Searching for Answers at Yeshiva University
Looking back on the past month of media coverage surrounding Yeshiva University, I find it difficult to respond with any clear meaningful message. I struggle with mixed and conflicting emotions: I am grieved for the alleged victims of traumatizing sexual abuse; distraught that it took a media scandal and decades of waiting for our university to confront these allegations; disappointed that revered Torah leaders were not guided by a stronger moral compass; and perturbed that even in our modern religious community, a deaf ear could be turned to such heinous acts.
And I sense that I am not alone in this struggle.
Whether we are students at this university, alumni, members of the broader Modern Orthodox community, or just concerned onlookers following a tragic media story, we have all been confronted by news and stories that challenge us; they challenge us to think and feel, and they challenge us to respond.
I can’t claim to have the correct solution to this intricate puzzle. I can’t claim to speak on behalf of all Yeshiva students either. And I certainly cannot claim to know how the victims feel, nor to have any expertise in dealing with such cases of sexual abuse. But after many conversations with students, leaders, faculty, and rabbis, I would like to share some thoughts that might help us process what we’ve read over the past few weeks.
To begin with, I think it is important to recognize and applaud President Joel and his administration for the university’s initial public response to the allegations stated in The Forward.
I refer specifically to his description of the alleged acts as “reprehensible,” “heinous,” “inexcusable,” and “antithetical to Torah values and everything Yeshiva University stands for,” in addition to the president’s explicit expression of apology. The mere labeling of the alleged abuses as terrible and subsequent apology begin to vindicate the victims, start a path towards future improvement, and demonstrate a semblance of transparency and responsibility that are ostensibly fundamental values in our community. These small steps of public recognition alone would distinguish us from other more insular religious communities.
Also noteworthy are the university’s initiatives moving forward. For one, it has encouraged victims to come forward, directing them both to the school’s counseling center and to the president himself. It has also announced that it will be conducting an investigation of the allegations, and encouraged victims to contact the legal and abuse experts directly. These steps are noble, and will hopefully lend more clarity to the past and consolation to those who suffered.
But the question remains: is that enough? Is Yeshiva University dealing properly and appropriately—as responsibly as possible—with the allegations presented in ongoing reports from The Forward? We have expectations of every public institution regarding how they handle delicate situations such as these, and now must question whether our own satisfies those standards.
At this point, though, what more should we expect from Yeshiva in responding to this tragic situation? The school has publicly apologized, launched an investigation, and reiterated its policies defending against abuse; it has checked off the major steps every public institution must undertake when under fire. There is, however, one more possible action the university could take.
In the aftermath of The Forward’s coverage, more than one article has already made the comparison that immediately jumped out at so many readers—Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and the Penn State fiasco all over again. Some, including the initial article in The Forward casually allude to the comparison. The intended parallels and implications for Yeshiva are not difficult to discern. Other authors have raised the issue more explicitly: they call on Yeshiva University to fire Rabbi Norman Lamm.
These calls for action are aggressive and far-reaching. But, if we are honest, they have probably crossed our minds too. Is Yeshiva obligated to fire Rabbi Lamm? Is that the moral and appropriate action we should expect and demand? It behooves us to take these questions seriously.
On the one hand, Rabbi Lamm is the chancellor of Yeshiva University. At this point, his involvement in practical tasks and decisions is minimal if not nonexistent and, instead, he serves a different role; he stands as the honorary head of the university—its face and image, a representative of the values and ideals heralded by his colleagues, constituents, and community.
The accusations and—tragically—self-incriminating comments recently published certainly raise questions about whether Yeshiva should associate itself with Rabbi Lamm and his legacy. And that is aside from the more obvious reason to ask Rabbi Lamm to leave, that is, if his actions were wrong and thus deserving of consequence.
On the other hand, however, several compelling arguments show that Yeshiva’s story is not Penn State’s, and indicate that Rabbi Lamm should not be asked to leave. This is a complex and sensitive issue and, as always, a case can be made for both sides. In this case though, I believe that the arguments fall out on the side of Rabbi Lamm. However tempting it might be, calling for Yeshiva to fire Rabbi Lamm appears to be the wrong course of action in our current predicament. Allow me to elaborate.
While the abuses at Penn State were ongoing until at least the early 2000s, the alleged cases and complaints at Yeshiva’s high school took place as much as 35 years ago and at the latest about twenty years ago. This time discrepancy must change the way we view these situations. On one level, the passage of time means that Rabbi Lamm is no longer the active head—or president—of Yeshiva University. Though there are arguments to be made for pushing out a chancellor, as mentioned above, the acting leader of a group is subject to harsher action from his institution, as was the case with Joe Paterno.
But more importantly, the fact that these cases took place more than a quarter-century ago should make us reconsider how we judge Rabbi Lamm’s actions and decisions. As pointed out in the New York Times, sexual abuse was dealt with quite differently thirty years ago. The Times pointed to the example of the Horace Mann School, which recently faced similar allegations of inappropriate teacher behavior left unpunished. The article went on to cite an expert in the field who said that Lamm’s course of action—firing the teacher without alerting the police or taking legal action—was more than widespread at the time.
Now, this is not to make an argument for moral relativism; I am not arguing that Rabbi Lamm did the “right” thing, or that it was okay for the accused men to continue working with children and in positions of Jewish leadership. Looking back, we know that Finkelstein’s and Gordon’s alleged actions were terrible and should have been met with severe punishment.
