Responding to sexual misconduct

Responding to sexual misconduct

Local rabbis offer their thoughts on dealing with troubling allegations

Rabbi Daniel Fridman, left, Rabbi David Fine, and Rabbi Adina Lewittes
Rabbi Daniel Fridman, left, Rabbi David Fine, and Rabbi Adina Lewittes

Some issues are so complex, so nuanced, and so serious that they demand immediate and thoughtful attention.

Allegations of sexual misconduct are one such issue — but our responses tend to be more immediate than thoughtful.

With this in mind, and with the purpose of opening a productive dialogue, we have sought the opinions of several community rabbis. It is our hope that their perspectives will help inform our thinking and shape our responses to this increasingly painful issue, whether they — and we — address it from the pulpit, in our living rooms, or in the pages of a newspaper.

Daniel Fridman, who is Orthodox and the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, said, “The most important point is to take a step back and recognize that the consequences of misconduct and abuse, in all the different severities, are very serious. People carry these scars for their entire life. Obviously, there are gradations in abuse, but they’re all to be taken with a great degree of seriousness.”

And, he said, it is exactly because the offenses are so serious that we must take the process so seriously. “Commensurate to the seriousness of a violation is the need for a very clear process,” he said. “Some people feel that anyone who takes the position that we have to be extremely cautious with respect to the way we treat allegations, explicitly or implicitly, are minimizing the significance of what happened. No. The reason we have to be so careful with these allegations and accusations is the lasting damage done to people, be it the victims, of course, or those falsely accused.”

When it comes to the business world, Rabbi Fridman said, “Corporations are obliged legally and ethically and morally to have clear channels through which these complaints can be filed, to protect the person who may have been victimized and the way in which these allegations can be investigated.” As to Jewish institutions, he said that “each context has its own dynamic…and needs to have its own structure.”

Nevertheless, he continued, “There are three principles in all environments.

“First, anybody who may have been abused needs a safe way to report what they have experienced to responsible individuals, who will protect them from repercussions. We cannot hide behind the fact that no one reported any misconduct if they had very good reason to believe that they would be penalized for coming forward. Second, any environment has to safeguard the accused before anything is established as authoritative. They need to be protected as well. An accusation can have a life-altering effect for the accused. Finally, there needs to be a system where competent individuals can establish what actually happened.

“Halacha, in general, tried very hard to create systems that were in place that would avert these situations for all people,” Rabbi Fridman said. “In every respect, leaders and people associated with Torah have to hold to the highest standard. As the Talmud teaches, based on the prophetic verses, if the rabbi is like an angel of the Lord, in terms of personal conduct and rectitude, then one should seek Torah from him. But the halachic system tried hard to create a broad and systematic approach, germane to everybody — for example, ‘yichud,’ rules against people being in a secluded setting, providing a safeguard against ambiguous situations.

“While such rules are highly complex, and certain elements may be of Torah origin, while others are definitively rabbinic in origin, what is crucial is that they are not restricted to leaders. We are re-discovering how important these rules are,” Rabbi Fridman said.

Asked whether there might be a statute of limitations for sexual misconduct, and the relevance of Judaism’s provision for atonement and repentance, Rabbi Fridman said, “A statute of limitations is inherently a legal term, and should be dealt with in the legal system, when it has been established that a person has perpetrated some misconduct. What we’re talking about here is restoring that person to a particular communal or educational position.”

He gave the following example. “To determine whether an operation is necessary on Shabbat, halacha looks, in addition to the halachic considerations per se, to medical experts. In the case of sexual misconduct, we should similarly look to experts in the field of recidivism. What do we know about the likelihood of recidivism, following intensive counseling? And as regards the victim of an established violation, might it be profoundly traumatic to see alleged abuser restored to a position of communal leadership?

“One has to be absolutely certain that the question has been fully addressed, absolutely sure of not causing further grievous psychic harm,” he said. “Once someone has been established as an offender, even if the person is profoundly remorseful and has done sincere repentance, nonetheless, restoration to a position of communal trust cannot be reflexive. The mandate to judge each person favorably, as recorded in the celebrated Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, does not maintain with respect to the question of restoring a person to a position of communal influence and authority following established misconduct.

