet with any students who want to discuss their experiences.

Unfortunately the world of Israeli seminaries has no process for oversight. There is no supervising body. A change of ownership, while necessary, clearly is inadequate to ensure that the seminary is safe and that there has been a re-evaluation of the education and atmosphere created by head, who was revealed to be an abuser of his students.

There is an appropriate concern for the economic welfare of the administrators and staff of the institutions involved. However the victims deserve to be the primary concern followed by the other students who attended or who have registered for the coming year. Any attempt to pressure parents by refusing to return deposits is a manifestation of wrong priorities.

The lack of any apology to students affected, coupled by attempts to use religious arguments to prevent them from coming forward, is a telling indictment of those connected to the seminaries. The way that the present crisis is handled is the clearest indication of the amount of progress or lack of such in the response of the Orthodox rabbinate and major institutions to abuse within the community.


27 thoughts on “R. Yosef Blau on the Role of Rabbis in Confronting Abuse

  1. I think this is a brilliant post on the role of rabbis, communities and religion in dealing with sexual abuse; he takes the conventional “wisdom”on the role that each should play and turns them on their heads.

    1. Do rabbis have a role to play in dealing with sex abuse?
      Sure they do; rabbis can encourage and hold victims’ hands through the process of reporting their abusers to the police.

    2. Is there a role for the community when sexual abuse is revealed?
      Of course, they can provide support to the victims.

    3. Should we be concerned about the livelihoods of the staff, which will suffer the consequences of any action against their employer?
      Sure, but concern for the victims is a higher priority.

    • 1) I assume the hand-holding phrase is not to be taken literally.
      2) Haleivai our communities would offer support, but I suspect if / when rabbis take the lead in this, the rest of the community will follow.
      3) Are we concerned about the livelihood of employees when a butcher is caught selling treif meat? No. Are we concerned about the potential effects on shidduchim? No. Why? Because our consumption of meat is more important to us than dealing with those who treat like youth like a piece of meat.

  2. YL, this is amazing.

    Thank you so much.

    “Rabbi should meet with any students who want to discuss their experiences.”

    Maybe you should read this, Kahane, after you coldly brushed me off when I told you of MY experiences.

    • Truth –
      I just reread the Kahane letter and I cannot believe how manipulative he is.
      Why is he still employed? If he knew nothing – he deserves to be fired for obtuseness and willful blindness. If he did know – he deserves to be terminated.

      • Penelope — I hope you don’t mind my suggesting answers to your rhetorical question of why R’ Kahane is still employed:
        1. Firing him would delay the coming of Moshiach;
        2. If “a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise” (and kal va-chomer one who is less than wise), so does the possibility of losing one’s job, excusing R’ Kahane’s inability to see;
        3. If you are trying to minimize something very embarrassing by claiming nobody noticed it, you keep, rather than fire, everyone who didn’t notice it, in order to support the claim it wasn’t visible. I believe this is called “putting the blind in front of a stumbling block.”

    • While I know nothing of the case, and I do not speak for Rabbi Blau, surely if it as you say, this is real tshuva: continually and openly helping victims, advocates and their families. Compare this to the mealy-mouthed “apologies” and and (non) actions we get from institutions: “if” anything happened in the past, we are “sorry”, while the enablers continue working there, victims and their families are shunned etc…In my experience, Rabbi Blau walks the walk and talks the talk, a gem of a person.

    • While I don’t know the details of the case and you might be right, I think that it happened in 1989- well before even the most progressive among us fully understood the problem and repercussions of sexual abuse. And judging from how he writes now, he is among the few who do get it and are willing to say so publicly.

      • Moshe, I doubt anyone ever called my late uncle “progressive” but he showed me this paper when it was published (and he was an oncologist, not a pediatrician):
        Kempe, C. H. (1978). Sexual abuse, another hidden pediatric problem: the 1977 C. Anderson Aldrich lecture. Pediatrics, 62(3), 382-389.
        Kempe had 15 years earlier published the famous paper on the battered child syndrome.
        My uncle was an Oberlander and told me that in the days before penicillin any doctor in a one-doctor town would have had a pretty good idea.
        We know from released files that many an archbishop knew a lot about the nature and patterns of the devastation before Kempe.
        There are many victims in their 40s and older who do not want their real history to be airbrushed.

        • In 1049 C.E. St. Peter Damian wrote to Pope Leo IX and decried the prevalence of sexual abuse by clergy that he called “criminal vice” and said it was epidemic. (Letter 31).

          Even then he encouraged the pope to have zero tolerance and have offending priests reduced to the lay state. The pope was more tolerant and thought that was too stringent and said steps should be taken only if the behavior was persistent.


        • Thank you for the reference. I was referring to the rabbinic establishment. Thinking back in time I still think that the prevailing attitude and understanding then was nowhere as sophisticated as it is today (among those who did not have access to the medical research papers). Therefore I am more inclined to give a rabbi who made wrong decision then the benefit of the doubt especially with a 20 year track record of p positive performance.

        • Moshe, my point was not to blame or hate anyone today. I have a personal question, one which I cannot not have: By what year was a dayan obligated to know what was in that reference before judging a case to which it was relevant? Isn’t the issue sometimes one of life-and-death? And I have a personal problem: Up to today I have not yet met a frum Jew who does not “convict” me of thoughtcrime because I have this question.

        • Just a civilian, I did not mean at all to attack you. You have a very good question, and yes it is life or death. We have definitely passed that point today and as for those of years passed, that is for god and their conscience, and in the event of criminal wrongdoing, the courts to judge. And I sympathize with your problem, I for one do not think you guilty of a thought crime (if it makes you feel any better).

    • In recognizing his mishandling of that case he subsequently changed his approach and wrote:
      “Batei Din in our times are not effective in dealing with criminal behavior. Lacking the investigative arm of the police and having restrictive standards of testimony they can not establish guilt. When the culprit is charismatic, he can often get protégés who feel indebted to him to lie to the Beis Din. It takes years before those who have been abused as youngsters can openly face their abuser.”

  3. Actually, Ahron Horowitz, I believe that Rabbi Blau was vigorous in protesting against the avla done by those who protected Lanner. Perhaps YL can confirm and comment. Rabbi Blau is one of the good guys.

    • He goofed big time when he sat on the beis din that exonerated Lanner of charges because they could not be proven back in 1990. He recognized it, publicly conceded his mistake, is adamant such cases should now be brougght to the criminal justice system and has worked very hard fighting abuse for over 20 years. We dont need perfection. We need people who care and when they make mistakes work hard to correct it. i and many other anti-abuse advocates consider him one of the most valuable people in our corner. He is at the top of my list.

      • And by the way, rabbi willig who i think was also part of that BD, is another textbook case of how even if you are wrong once, if you are willing to publicly admit it and change you will only gain respect.

  4. Levi says.
    I suppose R Blau has no problems in his own MO community that he now has to ‘kasher’ the chareidi one. Nothing he says is new or original which is common in the MO world. They never have anything themselves to offer only to ‘latch’ on to the chareidim. Of course he is one of the good guys. He will always say the MO is perfect (what they want to hear) and the charedim are corrupt.

    • Levi: “I suppose R Blau has no problems in his own MO community that he now has to ‘kasher’ the chareidi one.”
      The Chicago Special Beis Din is not a MO beis din! I could imagine attempting to argue that the issues are Chicago OR USA vs. Bnei Brak, but they’re clearly not MO vs. charedi.

      • IBD/3IRs is not a bnei brak BD. While Shafran is from BB, Malinowitz is from Beit Shemesh and Gartner is from Jerusalem. It is just a new ad hoc BD with no formal connection to any existing BD. That R Shafran is a part of an established BD in Bnei Brak is besides the point. He has never invoked that connection in anything issued in this case.

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