Talmudic wisdom urges us to be circumspect with our behavior as a community when a tragedy strikes home. Because of our collective and corporate sense of identity, we are all responsible for the moral condition of our communities. This idea can be seen in one of the more peculiar precepts found in the Torah known as the eglei aruphah. The precept derives from Deuteronomy 21:1-9, which centers on the discovery of a corpse near a community.
“If the corpse of a slain man is found lying in the open on the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who killed him, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances to the cities that are in the neighborhood of the corpse.”
Explanation: The court must ascertain the cause of death; was there foul-play? What kind of crime occurred, and why? Was the man accidentally killed by a wild-beast? In any event, the death of the innocent person demands justice. There must be an atonement sacrifice to purify the earth of the blood that cries out for justice (see Genesis 4:10). At the end of the ritual, the court declares: “‘Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see the deed; forgive O LORD, your people Israel, whom you have ransomed, and let not the guilt of shedding innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.’ Thus they shall be absolved from the guilt of bloodshed . . .” (Deut. 21:7-9).
Talmudic discussions on this chapter raise an important forensic question on the text: Would it occur to anybody to suspect that the elders would be responsible for such a crime? Who could be more honorable than the judges?
The Sages point out that in biblical and in rabbinic times, it was considered unsafe to let a guest leave a host’s home without being escorted for at least part of that person’s journey. The judges of a community are to some degree indirectly accountable for allowing a murder to occur on their watch, “The victim did not come to us hungry and we sent him away without any food. He did not come to us alone and we offered him no protection.”
The American legal system has a category of law termed, “accessories after the fact.” This would include people who aid or abed a criminal after he does something wrong. Judaism teaches that there is another category “accessories before the fact” – this would include decent people who are good and respectable. Biblical ethics demands that each leader and citizen do his part in preventing a crime from taking place; silence or apathy is akin to complicity. In the final analysis we are our brother’s keeper.
This past week, a tragic incident occurred in Brooklyn that pertains to the message of this particular ritual and its wisdom. A young man named Motty Borger, two days after his marriage, commits suicide by jumping to his death from the motel he and his young bride were staying. Evidently, the young man felt tortured by memories of being molested while he was in yeshiva. Filled with shame, he could not approach his young wife, Mali, and consummate their marriage.
The sexual exploitation of children by clergy is not just a problem that occurs in the Catholic community; it is a Jewish problem as well; Jewish leaders across the denominational spectrum need to address its existence and develop some preventive solutions. While this is obvious to the non-yeshiva world, it is not so obvious to the yeshiva world. Haredi rabbis are more interested in “looking good” than they are in helping their students learn to overcome the tragedy of their lost innocence. Rather than bring such matters to the attention of the police, the tendency of these closed communities is to bury the problem and hope it will go away—but it won’t. Continue reading “When rabbinic leaders fail us: The Motty Borger Tragedy (updated)”