Mesirah and Child Sexual Abuse in Brooklyn
Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy Newspapers
aki took time out from recounting what happened at his Christmas party to provide this interesting tidbit:
Speaking of little boys, leave it to The New York Times to find a front-page story unfit to print because it wasn’t anti-Catholic: The Brooklyn DA recently arrested an astounding 85 Jewish Orthodox men on charges of child sex abuse. Back in 1985 a Hasidic “therapist” was indicted for abusing five boys, but police suspected he abused more than a hundred. Avrohom Mondrowitz fled to Israel, where he remains to this day a free man. Those nice guys who shoot rock-throwing Palestinian children refuse to extradite him. Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes now has to tread carefully. Fifty rabbis have signed a public announcement in Yiddish denouncing the Hasidic family who went to the cops. They asked—now get this—for any believer to kill the family that informed “on fellow Jews.” So what will happen to the 85 perverts? All I know is the Times has not published a word, whereas when the Catholic Church sex scandal broke, it led the news in the front page for months. There is something very evil when rabbis who hate the non-Jewish world can dictate to an abused child’s parents whether or not to talk to the Tmostly non-Jewish fuzz. If some parent were to go and firebomb the Times, we might see it appear on the back pages.
Another egregious example of mesirah (including a death threat), and a nice comment illustrating how the Jewish sensibility of the Times deals with religion—a modern version of mesirah in its refusal to publish anything negative about its favorite religion/ethnic group. And then there’s the point about Israel not extraditing Jewish criminals—another topic the Times would rather avoid.
There is no question that mesirah has its intended effect. Few of the perpetrators will go to prison as a result of community pressure against informing on Jews:
So far, about 38 cases in the Brooklyn D.A.’s Project Kol Tzedek — which the [New York] Post translates as Hebrew for “voice of justice” … — have been closed, with just under two thirds resulting in the perps walking free. Many pleaded to lesser changes, with the Post claiming that some got off mostly scot-free because “victims or their parents backed out under community pressure.” (see here)
I confess that in reading about all this sexual abuse among Orthodox Jews I can’t help thinking about the videos in Trudie Pert’s recent article on Rebbe Schneerson. All that touching and dancing among men: Very strong male bonding (part of Alan Deshowitz’s comment on “Yiddishkeit”), but definitely not the sort of thing that is considered normal behavior by adult men.
I am reminded also of Edward Norden’s 1995 Commentary article “From Schnitzler to Kushner” which discusses the very large oeuvre of homosexual Jewish playwrights:
Could it be that homosexual tendencies are part of the intense social glue of traditional Jewish societies—which manage to have their cake and eat it too by also insisting on procreation and large families?
Someone sent me a link to a very interesting paper (“The Disposable Jew: Reflections on Child Sexual Abuse and Religious Culture”; downloadable here) written by Michael Lesher, an orthodox Jew himself and an attorney who represents some of Mondrowitz’s victims. Lesher shows how deeply ingrained mesirah is in these communities. It is also a testimony to their extreme collectivism and authoritarianism. Victims and their families fail to inform because they understand that it will damage their position in the community, including the marriage prospects of the entire family–a very ancient form of punishment in traditional Jewish communities.
He also argues that sexual abuse is enabled because of traditional Jewish religious thinking in which people have no natural right to use their bodies as they wish, but rather this right is granted by someone with higher power–an aspect of traditional Jewish authoritarianism. Note also the statement by a prominent rabbi that the “argument of ‘truth should not be suppressed’ is one originating from the non-Jewish world.” Contrast that with the masthead of American Renaissance which features Thomas Jefferson’s statement, “There is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world.”
Truth has no importance in traditional Jewish society. What is important are group interests as determined by all-powerful rabbis–so powerful that even child sexual abuse may be perpetrated with impunity. The result is that truth is nothing more than consensus: The Orthodox “define reality conspiratorially, by a consensus of believers, avoiding the risks of an appeal to reason.” This is precisely how I characterized the ideology of Jewish intellectual and political movements (Ch. 6 of CofC, p. 237):
A fundamental aspect of Jewish intellectual history has been the realization that there is really no demonstrable difference between truth and consensus. Within traditional Jewish religious discourse, “truth” was the prerogative of a privileged interpretive elite that in traditional societies consisted of the scholarly class within the Jewish community. Within this community, “truth” and “reality” were nothing more (and were undoubt-edly perceived as nothing more) than consensus within a sufficiently large portion of the interpretive community.
