For several years, at least, Agudath Israel of America, the organizational arm of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, has demanded that allegations of child abuse be vetted by rabbis rather than directly reported to police. Increasingly, that position is coming in for harsh criticism. Much of that criticism is coming from within the ultra-Orthodox community itself, where advocates of victims of child molestation accuse their own rabbinic leadership of covering up the crimes of molesters, many of whom continued to prey on children for decades.
Agudah’s position is at odds with laws in New York and New Jersey that mandate reporting of child abuse in many circumstances.
It also is a position that is rejected by the Modern Orthodox-leaning Rabbinic Council of America, which ruled unequivocally that “those with reasonable suspicion or first-hand knowledge of abuse or endangerment have a religious obligation to report that abuse to the secular legal authorities without delay.” Virtually all Orthodox synagogues in northern New Jersey are aligned with the RCA rather than Agudath Israel, whose New Jersey strongholds are in Passaic and Lakewood.
In recent months, two modern Orthodox educational institutions have dealt with allegations of illegal sexual behavior by faculty members.
In December, the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC) notified the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office after a student at the all-boys high school in Teaneck reported having had inappropriate sexual contact with a female teacher the previous year.
Earlier this month, a sixth-grade teacher at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus was arrested in his New York apartment by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with possessing child pornography. The teacher, Even Zauder, previously served as youth director at Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun.
As for Chabad-Lubavitch institutions, the Crown Heights Rabbinical Board ruled some years ago “that in any case of suspected child abuse, one must go immediately to the police and not attempt to deal with it internally.”
The issue has come to the forefront following a pair of articles last week in The New York Times on pressures within the ultra-Orthodox community not to report child sexual abuse, and accusations that Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes has sided with politically powerful Brooklyn rabbis who wish to downplay reporting of child molestation.
The New York Times reporting built upon (although did not acknowledge) reporting on the topic by The New York Jewish Week, The Forward, and such blogs as Failed Messiah and Unorthodox Jew.
Agudath Israel declined to directly respond to questions on the topic submitted by The Jewish Standard.
Instead, its spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, sent the organization’s July 2011 policy statement on reporting child abuse, as well as 40 pages of Hebrew-language halachic discussions of the topic by leading Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
In its policy statement, Agudah said that while reasonable suspicions of child abuse or molestation should be reported to the authorities, “the individual should not rely exclusively on his own judgment” to determine whether a suspicion is reasonable.
“Rather, he should present the facts of the case to a rabbi who is expert in halachah and who also has experience in the area of abuse and molestation – someone who is fully sensitive both to the gravity of the halachic considerations, and the urgent need to protect children,” said the Agudah statement.
Of course, this raises a question, say the statement’s critics: How does one reconcile the claim that rabbis are qualified to decide this, with the claims that rabbis had been informed of specific child molesters, and failed to stop them for decades?
That was one of the several questions Shafran failed to answer.
At the same time, Agudah has not followed all of the advice of its sages.
Rabbi Yehuda Silman, a senior rabbinical court judge in the Israeli town of B’nei B’rak, ruled that those believed to have molested children should be reported to secular authorities if they would not otherwise stop their crimes.
He said the determination of whether to report should be made by rabbis, because “it is certainly impossible to give the matter [of determination] to each and every individual, because most people don’t have the Torah and/or professional knowledge to determine if in a given case there is even reasonable suspicion.”
Silman, however, also suggested that “a rabbinic judge or court be designated that would decide” on allegations of molestation.
Shafran said that while he has heard of such courts in some cities – he mentioned Chicago and Los Angeles – the variegated nature of New York’s ultra-Orthodox community precludes a central court from being set up there.
In none of the responsa reviewed by this newspaper was there any sense that the secular authorities – be they in Israel or America – could be trusted to investigate allegations on their own, or for that matter that the authorities had investigative powers at all.
The case which most responsa supplied to The Standard by Agudah concerned the second century Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Shimon who, according to the Talmud, handed Jewish thieves over to the Roman authorities for execution.
When asked by a colleague “how long will you deliver people of the Lord for slaying?” he answered, “I weed the thorns of the vineyard.”
The halachic opinions also pointed to medieval rulings that thieves and other criminals could be handed to secular authorities for punishment for the good of the community.
In permitting the handing over of molesters to secular authorities, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis highlighted the fact that where the Romans executed their thieves – a disproportionate punishment by Torah standards – contemporary punishments are not similarly problematic.
They do not acknowledge that in America and Israel, however, ultra-Orthodox are equal citizens, and that the police represent them, too. Say the policy’s critics, it is this refusal to acknowledge that the Middle Ages have ended that constitutes one of the sharpest demarcations between the ultra-Orthodox and the modern Orthodox.
In online discussions, among the lay people supporting Agudah’s position are those who argue that police authorities in the United States are anti-Semitic and waiting for an excuse to start a pogrom.
Does Agudath Israel share this view, Rabbi Shafran was asked.
He did not answer that, either.