Sex scandal splits Orthodox Zionist world

Sex scandal splits Orthodox Zionist world

In a show of solidarity with Rabbi Mordechai Elon, young religious Zionists pray at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on Feb. 18. Kobi Gideon/FLASH90

TEL AVIV ““ Israel’s influential Orthodox Zionists have divided into two camps following a sexual-abuse scandal involving one of their most renowned and charismatic leaders, stoking fears for the future of rabbinic authority.

Takana, a rabbinic forum established in 2003 to clamp down on sexual misconduct by Orthodox educators, went public Feb. 15 with allegations that Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon had taken advantage of his influence over male students and performed “acts at odds with sacred and moral values.”

The panel later said that two people, whose complaints alleged acts from about 25 years ago, had been under 18 at the time. More recent alleged acts involved students of Elon who were 18 or older.

Since its initial disclosure, the panel said it has received one more complaint of an alleged underage encounter, but the complaint has yet to be reviewed.

Orthodox leaders and activists have split between those wishing to discuss the allegations openly and support the secular authorities investigating them, and those urging silence, lest the principle of rabbinic authority, which Elon embodied, come into question.

“I am telling everybody to keep silent,” the head of Jerusalem’s Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, told the Forward. He said the affair must not be allowed to undermine the rabbis’ authority.

But in deference to the stature of the Takana panel that exposed the allegations against Elon, Aviner also said, “I think we have to trust these and these – and respect these and these,” referring to Elon and the rabbis on the panel.

Other religious Zionist public figures are lauding the Takana rabbis as courageous, saying that making public allegations against one of their own is an important step in the right direction.

Jerusalem-based novelist Naomi Ragen told the Forward that while the affair is “tragic and heartbreaking,” she thinks that “the positive aspect is that we see a new era in that things which years ago would have been swept under the carpet are being brought into the open.”

Efforts by the Forward to reach Elon were unsuccessful. But he has publicly denounced the allegations against him as “a blood libel, a complaint without foundation.”

Elon is almost unique in his ability to so deeply cleave the religious Zionist community.

The son of former Supreme Court justice Menachem Elon and brother of former lawmaker Benny Elon, he has disciples in the thousands. He has held senior posts in several educational institutions, including Yeshivat Horev and the flagship rabbinic school Yeshivat HaKotel, both in Jerusalem.

He is widely known to religious elementary school children across the country who read his weekly publication, which carries cartoons along with his thoughts on the Torah portion. The secular public remembers him from a former television show on the weekly portion.

Yaakov Katz, a religious Zionist lawmaker, described the affair as an “earthquake.”

The impact on the religious Zionist community, according to Hanoch Daum, who writes for the news Website Ynet, must be reckoned by the fact that Elon “was not just another rabbi. He was a master and leader.”

The details of Elon’s alleged behavior and the precise ages of the complainants are unclear. Takana members say they must remain vague to protect the complainants’ identities.

What has given the allegations credibility among the public is the membership list of Takana, which reads like a who’s who of religious Zionism.

It includes Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, son-in-law of the late Modern Orthodox icon Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and head of the Har Etzion yeshiva in Gush Etzion, as well as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, founder of the Tzohar organization for Orthodox-secular reconciliation.

The Takana rabbis were clear about why they chose to make the sexual-abuse allegations public now, several years after they had been made aware of them.

The rabbis said that they tried unsuccessfully to persuade the complainants to go to the police. In 2006 they also approached then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who felt unable to probe the matter without the complainants’ cooperation.

The current attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, has told police to look into the allegations.

Stymied on the law-enforcement front, Takana rabbis said they demanded in 2006 that Elon cease face-to-face teaching, counseling, and other rabbinic activities; he agreed. That year he retired from his post at Yeshivat HaKotel and moved to the Galilee.

But the forum rabbis say that Elon failed to honor his commitment, leaving them, according to a statement they released, with “no other way to protect the public from possible future harm” than by going public.

The final straw was that Takana rabbis believed that Elon had resumed counseling young men on sexual matters.

The backlash was not long in coming.

Elisha Vishlitzky, an influential rabbi at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem and a longtime Elon associate, on Feb. 18 gathered 50 religious Zionist rabbis at a meeting, where they spoke of a desire to minimize public discourse on the affair.

At the forum Rabbi Haim Druckman, chairman of the Bnei Akiva yeshiva network, gave what appeared to be a coded message of support for Elon, citing a rabbinic dictum that if one sees a sage sin by night, one should “not pursue him about it” by day, as he will have repented.

Experts on the Religious Zionist community say the damage to rabbinic authority is unstoppable.

Ira Sharkansky, emeritus Hebrew University professor and expert on Orthodox Jewry, said given that leading rabbis are seen as inheritors of an ancient line of tradition, “the aura that surrounds a rabbi of Rav Elon’s stature brings a degree of prestige, and when the expectations are violated, it’s a shock to a foundation of the Orthodox community.”

The Forward

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