“On the contrary, the needs of past, and God forbid, future potential victims must be our primary consideration.”

Rabbi Fridman said that there are differences between halacha and secular law in what constitutes actual assault, in so far as the halacha was even more concerned about harmful and emotionally injurious speech, ona’at devarim. “Hurtful comments that can be very damaging are not necessarily the same thing as assault, but we have to be careful about suggesting, ‘It was only a comment,’ or ‘this kind of touching [is less harmful than] another kind of touching,’” he said. “While the distinctions are objectively true, the important part is the trauma of the individual in question.”

He cited the rabbinic teaching that embarrassing someone is in some way like killing him. “The rabbis are not being hyperbolic,” he said. “Verbal attacks can be life-altering, possibly irreparable. We need to continue to educate about hurtful remarks people may play over in their minds dozens of times a day, every single day.”

Asked about the privacy rights of people accused of misconduct, David Fine, the Conservative rabbi who leads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and is the newly elected president of the New Jersey Rabbinical Assembly said, “As rabbis, we are particularly sensitive to that. We give up a certain claim to privacy” in becoming religious leaders.

Calling it a matter of public trust, Rabbi Fine said that “those who serve the Jewish community bear a higher standard. It’s not the same as someone who works in a business.” Similarly, he said, those in public service “represent the community, not just themselves. They have a responsibility not only to the public, or those they serve, but toward the ideals and values” to which they have committed themselves.

He noted that Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who recently resigned from Congress following accusations of sexual impropriety, “said that himself. He recognized that. He understood that he was not in the Senate for himself but for the people of his state.”

Regarding journalists, he said, “I assume that there are standards against publishing ‘fake news.’ You have to apply the same standards as you would to any story: the newsworthiness of the story and the burden of factual proof.

“The most important thing with any organization or community is that since you never know when you’re going to have a crisis or tragedy, you need to have procedures and standards in place,” he added. For example, he said, synagogues must have bylaws and observe such procedures as Roberts Rules of Order.

Rabbi Fine pointed out that while Jews believe in repentance and atonement, “the ultimate arbiter is whether the community accepts the person.” He cited a story from the Talmud about a “butcher found to have been knowingly selling non-kosher meat. If he repents, as an individual, he’s forgiven. But it still will be hard for him to work as a butcher in that community. If he’s lost the trust of the community, he needs to resign and go to another community.”

Another example: “It’s written that a kohen who has a deformation in his hands shouldn’t duchen. That’s terribly unfair. He doesn’t deserve that. But it’s not only the judgment of an individual but of the community as well. A community may not be able to be served by that person, fair or not. No individual is entitled to serve the public.

“In Pirke Avot, in the first chapter, it says that when litigants come to you, assume they both are guilty. After you pass judgment, assume they both are innocent. Don’t give preference to one side because of your bias. Be harsh and interrogate both sides, but when they leave, understand that while you had to come to a conclusion, you may be wrong.” Personal judgment is not infallible, he said. “Ultimately, it’s in God’s hands.”

When someone has been accused of causing harm, “If we’re in the position of protecting people, that must always come first,” Rabbi Fine said. “Don’t pass judgment on the person, but the standard procedure is that the person is removed from the situation until it can be resolved. Remove them from active duty until you look at the evidence. If it’s at least credible, you can’t not act on it. You have a responsibility.”

Asked if we as a community have become less tolerant of sexual misbehavior, Rabbi Fine said, “I don’t want to believe that we were ever more tolerant of this as a society, but now we’re more attuned to these questions. This is a discussion that starts with the revelations about the president. Ultimately, it’s a very healthy discussion for our society to have. It’s long overdue.”

It’s not a partisan thing, he stressed, noting President Clinton’s sexual misdeeds, “but when the top dugma” — role model — “of the country sets a dubious to negative example, that will trigger a national discussion. That’s natural, coming from the exemplar-in-chief.”

