There has been lots of talk recently in the local blogosphere (here, here, and here) as well as in the mainstream media about the alleged (I use terms like this throughout because they are appropriate until a court makes a determination) sexual abuse that took place at Yeshivah College some twenty years ago. This has elicited a range of vigorous responses from many people.
Some have used this to take a stab at the administration of the school, which may have been derelict in their duty of care towards students, and further so by allowing the abusers to flee and escape prosecution and therefore reoffend in other countries. Indeed, the person in question is currently doing time in the USA and there are moves to have him extradited and brought back to Melbourne to face charges for his crimes here. However, focusing on what the school or the Rabbonim did or didn’t do twenty years ago is a waste of time and energy. Hama’aseh hu ha’ikar – action is what counts. The most important thing is to (a) deal with the victims of these awful crimes, and get them the long overdue help they need, and (b) consider how we might better deal with present and future threats of this nature.
What is really at the core of this?
Certainly the shidduch system seems to be a factor here. There is clearly a sense that anyone who was a victim of abuse is somehow “damaged” and therefore a less desirable marriage partner. This bizarre taint then somehow spreads to the siblings and the entire family. Indeed, the shidduch market is rife with loshon horah, and with both grossly inflated expectations on the part of parents for their children, and a myopic sense of the ingredients for a good marriage. All this leads to a (misguided) imperative on the part of parents to cover things up.
What a terrible situation this is! Victims of sexual abuse are exactly that: victims. Their suffering took place at the hands of people who often use their position of power to prey on others. By keeping things under wraps, we are actually committing a further crime against these victims, in often not allowing them to get the acknowledgement and the treatment they need, and, if they want, the chance to confront and overcome their attackers. The courts provide for the privacy that victims need, but in a small and close-knit community, the rumour-mill would more likely jump all over this and the news would spread like wildfire, again to the further detriment of the victims.
It’s much the same with mental illness. We treat physical illnesses of all kinds by visiting a suitable medical professional. But there seems to be such a stigma associated with mental illness that many people would rather cover it up, and thus not give the person the treatment they need. Some might even go to the extent of creating a façade of wellness so as not to damage the person’s perceived shidduch potential. Is any of this helpful to the person? Does this help treat their underlying condition? Or are some parents so obsessed by and bound to a broken shidduch system that they compromise the wellbeing of their own children?
But this goes far deeper than the issue of shidduchim.
Connected is the recent local activity and discussion regarding the Rubashkin case. From the heated discussion in the blogosphere, it seems that many people bring a lot of prejudice (and even less knowledge of the facts) to the extreme views they express. The truth (for those who care) probably lies somewhere in the middle.
This is again an example of the culture of cover-up and stigma. Rather than acknowledge some guilt and seek a reasonable resolution, people dig in their heels and assume a public stance of complete innocence, which often backfires. This seems to relate to some kind of antiquated “us vs them” mentality in the community, such that whenever anyone frum is charged with a crime and incarcerated, the instant and only logical conclusion must be an act of antisemitism, and every effort should be made to free them at all costs. I bring this in not to make a comment or judgement on the specifics of this case, rather as a contemporary example of how the Orthodox community generally deals with cases like this.
What is the common thread here? These are all examples of an endemic culture amongst the Orthodox community of covering up negative attributes. Yet it would be naïve and foolish to think that our community does not share the ills of the rest of the world: sexual predators, spouse abuse, alcoholism, depression, drug use, mental illness, and white collar crime.
Here are two possible ways to understand this:
Firstly, there is a perception among both Orthodox Jews and the wider community that they should operate at a higher standard of ethics and behaviour because of their beliefs. Jews who look pious in the way they dress and engage with God carry an expectation of similar piety in their general behaviour (this may be an extension of the higher standard expected of Israel in dealing with its enemies).
Sadly, this is no longer the case. The Orthodox community suffers all the problems of modern society, albeit perhaps at slightly lower levels. Indeed, too many people in the Orthodox community run a dual standard when it comes to bein adam l’Makom (between person and God) and bein adam l’chavero (between person and fellow person).
Secondly, it may be an extension of the ‘zero tolerance’ versus ‘harm minimization’ approaches to dealing with undesirable behaviours. Orthodox communities, particularly those who prefer isolationist policies, have always taken a zero tolerance approach to the ‘evils’ of the world such as drugs and television. But what happens when the barriers between the higher standard behaviour they set for themselves and those of wider society are broken? In that case, zero tolerance becomes group denial.