Agudath Israel of America (aka Agudah) held its annual convention over the weekend of November 13-16. Executive Vice President Rabbi David Zwiebel delivered a keynote speech in which he bemoaned the way scandals undercut Agudah’s ability to be an “eight-hundred-pound gorilla” with politicians and government agencies.
This was slight progress. He did not scream “Innocent until proven guilty.” Nor did he complain that the media were unfairly focusing on orthodox Jews.
There was a more substantial response in their session, “Surrounded by Scandal.” The topic was assigned to the time slot with the lowest attendance, Friday morning (11/14/14). There were no stars on the panel. All of the panelists discussed chillul hashem (desecration of G-d’s name). Only one speaker talked about necessary changes other than greater awareness and dedication to Torah principles. He too avoided naming the culprits or specifying their acts. Yet, any astute observer could discern his references to scandals involving Rabbi Dovid Weinberger, Rabbi Elimelech Meisels and Rabbi Barry Freundel. Instead, in his talk about chilul hashem he devoted almost five minutes to highly specific recommendations. It was a breath of fresh air.
Below is a transcript of that portion of Rabbi Avrohom Nesanel Zucker’s talk (14:49-19:20):
“Vilo lidey nisayon [not by test/temptation].” In the field of chinuch habonos [education of girls] it seems to me that in this day and age we are so fortunate to have so many talented mechanchos [female educators] to teach and guide our bnos Yisroel [Jewish daughters]. Although men have a role in teaching some courses in seminary or high school, there should be clear defined limits put in place. Men having deep meaningful conversations with impressionable, vulnerable young ladies is a recipe for disaster. No seminary student should relate to her rebbie as Tattie [Daddy] or friend. There should be no contact between rebeim [teaching rabbis] and girls outside the classroom including phone, email, or texting. Even in the classroom, girls should not be addressed by first name. Rather, “Miss so and so.” No student can meet privately with any male faculty member. These rules should be sent to the girls’ homes in their acceptance and registration packets. Signs should be posted in offices to this effect. And staff members of these institutions should be mandated reporters of any impropriety they might witness. The posuk [biblical verse] says Avrohom [the patriach Abraham] took “vi-eis hanefesh asher osoh bichoron [the souls that he made in Choron]” and Rashi comments, al pi chazal “Avrohom migayer es ha-anashim visoroh migayeres es hanashim [Abraham converts the men and Sarah converts the women].” There is no excuse for Avrohom to be migayer [convert] hanashim [women]. “Vilo lidey nisayon [not by temptation].”
No man should have access to a mikvah nashim [women’s ritual bath]. If a shailacomes up, the rav Hamachshir [rabbi who certifies], accompanied by others should be let in by a woman who is entrusted with the keys to the mikvah. (16:39) “Velo lidey nisayon [and not by temptation].”
Vacums of leadership: We as a klal cannot ignore areas of concern and crisis to the klal [Jewish public]. Un-vetted, maybe even well-meaning, but self-proclaimed experts, have and will fill the void. This is a chilul hashem waiting to happen, and it has. Further, those seeking out the help of these self-proclaimed experts are in a very vulnerable position and can easily be taken advantage of in many ways.
A vaad [committee] to deal with abuse of all types, especially of children, is necessary. Parents need an independent body that can investigate accusations and concerns and shouldn’t be shamed into silence or shunned by the community.
And perhaps cameras should be mandatory in our elementary school classrooms. This would not only protect the students. It would protect the rebbie or teacher from false accusations as it did in a yeshiva a few months ago.
Velo lidey nisayon [not by temptation]. The bakashah [prayer request] following velo lidey nisayon in the ultimate birchas hashachar [morning blessing] is velo lidey bizayon [and not by disgrace]. For if we come lidey nisayon [temptation] we definitely put ourselves in grave jeopardy lidey bizayon [disgrace]. 18:10
In the field of rabbanus, rabbonim have their plates full. They are poskim [Jewish law decisors], darshonim [explainers of torah], guidance counselors, and often marriage counselors. Having expertise in halacha and or chinuch [education] does not make someone an expert in interpersonal relationships. Of course chochmas hatorah [Torah wisdom] and life experience gives insight in the human condition. But that might have its limits. Perhaps a rolodex of vetted, very good, educated therapists that are bnai Torah [Torah adherents] can sometimes be a better choice for this role.
As a klal we should have policies on how rabbonim should counsel couples and women. Although it might seem unnecessary as it is simple halachah, it should be made clear and communicated to the lay population that under no circumstances can a woman be alone with her rov. It is unacceptable for a rov to counsel a woman in an unsupervised setting. A sign to this effect should be posted at the entrance to the rov’s office in clear view.
In sum, Rabbi Zucker is addressing the major sex scandals of Elimelech Meisels in his seminaries, Barry Freundel in his ritual baths, Dovid Weinberger and Ephraim Becker in counseling couples and young women, and various “torah therapists” including Nechemya Weberman.
I applaud what I consider a sincere desire to curb these problems, but they all focus on prevention and skirt the issue of reporting offenders to the criminal justice authorities. In fact, the proposed vaad to investigate abuse allegations, sounds like a deliberate parallel alternative to the criminal justice system.
The style of never naming offenders is also consistent with something that hobbles the orthodox response; the attempt to protect the reputation of offenders even when they remove them from official positions. In most cases this leaves them free to find new positions and ways of abusing.
I am also distressed by Rabbi Zucker’s exclusive focus on heterosexual misconduct. Most sexually abused students in the Haredi world are males assaulted by male staff. Many girls are victims of abuse but that usually happens in a neighborhood or family context. All the proposed barriers between females and males do nothing to prevent male-on-male abuse. The Haredi world has already gone overboard in restricting male-female interaction and obsessing about tznius [modesty] almost exclusively understanding that as something for which females are primary responsible. I fear the lack of normal female-male interactions is counterproductive. It sends out the message that men cannot control themselves. It helps men let themselves off the hook by blaming their misconduct on uncontrollable impulses.
Rabbi Zucker’s recommendations are unlikely to be adopted as an official community standard. It is not even clear if Agudah really supports them. It is possible that Agudah just wants to be able to say, we are confronting the issue while allowing the problem to fester.
Notwithstanding all my reservations, I consider it progress that Agudah realizes that the scandals are real and harmful to the reputation and political power of orthodox Jews. Maybe, just maybe, they will finally start addressing these problems to protect their financial interests.