Some excerpts from “The Disposable Jew”:
Costs of Informing and Pressure against Informing
The religious community’s lack of interest – or worse – in their abuse lives on in these people [i.e., victims] as an element of their trauma. Nearly all of them tell me they cannot openly describe their experience to this day, not while simultaneously meeting the demands of a religious society that frowns on bringing “shame” to one’s family – or one’s rabbis. …
Michael still lives in a fervently religious community, but he has never been able to trust rabbinic authorities as he once did. He rarely feels safe sharing his experience; he is concerned that it could mark him, and his family, as different from others, as faintly suspect. Today a handful of people know. His wife is among them, but she is very fearful of strangers finding out, lest the news interfere with their children’s marriage prospects. This, she and Michael believe, is all that speaking openly would accomplish among their coreligionists. …
“Jacob” is also typical of many Mondrowitz victims. [Avrahom Mondrowitz is the non-extradictable rabbi mentioned by Taki who has lived happily in Israel since 1984. According to Lesher, Mondrowitz "sodomized or otherwise abused hundreds of Orthodox Jewish children in the early 1980s." The only reason he was caught was because he began preying on Italian children who eventually went to the police.] He is bitter when he describes how Orthodox rabbis, fearful of the sort of publicity Mondrowitz’s arrest and trial would have brought to Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, worked behind the scenes for decades to prevent Mondrowitz’s prosecution. …
“Why do you think,” he asks, “that it took so many years for him to be reported to the police in the first place? While he was abusing kids the whole time. You think nobody knew? Plenty of rabbis knew. But he only got in trouble when he went after the Italian kids on his block. . . . Our community never wanted him reported.” …
In other words, child abuse victims must expect to pay a heavy price when their abuse is reported to the police, since this will inevitably fuel unpleasant publicity. What we encounter here strikes me as the complete inversion of the moral relationship of abuser to victim – in this view, the victim’s accurate report is worse than the original crime! Yet so far as I know, Rabbi Blau’s accusation that “scandal” threatened against the abuser and his family commands more compassion from Jewish leadership than the devastation of actual child sexual abuse – to past and future victims, to their families, and to the community itself – has never been denied. …
“Report him to the police? I don’t think that occurred to anybody. Not even me,” says Michael. “No, it wouldn’t be done. Nobody would do it. . . .
Even now I don’t talk about it. My family is afraid it will look bad for all of us if I do.” “I’ve talked to quite a few rabbis, including some very high up, and some of them have seemed to be very sympathetic,” says another victim. “But over the years, even knowing that Mondrowitz was still free, a pedophile with a long history of abuse, they never advised doing anything that would bring in law enforcement.” (I will add that in 2006, when I found there was a way to reach more victims of Mondrowitz who might have been interested in publicly demanding his prosecution, needing only the approval of a prominent Orthodox rabbi to effectuate the contacts, I could not obtain the needed say-so.) …
Jewish Religious Ideology Enables Child Sexual Abuse
In any situation involving the violent use of a child it is the adult’s perspective, not the child’s, that matters; second, that one must never ask why this is so. …
New compilations of Jewish sex law are not hard to find; what is more, they are notable for assiduous detail in their catalogues of prohibited acts. But for all the stern moralizing to be found about, say, the evil of sleeping on one’s back (which may invite masturbation) or of a nine-year-old boy being left alone in the same room with an unmarried adult woman (for fear of an unexpected sexual encounter), these texts say nothing at all about child abuse. The rules forbidding the seclusion of a man and woman are given no application, even in the most recent religio-legal texts, to a situation involving a pedophile and a child. …
To the passages in Hosea and Ezekiel already quoted, we may add (for instance) the prophecy of Isaiah 47:2-3, in which divine retribution is gloatingly described in synecdoche as sexual violation: “. . .
