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The real meaning of Tzedek

By ReligionAugust, 2013January 22nd, 20245 min read

This week’s Torah reading – Shoftim – contains the well-known phrase ‘Tzedek tzedek tirdof’ (Devarim 16:20) – the injunction to pursue righteousness. This comes at the conclusion of verses which mandate the establishment of ‘law and order’ in society, which are built upon a judicial system, and police to enforce the law. Further, the Torah sets down the rules by which judges must operate: they must not pervert the course of justice, must remain unbiased when dealing with parties in a dispute, and must avoid bribery. The section goes on to discuss the case of a person who transgresses God’s covenant and worships other gods. In such a case, the court must ‘give the matter a hearing and carefully investigate’ to determine if it is true, and only if so, render judgement and execute that judgement. The Torah continues with the requirement for at least two witnesses with corroborating testimony to establish a fact at law.

The Torah definition of ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ is clearly built upon a strong judiciary and due process. These attributes are reflected in the judicial systems that operate in the Western world.

JBD – Jews of the CBD, of which I am president, present diverse speaking events in the Melbourne CBD often in collaboration with other organisations that share our interests. The COSV approached us with the opportunity to host visiting Rabbi Kenneth Brander during his speaking tour of Melbourne, and we accepted and scheduled the event for 6 August. On or about 22 July I became aware of an article in the Forward that was critical of Rabbi Brander regarding the way he dealt with an accused paedophile, and I promptly brought it to the attention of members of the COSV board. The board took this matter seriously, and conducted a detailed investigation of their own into the allegations, concluding that it was not reasonable to cancel his speaking tour. They shared with me reliable accounts of Rabbi Brander’s conduct in a particular matter, which made it clear that contrary to what has been suggested, Rabbi Brander represented a very high standard of vigilance in dealing with allegations of sex abuse within the Orthodox community.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Brander’s speaking engagement for JBD and COSV has invoked the ire of Tzedek / Manny Waks, who have released a statement referencing our event (only) and expressing their dismay. The statement refers to the lack of a direct response by Rabbi Brander’s employer Yeshiva University (YU) pending a lawsuit by alleged victims of sex abuse, and the aforementioned article in the Forward.

But in its alleged pursuit of Tzedek – justice – the statement leaves many questions unanswered:

  • Rabbi Brander is speaking at five more events – all advertised in the Australian Jewish News – during his visit to Melbourne. Other collaborating organizations/groups include AUJS, Beit Aharon, Blake Street Shule, Bnei Akiva, Central Shul Chabad, Daminyan, Elwood Shule, Mizrachi, Mt Scopus, Nachalat David and Torah Mitzion. Why has just one of his events come under fire from Tzedek?
  • More broadly, the cases referred to are making their way through the judicial system, which for all its rigour operates in a slow and deliberate manner. Is it appropriate for YU or Rabbi Brander to pre-empt this process and respond publicly to allegations just because the lynch mob demands it, or should they cooperate with the process and allow it to continue unfettered to its conclusion?
  • Until that does happen, must any YU Rabbis with ‘questionable records’ be black-banned from speaking appearances anywhere in the world, on any topic? Who decides what a ‘questionable record’ is? Should this apply to anyone with any ‘link’ whatsoever (whatever that means) to sex abuse allegations or to YU, even if their time there did not overlap the alleged abuse?
  • The article in the Forward and many Tzedek posts have developed a reliance on gutter-dwelling blogs such as Failed Messiah and Frum Follies. These blogs’ raison d’être is to publicize the worst of Orthodox Jews, and do not maintain any standards of journalism, yet they are at the forefront of the very public battle against sex abuse in Orthodox communities. Should we be relying on them for genuine information?

The path to vigilantism, revenge, trial-by-media and smear campaigns is short and easy, and feeds the bloodlust of the anti-Orthodox masses. It causes division in our community rather than healing from the mistakes of the past. The path to justice is long and deliberate. The Torah spells out very clearly the true meaning of ‘tzedek’.

See also this piece published two years ago on the danger of rumours. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other; it needs to find the middle.

After the controversy over Rabbi Kenneth Brander‘s visit to Australia, this piece takes issue with an organisation that doesn’t appear to be standing by its name, and where things are going wrong in dealing with child sex abuse.

This was also posted at [News & Views from Jews Down Under].

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