Amid all the blood-letting and chilul Hashem engendered by the child abuse scandals and cover up in Chabad schools in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, that was widely covered in the media, I hope we can all agree that the rabbis who allowed the abuse and concealed it did not wish to harm children.
So how could it have happened? And here I am not asking how could rabbis have broken laws, for which they are accountable separately, but rather how could they have put the interests of their institutions before that of the children.
From time immemorial the greatest sin of religion has been to put doctrines before people, ritual before individuals, sacred principles before human dignity. According to this belief, instead of religion existing in order for people to benefit from it, instead people serve the interests of religion. Therefore, where there is a conflict between the two, religion must take precedence.
So, if a child is being abused by an employee of a religious school, the school must be put first. After all, it teaches Torah. The child is precious. But he is secondary. There are bigger interests at stake. If forced to choose between them, the reputation of the institution comes first. The child becomes expendable.
God must always take precedence.
Seventy years after the Holocaust we see the same error, made in the offensive and disgusting belief, articulated by some rabbis, that the Holocaust was punishment for sin. Here, the same conflict arises.
Six million Jews died. Where was God to stop the carnage? If we say that God did not care to intervene, we dishonor the Torah and Judaism. So therefore we must put the blame on the people. Why weren’t they saved? Because they desecrated the Sabbath, intermarried, and put their German identity before their Jewish heritage. (Incidentally, aside from the perverse and vile theology, which I dedicated an entire book called “The Fed-Up Man of Faith” to refuting, this is a factually ridiculous belief, since approximately 70 percent of German Jews survived the Holocaust while the God-fearing chasidim of Poland went up the smoke stacks of Auschwitz.)
This is perhaps religion’s greatest sin, to preserve the faith at the expense of people.
The rabbis who failed to protect the children of various Jewish day schools no doubt were and are virtuous. Many are volunteers with years of dedicated service to the community. So how could they have overlooked egregious violations against defenseless children? They loved the children. But they loved their Judaism even more. Yes, the road to cover-up often is paved with the very best of intentions.
What I am saying is that the failure to protect innocent children from abuse is not limited to sexual scandal. It is, rather, a systemic problem in our faith, and indeed in world religion, that the faith must always come first.
But what if those who harbor this belief are wrong? What if people are supposed to come first? What if Judaism actually is designed to protect people, as opposed to people being created to protect Judaism?
Is this not what Pirkei Avot says? “The Holy One, blessed be He, desired to perfect the Jewish people. He therefore gave them Torah and mitzvos.”
Is this not also what Moses himself believed? God told the great prophet that after the sin of the Golden Calf he had no choice but to annihilate the people because of their sin. Moses’ response is striking. Do so if you wish. But remove my name from the Torah you have written.
In other words, if Judaism is a doctrine that condemns the people, then I wish to have no part of it. Disconnect me from the faith.
Amazingly, God concedes the point. The people are spared. Individuals are put before the law.
Some reading this will find it blasphemous. But is it not the case that the ultimate blasphemy is when children are at risk and we rabbis do not protect them? Is it not a far greater calumny when millions of non-Jews read about the pain and suffering of children whose interests were subordinated to the reputation of an Orthodox Jewish institution?
In the final analysis, Yeshivah College in Melbourne, and the Yeshiva Center in Sydney, where I spent two years of my life helping to found its rabbinical college, both are institutions of the Lubavitcher rebbe. What distinguished this great man and made him the unparalleled giant of modern Jewish history who revolutionized the Jewish world was precisely this: He put people before Judaism.
To the Jews who were treated as infidels for eating pork or driving on the Sabbath, the rebbe extended an open hand. To those Jews who married outside the community, the rebbe sent his emissaries to lay tefillin. And to those adult males who were not even circumcised, the rebbe made available facilities that would bring them into God’s covenant. At all places and at all times the Jews came first, the Torah second.
For there is no Torah without the Jewish people.
What is needed now is for we rabbis to repent fully of our sin. To come forward to the community and ask forgiveness for any cover-up, however virtuous the intention. To man up and resign if we abrogated our responsibility of protecting children. To stop taking half-measures in dealing with the crisis. To clean the slate utterly if that is what is required. And, after doing the hard and humiliating work of taking full responsibility for our actions, begging forgiveness from those we have wronged, and resigning from positions where we failed, it is perhaps the duty of the community to begin to forgive.
For people always must come first.