When the greater good is not good enough

When the greater good is not good enough

When we hear such comments as “Mussolini made the trains run on time,” or that some disgraced philanthropist should be remembered for the good he did before he got caught doing bad, does anyone today see these as valid excuses for bad behavior?

Should we shut our eyes and be comforted that the end, if it does not justify the means, at least excuses them? As long as a greater good was served, the evils that came before are rendered inconsequential?

Of course not. So why in some circles, all too often Orthodox ones, do we allow excuses to be made for serial do-badders? Why do we make excuses, for example, for certain teachers who are physically or mentally abusive to their students? “He may be guilty at times of what I would consider ‘tough love,'” the argument would go. He may be “going overboard” at times, but “he cares deeply about the students and wants to keep them on the straight path.” These are actual words from an actual defense. Why is it acceptable to us as an excuse when it comes to our children and their Torah education?

When I was a child in yeshivah on the Lower East Side, we had rabbis who hit us. Second grade was known for the yardstick knuckle smack-down, and parents rarely if ever complained when their children came home with bruises on their hands. For me, it was not until fifth grade when our rabbi, known for smacking his students, whacked me so hard that someone in my family took notice.

My mother probably thought the rabbi was doing her a favor, and so never said a word. My father no longer lived with us, but he probably would have agreed with his ex-wife on this one. My uncle – at the time, a charming-looking Burt Reynolds type, with a thick mustache, chest hairs coming out of his 1970s collared shirt, mirrored aviators (you get the picture) – walked into class one day and called the rabbi outside for a moment.

To this day, I do not know what they discussed, but I do know the rabbi never came near me again and my uncle never had to see him again, either.

I recall meeting an old friend a few years back, who gleefully recalled that day for me, as if that day offered a glimmer of hope for my friends who did not have someone who cared enough to know it was wrong. I did not become a great Judaic scholar, and I have made mistakes, but I grew up, went on to college, have a good career, and a wonderful family. My children are moral, respectful, and courteous young people and committed Jews.

If we are to follow the logic of the excuse-makers, however, perhaps had I been hit more, I might have been the next gadol hador (greatest Judaic scholar/leader in one’s lifetime). We will never know.

While I was in high school, my classmates – boys in grades older and younger alike – all knew of a certain school official who selectively chose wrestling partners from among the student body to engage in matches that, to some, appeared more intimate than sports-like. Whether it is because I was taller and bigger, or just not his type, I spent more time in his office, but never in his clutches. Yet, I knew people close to me who were targets; I knew people who were chosen more often than others; I also knew that “everyone” at school knew it, too.

He was close to board members, close to parents, and seemingly a good fundraiser. Many years after I graduated, this person finally moved for a short run to another boys’ school, then went into the institutional world. The cover-up went on because he was seemingly good for Jewish education and he made men out of boys. Most parents either were too scared to rock the boat, or thought the reports were more hype than real.

When I read an article in a school newspaper last week, written by a victim of this man who attended the school seven years earlier than I had, I realized that the behavior had gone on far longer than I had known, and much longer than it ever should have been allowed. I wondered, too, whether our silence back then made us – made me – in some way complicit. By assuming that “everyone” knew and that there was nothing for us to say or do, were we unwitting enablers?

What is it about the “Torah world” that makes allowances for such abuse – sexual, mental or physical? The behavior all too often is not just tolerated, it is protected and, in some cases, defended under the guise of the greater good that is being served.

When fundraising or a school’s reputation are involved, Jewish values and moral decency (they should be synonymous terms) are tossed aside. In some cases, the momentum for cover-up is so strong and the support base for the abuser is so vast, no one wants to be seen as the challenger. All too often, the community as a whole seems far better at attacking the accuser than uncovering the truth about the accused.

I recently heard a wonderful Shabbat sermon given by a well-regarded rabbi who spoke sternly against the inhumane treatment of women in Beit Shemesh and Meah She’arim at the hands of charedi extremists. Yet, one week later, this same rabbi defended a colleague despite evidence that the man may have psychologically abused some students. Instead of condeming the abuse, the rabbi chose to fall back on “the greater good” defense – “he cares deeply about the students and wants to keep them on the straight path.” Some might see this as cronyism, convenience, or simple hypocrisy. It happens all too often, however.

There are signs that this trend is changing, albeit small signs. When a religious school, run by some very prestigious orthodox rabbinical figures in New Jersey, suspected that a teacher may have been inappropriate with some students, officials immediately contacted the police. A second school, Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, also notified police as soon as it received similar information about the same teacher, who had been on its staff for a brief while.

The accused in this case was a woman, not a man and not a rabbi. I doubt that either school would have responded any differently had the accused been a rabbi, although I do have doubts about how other schools would react. In this instance – and surely because of the integrity of the leaders of these two chools – the right steps were taken and the welfare of children was placed above all else.

We – especially we who are Orthodox – need to ask ourselves why this is the exception, rather than the rule.