The question this does raise, though, is whether we can reasonably expect Rabbi Lamm to have acted otherwise. Indeed the Torah is timeless and we would like to think its values should help us transcend our cultural and historical environments. This should apply to a revered scholar like Rabbi Lamm more than anywhere else. But, we also know, we are all human, and thus subject to our surrounding realities and the forces of context. And this applies to a revered scholar like Rabbi Lamm no less than to anyone else. It is tragic, but though we may be able to say that Rabbi Lamm should have acted more responsibly as we look at the situation through the lens of 2012, it may simply be unreasonable to say the same from the standpoint of 1982.
On another level, the long passage of time means that Rabbi Lamm is no longer the young, active professional he once was. This brings me to a point about Rabbi Lamm that is extremely delicate and may border on disrespectful, but I feel is important enough to make in his defense. Rabbi Lamm is an old man. He is 85 years old and, as is the way of the world, his physical and mental health are deteriorating. That does not diminish his stature, nor does it change the past. But it does make a plea to the heart; it seems that our most basic humanitarian instincts would have us let the man live—and die—in peace. If he wishes to step down of his own volition, whether for the interest of the institution or for personal reasons, that would be legitimate, and perhaps even praiseworthy.
But for Yeshiva to fire Rabbi Lamm or ask him to resign might be unethical in its own way too. Firing an 85-year-old man who is not involved in the institution’s functions would not change anything. It would not lead to any tangible change for the school, but only launch a symbolic attack on an aging man. And let us not forget who that man is: Rabbi Lamm built this institution and saved it from imminent collapse; he dedicated his life to the university and to the movement of Centrist Orthodoxy which he, essentially, founded; he is a scholar and a leader.
We cannot condone his actions if, indeed, he attempted to hide the crimes of his employees. Nor can we excuse problematic behavior with a preponderance of good behavior. But should his acting in line with what was considered appropriate at the time lead to the undermining of a life of service and vision? Should a man’s legacy and life be torn down when we haven’t clear evidence indicating that he knew and understood the full sexual and abusive nature of his employees’ behavior? Should one man “take the fall” for those responsible, simply because he is the only one left alive?
Today, it is not uncommon for a “media scandal” to end with the firing of one person in a high-up position at an organization. Sometimes, this reaction is warranted and immediately improves the situation. Other times, though, this knee-jerk reaction does not fit the circumstances and succeeds only at providing false consolation for those following the story by giving evidence that “something has been done,” when, in fact, nothing of significance has changed. We must be wary of this possibility.
The nuanced and interrelated contextual difficulties of this case complicate how the university should react to the allegations it faces. The long passage of time, the changing societal norms, the delicate position of Rabbi Lamm, and the many unknowns in the case murky the clear waters of good and evil that usually characterize matters of child sexual abuse. And thus it is difficult to point a finger at one person or policy that will remedy the situation. In fact, it would be wrong to do so; it would bring no justice to the victims or predators, but only injustice to Rabbi Lamm.
That does not mean we are free to leave this issue behind, though. This story is much larger than a high school hallway some thirty years ago. Many people—from within the community and without—are examining very closely how our university deals with these allegations. We are a Jewish institution and, what’s more, an Orthodox one too. And people will look to us to determine whether a modern religious community can handle this kind of difficult situation.
The question is, what will they find—will they see just another closed religious community looking to cover up abuse? And, perhaps, it might best serve us to ask ourselves a similar question: are we just another closed religious community looking to over up abuse?
We claim to be a modern, worldly community, up to par with—if not beyond—the secular world in dealing with circumstances that challenge our moral, ethical, and humanitarian character. And it is my fervent hope that we are not lying to ourselves.
And thus, regardless of how the university chooses to deal with the allegations in an immediate sense, there is no doubt that a much broader and deeper soul searching is at hand. Much has changed since the early eighties at YU; cultures have come and gone and new policies have been set in place. But remnants of the past remain and must be uprooted.
Does our university fire administrators who do not perform properly but are well-connected? Is Yeshiva transparent about its mistakes, taking responsibility and moving forward when at fault, or does it attempt to hide its blunders? Does YU’s administration follow the natural instinct to protect the name of its institution or does it recognize that the students and other members of the community are far more important? Do our community’s deep, religious beliefs motivate it to protect the disadvantaged, the poor, and the innocent or to protect the scholarly, the rabbinic, the community leader?
So far Yeshiva has approached this “scandal” in a reactive fashion. It has reacted in the media and internally, and the calls to fire Rabbi Lamm ask only for a more radical and tangible reaction—but a reaction nonetheless. It appears, however, that a shift of perspective is necessary.
We can never change the past. We can apologize, and investigate, and fire all the administrators we’d like, but nothing can undo what has already been done; grown men are left with traumatic high school memories and community leaders are marked with a blemish that will never leave them.
What we can do, though, is look forward.
Instead of looking only to the past and asking how we can react to it, we must use this situation as an occasion to be proactive. These times confront us with difficult challenges, but they also present us with important opportunities. We are now faced with the blatant truth that abuse has existed in our community, and likely still does. What are we doing to change that? What institutions are in place to protect our children? How can we improve what we already have? What ideas and organizations have yet to even be conceived?
As the flagship institution of the Modern Orthodox community, Yeshiva University should be on the forefront of these initiatives. Yeshiva is a place of vision. It is guided by a dedication to Torah and profound values. And its significant infrastructure and community networks provide it with far-reaching capabilities in influencing Orthodox communities across America. Regardless of the initiatives that already exist, there is always more to be done, and I hope Yeshiva sees that as an opportunity to serve our community.
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