By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Note the important admission subtly sandwiched between a sinister question and an unfounded speculation in the following words, written back in 2006 by Robert Kolker in New York magazine:
Is child abuse “more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere? There are no reliable statistics [emphasis mine] . . . but there’s reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes.”
Mr. Kolker’s “reason to believe” was based on speculation by the New York Jewish Week’s Hella Winston, who has since established herself as someone who views the Orthodox community through heavily jaundiced eyes.
Our hearts must ache with the anguish of victims of abuse, especially children. And it’s natural for people who have met survivors of terrible things to feel deeply for them, and angry at their abusers. But extrapolating from the harrowing accounts of carefully sought-out victims that abuse—which, sadly, exists in the Orthodox community as it does in all communities—is somehow emblematic of Orthodox life is like visiting Sloan Kettering and concluding that there is a national cancer epidemic raging.
The New York writer went on to offer an even more offensive, even less grounded, conjecture, protectively qualified by the cop-out preface “There are some who believe . . .” What the safely unnamed “some” believe is that “repression in the ultra-Orthodox community”—namely, dedication to Jewish law and custom [he mentions laws like taharas ha’mishpachah and yichud]—“can foster abuse” [emphasis again mine].
That is, put bluntly, an unmitigated insult to Judaism. Jewish life holds high the ideals of family, community, compassion for others, control of anger and passions, and ethical behavior. There will always be seemingly observant individuals who are hypocritical, or who may sadly fail the test of self-control, even with horrendous impacts on the lives of others. But does the existence of corrupt police and unethical doctors indict the professions of law enforcement or medicine?
If any belief system enables immoral and unethical behavior, it is not Judaism but its polar opposite, the conviction that no higher authority exists. While atheists may live upstanding lives, it should be self-evident that denial of a Higher Power and divine laws for mankind leaves a human being with no authority but himself, and no compelling reason—other than getting caught—to shun bad behavior.
These thoughts come to mind in the wake of a recent highly publicized abuse scandal in England. One Jimmy Savile, a famous entertainment figure who died last year, was posthumously exposed as a serial abuser of children, including patients in hospitals he visited in the course of charitable fundraising work.
The British National Health Service, police, and the BBC all stand accused of turning a blind eye to the man’s crimes—which were the subject of a BBC broadcast that the network canceled.
Astoundingly, in Mr. Savile’s 1976 autobiography, he did not shy from describing some of his abusive behavior, which clearly crossed the moral and legal line, bragging that had “not been found out.”
“Which, after all,” he added, in an attempt at humor, “is the 11th commandment, is it not?”
It was a poignant choice of words. Because those who recognize the import of the Ten Commandments respect them as G‑d-given, immutable, and binding. The entertainer’s imaginary Eleventh is the antithesis of those adjectives. It is the credo of someone who feels he is not ultimately answerable to any being, or Being. And it provides him license to do whatever he finds pleasurable or amusing, no matter the toll on others, or on his own soul.
No, Mr. Kolker and your “some who believe,” a truly religious Jew is imbued with consciousness that, as Rabi Yehudah HaNasi expressed in Masechta Avos (2:1): “An eye sees and an ear hears, and all of your actions are in the record written.”
That truth, though, can be occasionally forgotten even by us non-atheists. That is the message of the initially puzzling blessing Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai offered his students as he lay dying, that “the fear of Heaven be to you like the fear of flesh and blood” (Berachos 28b).
“Is that all?” they exclaimed. The sage’s response: “If only!”
“Think,” he continued. “When a person commits a sin in private, he says, ‘May no person see me!’”
And yet, of course, he is seen all the same. Jimmy Savile was seen, and so are we all.
© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran