Monday, November 24, 2008

It's Not Just Individuals - It's The Community

Oftentimes in my life, when people discover that I used to be religious, they inquire as to why I chose to leave that lifestyle behind me. When I first encountered people asking me this, I would try to explain that the choice I made was a very personal one, based on what I concluded was right for me specifically, and that my decision wasn't intended to make a statement about the objective truth of Judaism in general. It's not that theological and ideological arguments didn't play a contributing part - they most definitely did, in that they significantly loosened the grip which my fundamentalist upbringing had held me in. And it's not that I was oblivious to all the scholarship (from science, history, biblical scholarship, and other fields) which challenged the veracity of Orthodox Judaism. While I never did get too involved in those discussions, I was well aware of how powerfully they undermined many of the foundations of Orthodoxy. But more importantly, I knew myself, and I knew that what was really motivating me was the particular social and psychological needs which I was facing in my life. Orthodoxy was doing nothing for me (intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and in other ways) and even worse, I felt it was actively crippling me, by forcing me to subscribe to a lifestyle and value system which I didn't believe in at all.

So when someone would assume from my decision that it was an indictment of Orthodoxy as a whole, I would go out of my way to correct the mistaken impression. I would try to make it clear that while I was most definitely critical of aspects of that world, the community as a whole was not deserving of condemnation and that there were still many Orthodox people who I wholeheartedly respected (well, maybe "a few" is more accurate). But to presume that I was critical of Orthodoxy as a whole was an assumption that was not justified.

However, these days, when faced with this question of "Why am I not religious?" I find myself frequently questioning this approach I had previously settled upon. While it's obvious that the motivations for my choice couldn't have retroactively changed, the simple fact is that I am finding myself less and less able to look at the chareidi community that I came from and be able to describe it as anything other than a corrupt, dysfunctional, and totally unhealthy environment to be a part of.

The many recent indiscretions, dysfunctions, and outright misdeeds of individuals within the Orthodox community have been well documented in the media: Hundreds of sexual abuse cases being reported, including many by rabbis and principals (Kolko, Mondrowitz, Weingarten, Beis Yakov Principal, Satmar Principal in Williamsburg, West Bank Rabbi, Baltimore Rabbi), acid and bleach thrown at those not dressing modestly enough, beatings by modesty squads, attacking women who sit in the front of the bus, tax fraud by Hassidic Rebbes, infants killed by abusive fathers, indictments at glatt kosher slaughterhouses, eviction threats because of not being frum enough, etc., etc. I can keep on going, but I think the picture is clear. There's a lot of ugliness to be found within the chareidi community. A hell of a lot. This is way more than just a few isolated incidents.

However, despite the fact that these stories are appearing with ever increasing frequency, I don't think that these incidents are truly representative of the entire community. They are unfortunately more than just a few people, but I don't think that these sorts of extremely awful behaviors are actually widespread in the frum community. And I honestly don't think it's fair to tar the whole community with the transgressions of a small minority who make the rest of the community look bad.

The thing is though, that small minority of deviants aren't the reason that I think so negatively of the community as a whole. If it was only these incidents, I probably wouldn't be as critical as I am of the frum world. Rather, what fills me with such a repugnance is the behavior of the entire community itself, specifically in how it reacts to the many truly awful crimes happening in their midst.

For example, let's look at the child molestation issue: It's not just that there are child molesters in the community. Yes, that's awful, but as bad as it is, I'd concede that it's not more than a tiny percentage of the community, and I wouldn't judge the whole community based on just that. But what isn't a tiny percentage is the number of people who willfully and knowingly hamper efforts to bring these molesters to justice. What isn't a small number is the amount of people who would prefer to let these criminals remain free rather than risk sullying the reputation of their venerated institutions. When a community as a whole allows such crimes to go unpunished and penalizes those who are trying to help innocent children, they can no longer hide behind the defense of "it's just a few lone individuals". At that point the community is also guilty. When the leadership (both rabbinic and lay) which the community looks up to is continuously silent on such a grave matter, it is a clear indication of where the community's priorities are. When a community leader publicly admits that he has knowledge of hundreds of abuse cases, and yet his constituents prefer him to keep it all away from the police, the community has then become complicit in the crimes. When everyone cares more about what their neighbor is going to say about them, or their children's shidduch chances, or what yeshiva their kids will get into, or about being shunned by their friends (all commonly heard excuses for why no one wants to step up to the plate on any of these issues) - when they care more about all that than they do actually solving the problem, they're saying that they care more about maintaining the community's standards than doing what is right and just. That it's better to keep these things quiet. This is why I can no longer look at the chareidi world with even a modicum of respect. The community as a whole has clearly expressed that they place the reputation of their society, and their place in that society, above the well being of their own children. How can anyone not be disgusted by such a society?

If the community truly cared, then it wouldn't ostracize people who try to bring the criminals to justice. If the community cared, a chassidish family wouldn't be afraid to tell the police who raped their 14 year old daughter. If the community cared it wouldn't stand behind and support a man convicted of killing his own baby (UTJ Knesset member Meir Porush called him a "good, quiet and disciplined" young man). If the community really cared, people wouldn't have to continuously be ashamed to report abuse to the police.

When last year, a chassidish man was found to be selling the Monsey community non-kosher chicken, the community showed how much they cared. The man and his family were run out of the community, in shame and in fear for his life. The community showed what they cared about then. And when the community allows accused child molesters to peaceably remain a part of their community, but those who try to help victims are harassed and attacked, they make it even clearer to the world what they care about. When a frum politician is able to back down on a promise to stop a molester from teaching kids, and no one demands that he keep his word, it shows where the community's concerns lie. When the rabbonim get more worked up about "illicit" music and "heretical" books than they do about yeshivas harboring molesters they reveal to us just what matters most to them.

This is why I have become so absolutely and utterly disgusted with the frum community as a whole. It is no longer just individuals committing these crimes. It is also the general public, and the leadership, which is responsible for allowing these horrible injustices to be perpetrated. It is the community and rabbis which turn a blind eye (or worse) towards these indiscretions. Their inaction, and relative silence (aside from a few vocal and brave activists), is a shocking admission of where their priorities truly lie. Their unwillingness to step up, and yes - risk condemnation and possible political fallout - is a clear indication of what the community values. If your community is going to condemn you for bringing a criminal to justice, isn't the community unambiguously saying that they prefer to protect criminals? Aren't they also then complicit in their crimes?

Admittedly, I know that there are many individuals in the community who are as horrified and sickened by all this as much as I am. Probably more so. But then why don't you speak up? I know the answer to that - because it's too costly for you. You will be shunned, ostracized, maybe even worse. I understand that. But how can you not be ashamed of yourself? With your silence, you are making a choice, a choice to be part of a society that prefers to let some of the very worst crimes of humanity - rape, violence, murder, abuse - go unpunished.

How can any self-respecting person - let alone one who considers themselves spiritual and religiously principled - stand to be a part of this world?


Freethinking Upstart said...

shtikah k'hoda'ah.

The Hedyot said...

I'll also mention, that it's not always just silence or inaction for which they are guilty of.

So often, when news breaks of these sordid occurrences, we see the apologists come out of the woodwork, and subject us once again to their elaborate and well crafted spin-jobs telling us how we have it all wrong. The accusations are simply not true, they insist. It's just the biased anti-religious media stirring up a hornets storm. If they are true, well, then the charges must have been exaggerated. When it turns out they aren't exaggerated, well then this is just an isolated case. If it's not an isolated case, well, the fellow must have had some mental problems - why should that reflect poorly on us? And so the community continues to defend and protect those who are accused, and when they can't get away with that, they resort to minimizing the gravity of the offenses. Or shooting the messenger. Or some other excuse to deflect attention. (Ever hear this one? "We're no worse than the rest of society!")

The Candy Man said...

Excellent post. I just saw an article in the San Francisco chronicle about Orthodox Jewish child molestation.

