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No More Blind Faith in Rabbis

Authority and charisma, accompanied by spiritual and religious power, create an opening for sexual abuse.
Eliyahu Parypa / via Flickr
Eliyahu Parypa / via Flickr
Dr. Channa Pinchasi is a Research Fellow in the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She is the Director of the Maskilot program and guides research teams at the Center for Judaism and the State Policy. Channa was the Deputy Director of Be’eri and Director of the Be’eri School for Teacher Education at the Institute for 7 years. She received her PhD in gender studies from Bar-Ilan

“As a community, we will have to pay a heavy price: To give up some respect for the rabbis and to be more critical of them. Authority and charisma, accompanied by spiritual and religious power, create an opening for sexual abuse.”

The report of sexual abuse allegations against Rabbi Mordechai Elon has left the national religious community in shock. How is it possible?! A popular and beloved rabbi, a kind and gentle person, who spreads the Torah and who created a Torah presence outside the religious community through a nationwide educational program and a popular television program. And he is from a respected family and a family man himself. So the reaction to the report was understandably one of total denial.

Before anything else, it is important to state the following: There is no proof supporting these very serious allegations. However, the consensus among the rabbis who signed the announcement of the “Takana” forum is a rare occurrence. These are important rabbis with differing outlooks, many of whom are not typically involved in public affairs. And their announcement was coordinated with the legal authorities. All this is troubling, to say the least.

There are moments when one wishes that Rabbi Elon would sue them for libel. Nonetheless, even if the need to deny is understandable – it is imperative that we state the following: Our refusal to believe is an additional attack on the victims and a signal to all sexual abuse victims not to speak up.

Indeed in difficult moments such as these, I would suggest a more fundamental examination that can offer an explanation – even a partial one – of how this can have happened. In relations between an authority figure and the young who revere him, there is always the potential for exploitation; however, in a religious or spiritual context, the danger is infinitely greater. A person who suffers sexual abuse at the hands of someone who is in his eyes a religious authority, has a powerful natural tendency to cooperate while denying what is happening: “It can’t be; perhaps I am imagining it,” or alternatively “It’s my fault.”

This feeling is a result of the absolute faith that a yeshiva boy has in his rabbi or that an ulpana student has in her rosh ulpana. The rabbi is a spiritual figure who represents what is good and worthy, what God asks of human beings. Those who are hurt are therefore always young and weak, and are usually young girls or women.

How do we bridge the understanding that the fault lies in the social structure of the community itself, in which rabbis wield so much power, and our 2,000-year old need for Torah leadership? There are long-term answers and a more representative inclusion of women in the circles of leadership is certainly one of them (appropriate representation in the Takana forum would be a good start). However, in the short run we must adopt a number of measures.

The community must demand a firm and unambiguous stand from rabbis. Rabbis must prove to the community as a whole that keeping secrets is not a default option (as advocated by those who wish to prevent the desecration of God) available to camouflage their actions and protect themselves. This only reinforces the hesitancy of young victims to come forward. The announcement of the Takana forum is an important first step; however, the forum’s delay in making the announcement is an indication that the needed level of determination is still lacking.

We will know that something has changed when there is a narrowing of the huge gap between the number of sexual abuse victims and the number of complaints submitted. In fact, when there are a proportionate number of complaints submitted to the authorities relative to the size of the religious community, then we will know that something has changed. Only then will we know that the rabbis are showing their support for victims, that they have faith in the Israeli legal system, without which “the world will be full of [greater and greater] violence.” Perhaps this is the larger significance of “being part of the establishment.” In the meanwhile, and in spite of the Rabbi Elon affair, the religious community – taking its cue from its leaders – is still silencing the victims.

Youth must be taught how to say, “No!”

Rabbis must provide a solution for parents who send their children to yeshiva high schools as they start puberty, to pre-military boarding schools, to ulpanas and hesder yeshivas at age 18 – when these young adults think they are so big, but really are still so young and vulnerable.

And we, as a community, have to pay the price – and it is a high one. We must give up some of our blind respect for rabbis and adopt a more critical stance. Surprisingly we thought we were critical; but apparently we aren’t sufficiently so. It is worth repeating: Authority and charisma, accompanied by spiritual and religious power, is exercised by men in the religious community. This power provides an insidious opening for sexual abuse. Unfortunately, we must be vigilant and suspicious, and I am aware of the price involved. But so long as we have blind faith, we will not be able to claim that we did not shed this blood.

In the private domain, we need to tell our children that there are such things in the world, that there are rabbis who touch. We must teach them how to say: “No!” We need to make them receptive to hearing the distress of their classmates without denial. Children need to know that denial is also a violation of, “Do not stand idly over your fellow man’s blood.”

Only through proactive steps by rabbis and a public demand for practical measures can we perhaps return to the original meaning of the verse “thy children make haste; thy destroyers and they that made thee waste go away from thee.” They will go forth only when we, as a community, force them to do so – and not a moment sooner.

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