1. As the date for this year’s Limmud Conference draws nearer, the Jewish community is able to put aside the distracting trivialities of past months – minor irritations like discovering that the rabbinate is completely unable to provide an effective system for investigating allegations of sexual abuse by rabbis – and concentrate on the all-important task of infighting.
2. The Limmud controversy is enlivened this year by two novelties. First, the new Chief Rabbi Mirvis has publicly announced his intention of attending. Secondly, in response, letters have been published by orthodox rabbis denouncing the event.
3. The fact that Chief Rabbi Mirvis has decided to go is hardly startling. Since he opened his term of office by declaring his wish to act for all kinds of Judaism – progressive as well as orthodox – he would have lost every shred of credibility that declaration carried had he refused to attend the main pluralist and inclusive event in the communal calendar. Nor does it require particular courage: it will make no difference to the chareidi community’s attitude to his chief rabbinate – when it suits them they will use him and when it doesn’t they won’t. (It probably won’t make any real difference to the progressive communities’ attitudes to him either; they will pocket the gesture and demand more, pushing him beyond wherever he draws his boundaries in order to assert their need for separate recognition by the secular authorities.)
4. The letters of condemnation are pretty futile too. With one exception, those that I have seen are very much in the “preaching to the converted style”, and do not even pretend to argue in a way that will convince anyone who needs convincing. The one exception is a modern orthodox Rabbi who has written a brilliant description of his personal attitudes to the event.
5. The battle – trivial, parochial and communally-self-absorbed as it is – has of course been lost years ago. Outside Chareidi circles, it has long been regarded as intolerant and bigoted to object to Limmud.
6. So perhaps this is a reasonable time to remember that Judaism has always been, theologically speaking, intolerant and bigoted. In human terms, Jews have always been - if they follow their religion – generous, humble and unlimitedly tolerant in their dealings with Jews and non-Jews alike. In theological terms, there is no room in orthodox Judaism for compromise, or for acceptance that any other religion or version of religion has any truth that is not also found in orthodox Judaism itself.
7. It is this theological intolerance that would lead many orthodox Jews to feel uncomfortable at an event that has pluralism and the acceptance of pluralism at its heart. They like their educational events to take place in an atmosphere of respect for orthodoxy as the only authentic version of Judaism. The presence of progressive educators being presented as equally valid sources of education and inspiration as orthodox rabbis would be enough to make many orthodox Jews feel profoundly uncomfortable.
8. All very bigoted and intolerant: but I wonder if the spirit of tolerance and generosity that prevails at Limmud (or so I am told) can find room to feel tolerant and generous spirited towards those of us who stay away because we genuinely believe that our religion requires us to be bigoted and intolerant? (Or is it, perhaps, infected with an intolerance and inverted bigotry of its very own?)
1. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking part in a Shabbos afternoon panel at Alei Tzion shul in Hendon, chaired by its Rabbi Daniel Roselaar, and consisting of Dayan Lichtenstein, Rabbi Michael Pollack and myself. The subject was whether rabbinic authority is damaged beyond repair by recent events in the UK, Israel and America.
2. You can see an account of the discussion here: http://youandus.theus.org.uk/communities-focus/alei-tzion-hosts-summer-debate-rabbinic-authority-in-the-21st-century-damaged-beyond-repair/.
3. I see from that account that I called for an independent regulatory body to work across all Botei Din.
4. And so I did; the idea had been wooffling around in my mind for some time, but the event somehow crystallised it into a simple thought.
5. The catalyst was something that Rabbi Pollack said: in a helpful attempt to keep the event peaceful and constructive he observed that most rabbis of course do a good job. In an unhelpful attempt to keep the event provocative and constructive I disagreed, and said that by and large our rabbis do a fairly mediocre job, and that we have come to expect so little from them that our expectations are easily exceeded by very moderate performance.
6. How often is a rabbi commended as wonderful for having visited a parishioner in hospital when that is no more than precisely what he is paid a hefty salary for doing? I am all in favour of rabbis and other workers being commended for performing beyond the call of duty, but that should be tested against a reasonably exacting and challenging initial threshold of what that duty should be.
7. We do have some wonderful and inspiring rabbis in the UK community today; and we have very few really bad ones; but we have a fair number of unimpressively mediocre ones; and with the system as it stands there is little impetus for them to strive to improve themselves as a profession.
8. Recent events have shown the lack of a disciplinary body, such as other professions have, for dealing with misconduct by rabbis that is not, or may not be, criminal in nature. But on reflection I see that there is an equal need for a body that can deal with issues that are not about misconduct, but merely poor performance (along the lines of the Medical Professional Performance Act that I drafted in 1995).
9. The more I think about the idea, the more useful I think it could be; and it really need not be very complicated to establish.
10. We need a group of communal activists who are prepared to act as an unpaid disciplinary body for rabbis, including a chair with experience in employment law and a panel of unpaid rabbinic advisers. Hopefully nobody would be called on to act very often, and the body could sit in separate panels (as do many professional regulatory bodies) each consisting of perhaps one person with employment law experience and two or three lay-members, with a rabbi in a purely advisory capacity.