There was one in our community. He's still out there. The rabbis let him off the hook with a slap on the wrist. The non-Jews, no one ever thought to warn.

Red Sox Fan said...

Completely agree, and it's not just about the abuse. How many have spoken out about the rock-throwing and bleaching? Almost none. I bet deep down they agree with this behavior, but they're too tactful to say so out loud.

The Hedyot said...

> Completely agree, and it's not just about the abuse.

Yes, exactly. The molestation issue was just an example of the trend. On all those issues that I mentioned (and more), the community always defends their own (or looks the other way), no matter what crime they have committed. It's the chareidi community's repeated defense of all these incidents, whether it be attacking people on busses, throwing acid at girls, absuing children, rape, assaulting people in their homes, etc. that make me feel so disgusted with them all.

Sam said...

Very much on the same page as you. It's not even silence at this point--it's active intimidation/assault against those who do speak out.

But, this does seem more of an indictment of charedim than all orthodoxy, which includes more. (On the whole, it sounded from your post like I'm in a similar place to you, but I do think there's a distinction here.)

The Hedyot said...

> ...this does seem more of an indictment of charedim than all orthodoxy, which includes more.

Agreed. I tend to use the terms interchangeably, but my intention is the chareidi branch of OJ.

Baal Habos said...

>How can any self-respecting person - let alone one who considers themselves spiritual and religiously principled - stand to be a part of this world?

Because Chareidiism means abdicating personal responsibility. The Rabbi's are right and if I don't understand or agree, the fault is in me. Not them.

Sick, isn't it?

Solomon Schimmel said...

Is anyone aware of articles or teshuvot from within the rabbinic leadership of the haredi communities which address the issues raised by The Hedyot from a halakhic point of view, whether written in English, Hebrew, or Yiddish? It would seem to me that among the halakhic concepts that might be relevant are, on the side of the argument that witnesses or the community are obligated to take action against sinners, 1)"lo taamod al dam re'ekha", 2)"harodef ahar hazakhar", 3)"baavod reshaim rina" and "im lo yagid" (the obligation to testify), 4)"dina demalkhuta dina", 5)"lafrushey me'issurah", 6)"kiddush hashem" - or preventing "hillul hashem", and 7)"hokheah tokhiah". On the other side, in defense of not "outing" people who have been accused of crimes/sins, or of not pressing charges etc. might be halakhic categories such as 1)"moser", 2)"erkhaot shel akum", 3)"hotza'at dibbah", "lashon hara", and rekhilut", 4)and "hillul hashem" . I am not saying that any particular one(s) of these should or should not be applied to any specific case. I am only inquiring if anyone is aware that they have been, not in the popular press, but in more serious halakhic (and/or musar-based) analyses which thoughtfully address these issues from within a sophisticated halakhic perspective.

Have any members of the haredi community submitted a "shaylah" about any of these matters to their halakhic authorities and received a "teshuva" that has been made public?

Solomon Schimmel

Red Sox Fan said...

Another example: The chassidim are threatening that the city remove the bike lanes or else. Where are the rabbis protesting? Elah mai, they agree. If this leads to violence, so be it.

Anonymous said...

Your postings are always very interesting, and I wish that you would post more often. It is helpful knowing that there is a community of like minded people out there. I am not orthodox but worked at a MO yeshiva for 5 years. It would always shock my nonreligious friends when I told them what was going on there. Not sexual abuse but a tremendous amount of financial wrong doing. It really makes a mockery of their belief system and leds credibility to the so-called anti-semetic comments of some non-Jews. I got to know many of the parents pretty well, and with some notable exceptions it seemed that the more religious they were the more corrupt they were.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from a traditional right-wing yeshiva 10-years ago and never looked back. Most of my peers and their parents were good people, but I think that it's a valid obervation that the powers that be (the rosh yeshiva and his followers) made every attempt to cover up problems. I know that my friends would disagree with me, but I think that this does say something very negative about charedi culture.

