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Rabbis are fallible

By ReligionFebruary, 2013January 22nd, 20246 min read

The ongoing scandal of cases of sex abuse within some Orthodox communities took a new twist recently, with the release of a video by Rabbi Manis Friedman, a prominent Chabad Rabbi from Minnesota. Important note: this is not a case of abuse, but is more about the attitudes of spiritual leaders toward abuse cases and victims, and beyond that into the way they deal with their constituencies and communities (which in the online world, are global and unforgiving).

The video is an extract of Rabbi Friedman talking informally at what looks like a farbrengen (a Chassidic gathering), and focusses on the topic of abuse victims. The original video has since been removed, but you can see a copy of it here, and there are other versions floating around, including one with comments before and after released by The Awareness Center, a victims advocacy group. Glaringly Obvious Lesson 1: once something is posted online, it can never be removed.

It’s not clear how Rabbi Friedman came to this topic during the farbrengen, nor the context, however he goes on to make some extremely flippant and insensitive remarks about victims of abuse – making light of their pain, and almost saying “just get on with it”. I don’t  know Rabbi Friedman personally, nor did I hear the full discussion. While his intent was probably to provide a positive framework for abuse victims, what he says comes out totally wrong and offensive.

Following much online flames, three Australian Rabbis have issued a strong letter affirming the lasting affect of abuse on victims, and the importance of both eliminating the scourge of abuse, and acknowledging the pain of victims. The letter “does not pass judgement on Rabbi Friedman without giving him the opportunity to defend himself”, which seems reasonable. Further, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria issued a letter distancing themselves from Rabbi Friedman’s comments.

This is where the whole things really goes off the rails. Instead of coming forward and and responding directly to these attacks, Rabbi Friedman issues a new video “on molestation and abuse“. In it, he speaks directly to the camera about the role of Rabbis in dealing with abuse victims. He acknowledges that Rabbis are not psychologists and need to observe the boundaries between their roles and that of medical professionals, law enforcement and the justice system. He explains how Rabbis can help victims of abuse. To anyone not aware of the context, he presents a welcome and positive Rabbinic perspective on this issue.

But as a “response” to the attacks on his earlier video, this falls painfully short.

Plenty has been said about the roles of Rabbis and spiritual leaders in the ongoing war against sexual abuse in Orthodox communities. Sadly, their ranks have included offenders or they have been complicit in cover-ups within closed communities. In the context of dealing with past and present cases, public statements have been made that range from ignorant to offensive, and everything in between. In amongst all this, a pattern of behaviour is evident – one that must be changed as a matter of urgency for their to be genuine progress in dealing with the scourge of abuse.

Judaism espouses the notion of teshuvah – repentance – to deal with past wrongdoings. The process of teshuvah has two steps: regret for the past, and resolve to change. Leading up to Yom Kippur, it is emphasized that the only way to resolve a wrong committed against another person is to seek their forgiveness. These principles acknowledge that we are all human, that we make mistakes, that we are fallible, and it establishes a framework for continuous improvement. These are some of the most fundamental principles in Judaism, and yet we see  time and again that spiritual leaders themselves seem to forget that they apply to all Jews.

If someone makes a public statement that offends people, it cannot just be made to disappear as if it never happened; especially not in the online world. A subsequent statement that corrects or qualifies but falsely pretends to stand on its own without any context and without acknowledgement of the previous statement is also insufficient. That approach quickly descends into the denial and cover-ups that have plagued Orthodox communities for so many years. It’s like the old adage: “the first thing to do when you find yourself in a pit is to stop digging”. This is the typical pattern that has occurred time and again in Orthodox communities: abuse, followed by denial, then cover-up, then layer upon layer of lies which ultimately explodes into scandal.

It’s time to stop digging, to realize that we are all human, and when we do fail – when we do hurt others, the fastest way to breaks the vicious cycle is those magic words – “I was wrong”, or “I’m sorry” – that start a process of healing the rift.

If the individual sin of abuse brings shame on a community, then so be it. The bigger shame is if that community perpetuates the sin by covering it up. If a spiritual leader makes an error – whether an inappropriate statement or ruling, or protecting someone who does not warrant it – then the short way out is to acknowledge it and move forward. The long way – the wrong way – is to maintain a façade of perfection that ultimately must break.

In the wake of some inappropriate comments on sex abuse by a prominent Rabbi and a huge backlash, an important lesson to all Rabbis about the need to be able to say sorry and move on, rather than just digging a deeper hole for themselves.

This was also posted at [Times of Israel].

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