Sexual misconduct happens throughout the country, Rabbi Fine said. “Clearly, there’s not the kind of equality between men and women in the workforce that we would like to see.” But a vigorous national discussion “can ultimately help us make progress. We need to be wary and not jump up and down as rumors are spread, but people need to feel comfortable about speaking out when they’ve been wronged.”

Adina Lewittes of Closter, who earned rabbinical smicha at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and is the founder and leader of Sha’ar Communities as well as a part-time interim rabbi at New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, talked about “the outrage many of us felt at the end of October when allegations came tumbling in, in part about [Harvey] Weinstein, but also about the unconscionable behavior of the network of individuals in service of his devious plans, who were enabling him, and about the culpability one shares when one chooses silence over speaking out.

“In the language of Talmud, silence can be easily misconstrued” as condoning the act in question, she said. “That’s not okay. Even though people feared for their jobs and livelihood and consequences to their family in speaking up, tradition teaches us the difference between earning money in ways that are dignified, honest, and true, and earning it in another way that compromises our dignity.” She cited a blessing recited by her mother, and now by her, asking that we be given the opportunity to make good the works of our hands in ways that are noble, righteous, and holy.

Rabbi Lewittes also stressed the “extreme humility with which we have to weigh decisions about publicizing the allegations.” Acknowledging the challenge this poses to journalists, she said, “It is important for people — editors, writers, etc. — to have a space to wrestle with these things and not be caught up in the frenzy.” They should not have to worry about a decision’s affect on the bottom line, she said. Rather, such decisions must be made “with a whole different set of variables and values. Torah is very clear in the instruction in Vayikra not to be spreading gossip, but the same verse says not to stand by the blood of a fellow human being. If it can prevent further harm, we have an obligation” to make such information public. “This doesn’t mean that every accusation presents the same danger and obligations. We have to be more sophisticated in our decision-making.”

As she wrote recently in a synagogue publication, “Jewish ethics are based not on rights but on responsibilities — to oneself, to one another, and to the community. Protecting an individual’s privacy is, then, a Jewish ethical imperative. But not at the expense of communal well-being, or of another’s safety.”

Readers have responsibilities as well, she wrote. “Refraining from spreading accusations, restraining our appetite for sordid details, and calling for due process to ensure a just resolution to these cases are steps that neither dismiss the accuser nor defend the accused. They are moves that promote the values and vision of a community grounded in an ethics of responsibility, not of rights; of righteousness, not of self-righteousness.”

Rabbi Lewittes pointed out that usually when people hear about allegations, they absorb that information and talk about it. But “rarely do they take the time to follow up on the next step, the nuances of resolution. The branding has already been done. It’s next to impossible to restore fully a once-tainted reputation.” In this regard, she cited Proverbs, which holds that the tongue has the power of life and death.

On the issue of repentance, she said, “I think that we ought to be having difficult and complicated conversations about the role of teshuvah.” Pointing out that “life gets very messy and people do disturbing things,” she said, “it’s important to wrestle with the question of how and when teshuvah can be done and how it is we will know that teshuvah has been done. How trusting can we be of the internal and external processes of rehabilitation?”

Should we in any way equate the misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein with those of, say, Al Franken? “If we are going to deal with these issues responsibly and sensitively, we have to have the capacity for a nuanced, sophisticated conversation about them,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “Not to say that any act of abuse or exploitation should be dismissed, but we need to have the capacity to have sophisticated enough conversations to be able to distinguish among them. Losing this power will not help anyone, the accuser or the accused.”

She hopes that public discussion will spur “vigorous renewed commitment to treating every human being, regardless of gender, sexual preference, or ethnicity, with the utmost dignity and respect, which every human being is due.”

Both women and men can be victims of sexual exploitation, she said, and she hopes that victims of abuse will feel “increased empowerment, not to be silenced by power dynamics or threats.” Seeing so many other people come forward “will hopefully give people who dare to think that they could hurt another person and get away with it, cause to rethink. We have to be morally, ethically, and spiritually diligent to make sure justice is served, and that those who need to be held accountable are held accountable.”

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