11. Complaints about poor performance and misconduct could be referred to this body in accordance with its rules.
12. Now comes the simple bit – every new contract offered by any congregation would include a clause providing for all complaints about poor performance or misconduct to be considered by the disciplinary body in accordance with its rules. The rabbi and the employing organisation would agree to be bound by the body’s decisions.
12. There are one or two more details that might need to be thought through – but that is the essence. (Halachic enforcement considerations are significant but not insurmountable.)
13. One result would be to provide real protection for the community from misconduct and inefficiency by rabbis – much more importantly, however, the system could serve as the basis for new professional standards that rabbis could set for themselves, and therefore as a mechanism for restoring trust in, and the moral authority of, the profession that is meant to be the backbone of our religion.
- Tomorrow morning iy’h the North Hendon Adath Yisroel Synagogue will hold an Extraordinary General Meeting to decide whether or not to leave the UOHC.
- I hope and pray that we do leave, if only for the selfish reason that then I will be able to return and daven in my local shul to which I have belonged for about 20 years. For the last two weeks I have felt unable to set foot inside the building, and this post explains why.
- Abuse of the vulnerable is a natural human temptation, and it is therefore inevitable that in any community someone will sooner or later be abused by someone else.
- The test of a community is not whether it can prevent abuse, but how it handles abuse when it happens or is alleged.
- Indian society today is having to take a long and painful look at itself to work out how it has allowed attitudes to women to deteriorate to such a degree that abusive and violent treatment of women had become so commonplace that the atrocity that occurred a few days ago was simply waiting to happen (or had already happened further from the public, and international, eye).
- Catholic society around the world has been having to take a long and painful look at itself for some time to work out how child abuse had become in effect tolerated and condoned by a religious institution.
- Until very recently, many orthodox Jews may have had our fears that perhaps abuse – which must inevitably occasionally happen in our community since we are as susceptible to human failings as any other community – may not have been being handled properly. But I for one have not felt it necessary to confront these fears openly and investigate them – perhaps I should have done, but to look the other way is another strong human temptation.
- In the words of one of the most powerful activism songs of all time, “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry? … How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”.
- The crying is now too loud to pretend not to hear it; and to turn ones head in today’s situation makes one morally complicit in what is happening.
- The Torah law of sexual offences makes an important distinction. Where a woman has an adulterous relationship in a populated area, she is unable in effect to plead that she was forced because the Torah asks why she did not cry out; in the countryside, however, the Torah plaintively notes “maybe she did cry out and there was nobody to hear”, and expands that maybe she did not cry out only because she knew there was nobody there.
- The women of India had almost given up crying out at the degrading treatment to which many of them are treated every day, because they feared that in one of the most densely populated areas of the world there was still nobody who cared to hear them: they have just found new voice, and one hopes and prays that the ears of all Indian society will listen.
- The vulnerable of the London orthodox Jewish community have apparently just cried out. A number of specific allegations of abuse have been made against one of the most powerful and respected Rabbis of the community. I am not required or able to pass judgment on whether these allegations are true or false: but as a member of the community I am morally obliged to satisfy myself that the cries of the vulnerable are listened to in an appropriate way.
- There is only one appropriate way to listen to allegations of abuse in our community. Our botei din have no criminal jurisdiction; so in any matter of law that is not confined to a dispute between individuals about property matters that can be arbitrated under the Arbitration Act 1996, we are obliged both as a matter of halachah and as a matter of secular law to present evidence of any alleged crime to the police, and evidence of any other kind of abuse of the vulnerable to appropriate civil authorities (such as the social services).
- If we believe that perhaps an allegation of abuse may not amount to an allegation of a criminal offence, whether because the acts complained of may have been consensual or for any other reason, we need to leave it to the police and the prosecuting authorities to look at the evidence and make a decision. It is not for us to decide, for example, whether apparent consent is vitiated by having been obtained through undue influence or through fraudulent misrepresentations as to the halachic position; those are matters on which we could only speculate but the prosecuting authorities first, and possibly later the courts, are equipped and obliged to decide.
- If we are to be a God-fearing community, our self-regulation must be efficient and effective, and it must know its limitations and engage with those outside people and authorities who are available to take over where self-regulation is no longer available.
- The only proper response to anyone who comes to a rabbi with an allegation of having been abused is “get in my car and I will take you to the police station, I will stay with you while you make a statement to the police, and I will support to my last breath your right and duty to have your allegation investigated by the authorities of the State, so that wrong-doers can be punished and deterred, and other vulnerable people can be protected”.
- Members of our self-absorbed and insular community will of course be very reluctant to go to the police. It is never easy or pleasant for someone to make a complaint about a sexual offence. But many women, children and men have found the courage to go through the traumas of the court procedures, at horrendous personal emotional cost, in order to make sense of what has happened to them by using it to prevent the same from happening to others. Members of our community may have additional fears for themselves and their families: but outspoken support from the rabbis acting together can allay those fears, and if they do not provide that support then they do not deserve to be our rabbis.