Anonymous said...

A large part of the problem is that many many people hide from the community. Very very few people are not afraid of the blacklisting by the community. In reality nobody really gives a damn. Everybody in my community knows who I am and what I think. ( wish I knew what I think ) yet if step into any shul they will give me an aliyah. Strange behaviour from the holy community....Avi

zelig said...


I enjoy your writing.
What do we you with this?:

Thank you.

LonelyMan said...

Re: Dr. Schimmel's post.

>1)"moser", 2)"erkhaot shel akum", 3)"hotza'at dibbah", "lashon hara", and rekhilut", 4)and "hillul hashem"
as the principles against reporting crimes to the police.

It seems to me that the key aspect in all of this is the Chareidi's community inability, both legally and willingly, to police itself in a fair, judicious manner. Personal biases, friendships, and relationships seem to get in the way more often than not, and dan l'kaf zechut should not be a judicial principle.

That being said, I think we should be open to a British-style system, where in certain aspects, the beis din is empowered to judge according to British law, and their decision becomes enforced by the British state. Such trials in a beit din system would obviously have to be subjected to state and federal supervision, depending on the context, but it would serve the goals of prosecuting Chareidi criminals. I'll leave the issues of federalism, separation of church and state and the such to the constitutional scholars. In the end, I think we'd all want the Chareidi community to fix itself rather than being an object that we point at with disdain day in and day out. It's self-inflicted on their part, and people are not frequent to repair self-inflicted wounds on themselves, so an outside force must step in at some point.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with the statement that there is something pathological going on the orthodox community. I worked as a psychologist for 4-years at a yeshiva in the mid-west, and I was not prepared for the difficulties presented to me on a daily basis. Most of the time the head of the school ignored my advice and told his staff that I didn't know what I was talking about because I'm not religious. I got he job because of a brave board member who tried to change things at the school. However, he was soon seen as being a trouble maker and forced off the board. I could hardly wait to leave, but I still feel terrible about conditions at the school and the way that the boys were treated by the staff. Fortunately, there was no sexual abuse, as far as I knew, but lots of put downs and harassment of anyone who did not follow the party line.

laura said...

You write:
"Rather, what fills me with such a repugnance is the behavior of the entire community itself, specifically in how it reacts to the many truly awful crimes happening in their midst.

For example, let's look at the child molestation issue:"

Then you provide links to e.g. Satmar Principal, Bais Yaakov Principal. In the latter case, the community responded by banishing the molester and publicizing the proof against her, and in the case of the former, his employers investigated his case for several months, but could not find anyone to corroborate Engelman's claim. That's not to say Engelman is lying. However, in U.S. law, one is innocent till proven guilty, and one person's claim does not constitute proof.

So where precisely do you see the community behaving with repugnance?

The Hedyot said...

> So where precisely do you see the community behaving with repugnance?

Regarding the principal, she did indeed leave that community, but I have no doubt she is now safely ensconced in a different chareidi one somewhere else. But I would concede that that particular community’s reaction (if it really was that, and not a powerful minority that pulled it off) is a positive development. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much reporting on that story so I don’t know for sure the specifics of how the community reacted to that.

Regarding the case with Engelman I have not heard anything conclusive to believe that they really investigated. Saying that they told parents to ask their kids is not an investigation. If they were serious about it, they would hand it over to the police and let them do a real investigation. Just like any public school would do.

> So where precisely do you see the community behaving with repugnance?

Uh, in the chareidi community that let Mondrowitz walk around freely for twenty years. In the community that stood behind Kolko for twenty years. In the community that cares more about tablecloth colors than they do character. In the community that attacked the people who are working to prosecute these people. In the community that buried all these stories for all these years and continues to let brutal crimes go unpunished in order not to sully their holy reputation.

Respectful Aziz Ponim said...


Anonymous said...

If you try to warn a fellow Chareidei of some issue that he should know about, the chances are he'll just plug his ears and scream 'Loshon Horo!!'.

Had this happen a number of times.