Uncover your hair, make bare your leg, uncover the thigh . . . Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen.” As I have suggested, what is most important about such passages is not their obscenity – though that is striking enough – but the twin assumptions that sexuality is properly an instrument of humiliation, and that one’s sexual integrity is neither a right nor a natural human condition, but a privilege bestowed (or revoked) at will by a more powerful being. …
Attitudes of Jewish authorities:
Resistance from traditional authorities is equally fierce whether or not criminal prosecution appears to be in question. In 2006, spurred by Internet blogs, serious evidence began to circulate through Orthodox institutions – and the press – that prominent yeshivos had ignored or suppressed repeated reports of child sexual abuse by certain rabbis. What was Orthodox Judaism’s institutional response? Barely two months after Rabbi Blau’s harsh assessment appeared on the Internet, Agudath Israel of America, one of the country’s most influential Orthodox organizations, dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of his point by devoting the bulk of a session at its national convention to warning its members not to read the Internet blogs containing the accusations! …
A Concern with Truth Is Un-Jewish:
This Orthodox Jew (his emails made his religious affiliation evident) was oblivious to the irony of attempting to protect Rabbi Salomon and his community from Rabbi Salomon’s own words. In fact, when I suggested to him that there was an obvious value in knowing what a prominent rabbi had said about a subject of public concern – not simply what someone’s Public Relations Dept. would like him to have said – he scoffed that the “argument of ‘truth should not be suppressed’ is one originating from the non-Jewish world.” Q.E.D. …
That is why the traditional community cannot forgive those who, in the blog administrator’s words, do not suppress the truth. Child abusers may be criminals; those who publicly tell the truth about them are worse. They are traitors. They have betrayed not only a community but a tenet of religious culture, a point d’honneur. …
I tasted the fruits of this style of thinking when I appeared on ABC’s Nightline in 2006 to discuss the (then) stalled case against Avrohom Mondrowitz. On my clients’ behalf, I explained that only public pressure could spur a renewed effort to obtain the extradition of this indicted felon from Israel to New York, to face the first-degree sodomy and child abuse charges still extant against him. One of Mondrowitz’s many victims, Mark Weiss, appeared on the program with me, as did Dr. Amy Neustein – all of us Orthodox Jews – to stress the damage Mondrowitz had allegedly wreaked on a staggering number of children (nearly all of them Jewish). We also spoke about the D.A.’s politically-motivated reluctance to pursue him, apparently under pressure from the community, and the vital need to have Mondrowitz finally brought to justice. Many Orthodox Jews reacted to my public statements precisely along the Shafran/Schick line. I was assured that even publicity for the sake of justice was worse than child abuse – and that truth was never the priority of a religious Jew. …
Perhaps a religion that still teaches its adherents that not washing their hands upon awakening will cause insanity or a propensity to sin is bound to define reality conspiratorially, by a consensus of believers, avoiding the risks of an appeal to reason. But I suspect the issue is less intellectual than cultural. Over the last two hundred years, patronized by Biblical scholars, sidelined by historians, Orthodoxy has learned to strike back by claiming the moral high ground over its critics, who are scornfully presumed to wallow in modernity’s ethical quicksands. But insisting on our creed’s ethical superiority has involved us in canonizing our rabbis (the creed’s exemplars). And this in turn has converted each new revelation of sex abuse by a rabbi into an attack on Orthodoxy itself. Thus my public advocacy for Mondrowitz’s victims – even though the victims were Orthodox Jews – was rewarded with challenges to my own Orthodoxy.
Yeshiva University Suppresses Truth About Sexual Abuse
Lest anyone accuse me of special pleading, I will note that several years earlier the same thing happened to a student at Yeshiva University (now an Orthodox rabbi), who had the temerity to write a few lines in the school newspaper in support of The Jewish Week’s articles accusing Rabbi Baruch Lanner of sexually abusing female students (for which Lanner was ultimately convicted and jailed). University officials, sensing that Orthodoxy’s institutional shibboleths were threatened by the accusations, attacked the (accurate) newspaper articles – and the Orthodox student who defended them – with the breathtaking claim that they were part of a “conspiracy” against all Orthodoxy:.. [Rabbi Mordechai] Willig threatened to get funding cut for the student newspaper [the former student wrote]. . . .
