March 20, 2013
Reclaiming the Morality of Our Torah: A Response to Rabbi Hershel Schachter
Recently, a scandal emerged within the Orthodox community when Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a halakhic leader and member of the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), made an overtly racist comment that was recorded at a London conference. The greatest objections (including from Yeshiva University) revolve around his reluctance to sanction the reporting of sex crimes directly to the police (mesirah), warning that if a Jewish sex offender were sent to a state prison, he might be killed by the warden, or be put “in a cell with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.”
It is true that we must be cautious to be sure that innocents are not thrown in jail. I recently made the case for how many mistakes our penal system is making in this regard. However, religious leaders are not the judges of who is guilty and who is not. We live in one of the most sophisticated judicial systems in the world, one of the reasons why Rabbi Moshe Feinstein argued that we live in a “medina shel chesed” (a nation of kindness) where on the whole we can trust the judicial system.
Rabbi Schachter admitted that decades ago a Yeshiva University High School student confided that he had been abused by a Yeshiva administrator. While the details are in dispute, Rabbi Schachter did not follow up on the investigation, and the administrator in question continued to abuse students for years afterward. While acknowledging in his talk that there is no violation of the halakhah in allowing mesirah for child sexual abuse and most other crimes, Rabbi Schachter then weakened the argument. He proposed that a board of Torah scholars should first hear the charge to determine if there were raglayim l'davar [a credible charge requiring a report to the police], as a child’s report of abuse could be made up (a “bubbe-mayse”). He also demeaned the student who had reported the initial abuse to him: “So now, 40 years later, the guy’s spilling everything out to the newspaper.” He further stated that it was the student’s responsibility to follow up with the school psychologist, and if he did not he bore the blame for any further abuse that occurred at the high school.
We need Modern Orthodox leadership that represents the sacred moral values of our Torah!
Rabbi Schachter’s prowess as a Torah scholar is extraordinary. At age 22, he became the assistant of the noted Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z’l, and at age 26 became the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since then, he has written and taught extensively on Talmud and Jewish law. Even the student who confided in vain about sexual abuse acknowledged that Rabbi Schachter was a “true Gadol B’Yisroel (giant of torah).” Further, Rabbi Schachter’s reputation as a man who is kind, sensitive, and sweet in most of his interpersonal dealings is surely warranted.
A teacher has responsibilities beyond instructing content and disciplinary method. We teachers have a responsibility (second to parents) in molding children – an appreciation for faith, ethics, and other healthful values. When a student confides in us, it is our responsibility to consider what is good for the child and to act upon those considerations.
This case is indicative of an unfortunate tendency of some Modern Orthodox educators who have moved to an ultra-Orthodox position that can obstruct justice. It must be acknowledged that sexual abuse was tolerated at Yeshiva University for years, and that several well-known administrators and faculty, even after their guilt was established, were allowed to resign and move on to other positions in youth education rather than face sexual abuse charges or even social or professional cost. Furthermore, even if Rabbi Schachter’s claim that he told the student to go to the school psychologist is true, he should have realized that many in the Orthodox community considered it shameful (and still consider it so today) to go to a psychologist, and so it was unlikely that a student would go there with a story like this. To establish layers of bureaucracy or throw blame on the victims is to hurt the students who are supposed to be served by institutions of learning.
This trend can also lead to intellectual isolation. I remember I was once at a Friday night tisch when I was a graduate student at Y.U. and a student asked Rabbi Schachter if he was allowed to study English literature. Rabbi Schachter responded that he could, as long as it was for parnassah (supporting his livelihood), but not because there was any value to this learning - this occurred not at Ponevezh or the Mir, but at Yeshiva University, the center of Torah U'Madda (the integration of religious and secular studies)! Y.U. needs to decide if it will be a business professional training program or an intellectual academy that values the open and critical pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
Rabbi Schachter’s obtuse desire to ignore the world outside of his personal focus may help explain his many notorious statements. In the London speech referred to above, for example, he raised no objection to sending a Jew to a federal prison, since they have kosher food and better conditions (and presumably less menacing clientele than in state prisons). Consider the following examples:
• In 2004, when asked about the question of women reading a ketubbah at a wedding, he replied that a wedding was valid even if “a parrot or a monkey” did the reading, which angered many women’s groups.
• In August 2012, Rabbi Schachter was criticized by the Board of Directors of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations for accusing some Orthodox rabbis in Israel of promoting idolatry (avodah zarah) and conversion from Judaism (shemad) by teaching Gentiles about Judaism, ignoring and perhaps threatening decades of progress in Christian attitudes toward Jews and Israel. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated that Rabbi Schachter “seems to know nothing about the different Christian denominations or the current state of Jewish-Christian relations,” and lamented “that a religious figure and university academic who is well respected in the Yeshiva world would publish such a distorted and error-filled text which promotes negative attitudes.”
He also referred to Edah, a Modern Orthodox thinktank that he felt was too liberal, as "a sort of internal Amalek," implying that it was a radical evil that needed to be destroyed from the world as a religious imperative.
While teachers may have areas of concentration in their studies, they should welcome the opportunity of learning something new, and passing it on to their students. Rabbi Schachter, especially due to his prominent position, owes his students the finest education available, without racist vocabulary and trivializing sexual abuse.
The great modern Orthodox thinker and leader Rabbi Saul Berman responded to the defenders of Rav Schachter’s irresponsible teachings and public statements asserting that it is “duplicitous” for them to say he is more comfortable in the beit midrash and doesn’t fully understand the community and yet still seek him out to make vital public policy decisions on sensitive communal issues. “If you assume communal responsibility,” Rav Berman said, “you have to be responsible for yourself.”
We need leaders who have the wisdom to see the bigger picture and the courage to take responsibility for our society. Louis Brandeis was an admirableJewish scholar dealing with justice and society. As the first Jewish associate justice of the Supreme Court, a Zionist, he was a tireless proponent of the social welfare. Brandeis understood that secular institutions such as the courts could help secure the liberty of the people, and that it was incumbent on citizens to guard their liberty. In addition, he established a legal precedent of filing court briefs (called “Brandeis Briefs”) that combined legal, economic, and sociological data to advocate better working conditions and other worthy causes. Consider the wisdom of an intellectual who also acted in the public interest:
Yeshiva University deserves credit for publicly rebuking this rosh yeshiva who has crossed the line of offensive rhetoric once again. The Torah demands that we see the dignity in all humans and that we be honest and forthright in all of our ways. One who uses racist slurs and impedes justice for abuse victims does not represent the Torah community. We honor Torah scholarship and we respect the good intentions of sincere men and women, but the Modern Orthodox community needs moral leadership deeply sensitive to contemporary human needs and responsible in legal and ethical discourse.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."