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.
I really must wonder: Can the rabbinic leaders honestly say, “‘Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see the deed”?
Yeshiva leaders fear the world or their communities will lose respect if they show vulnerability, which would jeopardize the supremacy of “da’as torah” (rabbinic authority). What they don’t seem to understand is that sooner or later they will realize and manifest their worst fears if they don’t start doing something to change their wrong-headed way of thinking. Simply put, rabbinic leaders must decide: they are either they part of the solution, or they are part of the problem. Clearly, the rabbanim are part of the problem . . . but this situation can change for the better with genuine penitence. The Haredi community needs to examine its soul, much in the spirit of the talmudic prescription mentioned above.
Until this experience of μετάνοια (metanoia) occurs, innocent lambs will continue to be slaughtered; haredi rabbis cannot excuse themselves or their abdication of responsibility. Their hands are not clean; through their cowardice they have allowed innocents to die because of their own agendas and apathy.
One important way of avoiding this kind of problem is to promote more co-ed activities among young people. Too often, yeshiva students are discouraged from interacting with members of the opposite sex; those who do so are often threatened with expulsion.
When it comes to the treatment of its women, the Haredi world is totally dysfunctional–largely perhaps because of the over eroticization of the opposite sex. Such thinking creates psychosis. If the Halacha worried less about a woman’s hair, figure, legs, etc,. . ., they would learn to get a long a lot better with the females. This approach will obviously not solve all the problems dealing with pedophilia, but it will to some degree help minimize some of the sexual dysfunction that is occurring in these rigid communities.
About 14 years ago, I recall visiting a Mea Sharim pizza restaurant where children—girls and boys—played with video games together. Most of us would have thought this was perfectly normal behavior. I suspect these youngsters just wanted to have some healthy pre-adolescent interaction with one another like other normal young people. This went on until the rabbis cracked down and insisted on a complete separation of the sexes—and we wonder why young men prey upon other young men?
Would a co-ed educational program create certain problems down the road? Possibly, but I think the possible benefits far outweigh the minuses.
When young men can’t express their sexuality in a healthy way, they begin to express it in unhealthy ways and seek the next resource of sexual gratification—their fellow yeshiva students! This same phenomena typically occurs among male prison populations. Having said that, let me also make it clear that being homosexual does not necessarily mean that one will prey upon children; clearly, the statistics show that pedophilia occurs more in heterosexual communities than it does within the gay communities. However, in the yeshiva world, young men’s sexuality will manifest itself in aberrant ways unless the rabbinical staff at these schools first learn to recognize that their modus operandi requires a grand and conceptual re-visioning.
In reality, pedophilia is much more about the abuse of power than it is about sexual gratification–that is why we need to take a hard but honest look at the teachers and clergy who function within these schools and conduct the necessary background checks on each candidate who is being considered for a position.
The psychological shame these kids carry will cripple their souls for life unless they receive the professional help they so sorely need. Unfortunately, the yeshiva rabbis tend to generally refer to the problem as a matter of “ta’a’vah” lust, but in reality it is a much more serious problem that requires parents, teachers, the police, and mental health professionals to solve together. Maybe the yeshiva world should employ mental health professionals in interacting with their students, or provide some pre-marital counseling to help these young people talk about the issues that concern them.
This is a winnable battle.