For more than a year the rabbis and Rosh Yeshiva [principal] continued to defend Lanner and mock Rosenblatt [editor of The Jewish Week] as a heretic and hater of Torah values. They claimed the criminal investigation was a conspiracy against Orthodox Jews. . . Never mind that Rosenblatt, too, publicly describes himself as Orthodox, and that his newspaper prominently displays opinion columns by Orthodox rabbis. Never mind that the evidence against Lanner was decisive (as a New Jersey criminal court ultimately confirmed). Never mind that Yeshiva University prides itself on the integration of Orthodox Judaism with secular society, presumably including secular law enforcement. None of that mattered to Yeshiva University’s rabbis in the face of the charges against Rabbi Lanner. They abandoned the facts in favor of a silly paranoid slander the moment they detected a threat to the rabbinate’s moral prestige; like my critics, they still thought of truth as an instrument, not an imperative, and did not know that in taking sides against it they were trivializing the religion they thought they were defending.
Group Goals are More Important than Individual Lives
The cases with which I am familiar do not make me optimistic. And I am not alone. My clients affirm that the long shadow of Jewish hierarchies has darkened their experience as victims, compounding their sense of outrage. “It wasn’t enough,” says one, “that I was used and thrown away by Mondrowitz. When I wanted to tell people about what he had done, I found out I could be thrown away by them too. Other things were more important than the truth about what happened to me. There was a community, there was our image. There were other things to worry about: strengthening the anti-Semites. Making rabbis look bad. These issues were just more important than I was.” All too often, deliberately or not, the lesson taught to abuse survivors is that they are expendable, while the social order they threaten is not. The irony is not lost on these people. They begin as victims of individual attackers; in the end, they see themselves as victims of a Jewish community in which their status is suddenly equivocal. Neither their need for justice nor the truth of their traumatic experience can compete with the community’s stubborn hierarchical priorities. Even after gaining the strength to face the reality of their abuse, survivors find that they also have to recognize their marginality in a world they once called their own. They have become disposable Jews.
Authoritarianism Facilitates Sexual Abuse:
In the traditional Jewish world, sexuality is as much rabbinically governed as are the dietary codes, or the order of prayers. Jewish law concerns itself with every aspect of sex: when, how, where, why – and every twist in the law means another opening for rabbinic decision-making. Young Jews learn sexual prohibitions – against masturbation, against seclusion, against male-female touching – from rabbi/teachers. Even adult married couples consult rabbis to determine when intercourse is forbidden or obligatory. Jewish law applies to the timing, position, even the motives for sex. In all but the most literal sense, Orthodox Jews are expected to bring their rabbis into the bedroom with them….
And here a vicious circle closes itself: Orthodox Jews are trained, from childhood on, to yield to other people – to rabbis – the ultimate control over their own sexuality; yet when sexually abused by a rabbi, an Orthodox Jewish child is now told by religious authorities that he must complain about the violation – to a rabbi! Can Orthodox Jews surrender their most intimate personal space to clergymen, and simultaneously repudiate the assumption of intimate control – by some of the same clergymen – that forms the gravamen of sexual abuse? And will other rabbis support the victims if they do? Has the traditional community even recognized the nature of the problem? …
I am certain that abusive rabbis have recognized it. My clients say that Mondrowitz exploited their submissiveness to secure his sexual dominance. As one victim explained to me, “He told me not to question him, that he knew what was best for me, that he understood things I didn’t. And it was so much like the way rabbis talk about other things that I believed him.”
Child Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Communities is therefore “not just an aberration”:
Maybe I am asking too much. But at least we must stop claiming that child sex abuse among Jews is merely an aberration, an irruption of pathology into an otherwise sound moral structure. Avi Shafran, writing for Agudath Israel, exemplified this fallacy when he described abuse as a failure of self-discipline:
To be sure, there will always be observant individuals who sometimes fail the test of self-control . . . But that no more indicts Jewish observance than the fact that there are corrupt police or drug-addled doctors renders law enforcement or medicine suspect.
Reducing the evil of child sexual abuse to a question of “self-control” does more than minimize the scope of the problem. More fundamentally, it betrays abuse victims by treating sexual assaults as mere lapses, to be corrected by stricter adherence to the existing code. The subtle correlative is that abuse victims have nothing to teach the community; the message thus simultaneously reassures Orthodoxy of the perfection of its creed and reminds the victims to hold their peace. I have shown that this basic error has deep roots in traditional Jewish thought. But that fact only underscores the urgency of rethinking our approach. To the extent we continue to use Shafran’s diagnosis, we are simply refusing to hear what the victims are telling us, and we cannot claim to care for the victims while being so indifferent, so willfully deaf, to the meaning of their experience.