By: Shoshy Ciment, Lilly Gelman, and David Rubinstein  | 

RIETS Addresses Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Community

On December 25, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary hosted a talk for rabbinical students on sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. The event, which was attended by over 50 students, rabbis, community members, and administrators, featured remarks from Dr. Norman Blumenthal and Rabbi Yosef Blau. Pizza was served and copies of the most recent issue of Tradition—the foremost Modern Orthodox journal of Jewish thought and law—which focused on sexual abuse, were distributed free of charge, courtesy of its publisher, the Rabbinical Council of America.

This event occurred amidst a tide of high profile cases centering around sexual abuse in the United States. In light of this, it was announced a few weeks ago that employees of Yeshiva University were required to complete an online course about sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. A few days later, a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at Stern College was fired after an investigation into allegations of his inappropriate conduct.

Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, RIETS Director of Professional Rabbinics, introduced the speakers. He said that when the allegations of sexual abuse in the Jewish community first emerged, people were silent. Over the last two decades, however, “a lot has changed,” and the voice of  “victims past, present, and future...exists now, and is protected now, and is given a safe space within our segment of the community.” Rabbi Rothwachs said that “we have every obligation as Torah Jews to go ahead and promote the interest of those who would otherwise not be able to protect and defend themselves,” referring to victims of sexual abuse.

Dr. Blumenthal, a senior psychologist at OHEL, a major Jewish social services organization, spoke about preventing sexual abuse. He emphasized the need for a Torah curriculum on sexuality. “The time has come for us to have a curriculum for the Torah approach to sexuality to make it such that it if a 16-year old waiter at camp propositions a 12-year old camper, it is unthinkable.”

“A schmues in high school is not enough. We need a curriculum, and we need to teach from kindergarten through high school. If we can use those opportunities to train our children ...there will be a healthier attitude,” said Dr. Blumenthal, who is also the Educational Director of the counseling training program for prospective clergy at Yeshiva University. “You can’t eliminate [sexual abuse completely], but we can make a significant difference in terms of children understanding that this is wrong. If we can inculcate an attitude of reverence and respect and the proper attitude within our community, when that 16-year old propositions that 12-year old it will be totally unthinkable.”

Rabbi Blau, Senior Mashgiach Ruchani, spoke next, addressing what the proper response of a rabbi should be to cases of sexual abuse. Rabbi Blau began by noting that rabbis are not trained as therapists or investigators and should therefore avoid acting as such in order to “not cause greater harm.” Instead, the role of the rabbi is to be the “the posek (halachic decisor) of the community” and to be the “spiritual leader” who sets the “religious tone.” As the halachic decisor, the rabbi must be aware that, even if some acts of sexual abuse do not fall within formal halachic definitions, they are still sexual abuse.

Rabbi Blau also addressed the halachic dimension of reporting sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, arguing that halachic concerns with reporting sexual abuse are invalid. He taught that the halachic prohibition of mesira (accusing a Jew of a crime to secular authorities) applies only when the internal communal institutions are set up to address the case at hand. Since beit din (rabbinical court) is not set up to deal with cases of sexual abuse, the prohibition of mesira does not apply. The prohibition of lashon hara (slanderous speech) does not apply, Rabbi Blau stated, because if talking about the evil things people have done will “protect people from being hurt, then it is not a problem [to say so.]” Lastly, he said that attempting to cover up abuse in the name of avoiding hillul Hashem (desecrating the name of God) is absurd, and that the true desecration would be the attempt to cover up abuse.

Rabbi Blau said that as future rabbis, the rabbinical students need to avoid the “misinterpretation” that victims of abuse are “damaged goods” or are then going to become abusers themselves.

The Senior Mashgiach Ruchani said, “the most important problem is denial… once we acknowledge the problem exists then we can try to deal with it.”

Rabbi Blau told The Commentator he agreed to speak at the event because he thinks “it’s an incredibly important issue, particularly for semikha (rabbinic ordination) students who will go out to be religious leaders in the community.”  He added that “giving someone a book to read often means they put a book on the shelves,” he said in reference to the copy of Tradition that was distributed. “But if they have a program and they say there are more details in the book they are more likely to read it, too.”

Avraham Wein, editorial assistant at Tradition and a RIETS rabbinical student, organized the event. “The goal of the program,” he wrote to The Commentator in an email, “was to use the recent publication of the sexual abuse symposium in Tradition as an opportunity for semikha students to learn about both prevention and treatment of sexual abuse from renowned leaders in fighting sexual abuse. Moreover, we wanted to provide students with free copies of the volume so they can read this important symposium.” Mr. Wein said that Rabbi Blau was “particularly helpful” in making the event happen.

Reactions from those present were positive, with audience members expressing that the panel was a glimpse into a larger issue.

Eli Weinstein, a RIETS student, attended the event because, as someone aspiring to “have a leadership role in the Jewish community someday,” he felt he needed to know “everything I can about this issue...to make sure I can help anyone who might be involved in it.” He thought, “it was a great job in getting the conversation going—I now have two people I can go to with any questions—but at the same time it’s just the beginning. It wasn’t all encompassing, but it is the beginning of the conversation.”

Leead Staller, a 24-year old student in his second year of rabbinical studies at RIETS, remarked that “having a formal panel where future leaders and educators in the Jewish community will be more informed about it is essential to fostering a healthy community.”

“This panel is not a one-time event but the start of a larger discussion. It definitely started the conversation,” he said.

Mr. Staller said he was concerned that it seemed Dr. Blumenthal was advocating a sexual education curriculum that presents sexuality strictly as “a religious idea, and not just a very basic human idea,” which could prove problematic for individuals who might be tempted to “put these values aside” if they are struggling religiously. But Mr. Staller said he asked Dr. Blumenthal, who said “he agreed; he was just giving an example.”

Ezra Epstein, an undergraduate in the Mazer Yeshiva Program attended because he was interested in the issue and wanted to become “more informed and educated.” After the event, he said he would have to “digest” because he was unsure if he “actually walked away with anything.”

Rabbi Shalom Carmy, editor of Tradition and assistant professor of Jewish Philosophy and Bible, attended the event. Dean of Students Dr. Chaim Nissel, former director of the counselling center, also attended, as did Rabbi Herschel Reichman, a Rosh Yeshiva (dean) of the Yeshiva Program.