- The fear of washing dirty linen in public is something I have never been able to understand. Dirty linen smells: to pretend there is no dirty linen in the cupboard deceives nobody. And why go through the charade of a pointless pretence anyway? It is no disgrace for ones linen to get dirty: but it is a disgrace not to take it to the wash in the same way as everybody else.
- To encourage people not to take criminal allegations to the criminal authorities, or to encourage them to use alternative, necessarily ineffective methods of “resolving” potentially criminal matters, rests on a failure to understand the halachic implictions of the law of mesirah as it applies in the context of the political and legal structures of the United Kingdom today. The Torah forbids recourse to the secular courts in matters where a Beis Din is competent; and it forbids recourse even in other matters to an arbitrary, unjust and inherently anti-semitic system. There are no Cossacks in the UK today; and although the police and courts are not perfect, and miscarriages of justice will occur, there are mechanisms for righting even those; and they are not as inevitable to begin with as the injustice that is bound to occur when criminal allegations are dealt with in an informal manner by people who are neither trained nor appointed to assess them, nor have effective remedies to deal with them.
- “Leave the rabbis to sort this out – we can make the place too hot to hold any perpetrators”, as well as resting on this halachic misconception, can result only either in perverts being shunted from place to place to reoffend once people’s short memories have become confused with the passage of time, or in innocent people being driven from their homes and their livelihoods based on insufficiently tested evidence. This behaviour is not only wilfully ineffective, but may, depending on the precise circumstances, amount to the criminal offence of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
- As for behaviour which after full analysis of the available evidence, and full cooperation from the community, the police or the Crown Prosecution Service decide is not criminal, or is not sufficiently evidenced to make a conviction likely, at that point the question of self-regulation arises again. The rabbis need to have, as do the medical and other professions, a process for dealing with allegations of professional impropriety not involving (or not necessarily involving) criminality. That procedure needs to be transparent and efficient, following due process in an accountable and public way (subject to such privacy as is justified in individual cases for publicly recorded reasons); and it needs to engage effective and proportionate remedies.
- I can happily belong to a community in which I am not the only imperfect human being; I cannot belong to a community in which my silence is part of the collective cowardice and institutional inertia that allows the cries of the vulnerable to go unheard.
- North Hendon has always been a remarkable community. If nothing demogs like demography, in the same way few things geog like geography: as a result of being set a little apart physically from the rest of the orthodox Jewish community, we have always had a degree of objectivity. Now is a time to put that objectivity, and its consequent clarity of vision, to good purpose, and to show the rest of the community the way: leaving the Union may be only a small gesture, and it may only be a start, but it is at least a start to putting our community back on the sound moral basis which is its only justification for existing in the first place.
- One way or another, a crashing injustice has been done and the London Jewish orthodox community should feel utterly ashamed of itself.
- If Chaim Halpern did not abuse his position as a counsellor, then the community has allowed an innocent man to be hounded from positions of respect as a result of malicious gossip.
- If he did abuse his position as a counsellor, then the community has sent a loud message to his victims that the closest they can expect to get to anything like justice is a messy cover-up.
- If I were a girl or woman in the community today who was experiencing abuse from a communal leader, I would look at what has happened here and despair. I would not contact the police, because I would be afraid to; and I would not contact the rabbis, because the most I could expect would be a kangaroo court in one of their houses resulting in some kind of messy compromise.
- Mi k’amcho Yisroel – Who is like your people Israel? How often do we hear our leaders trumpet this phrase as they congratulate the community on its warmth and our kindness to each other.
- That is absolutely worthless if there are victims in our community who are being allowed to cry themselves to sleep at night because nobody cares enough to stand up for them.
- If Chaim Halpern abused women – whether or not he committed assault or any other crime – he should be publicly stripped of the title Rabbi and he should be placed in cheirem – excommunication – by every single rabbi in the area.
- If Chaim Halpern did not abuse women – then every single Rabbi in the area should sign a paper stating that if anyone has evidence that he did they are not just permitted, but obliged, to take it to the police, and that unless and until a charge is brought the Rabbi is publicly upheld as a righteous and innocent person.
- That neither of these things have happened, but a messy “deal” has been done behind closed doors, is such a disgrace that we cannot take ourselves seriously as a religious community until it is put right.
- The Rabbis need to make one thing absolutely clear. If a person is abused by anyone in the community, whether or not they are sure that a crime has been committed, they are under a halachic duty to go to the police, and the Rabbis will give every encouragement and support to people who come forward in these circumstances. No closed-sessions of rabbis in each others’ houses; no appointments of local lawyers to take down evidence and have it looked at by ad hoc Batei Din. Just a simple commitment to use the competent authorities of the State for those matters in which they are competent and the Beis Din is not (using the word competent in its legal sense).
- This must not be allowed to blow over. Each one of us who belongs to the orthodox Jewish community in London will be confronted on the day of judgment and asked: Why did you, the Jewish public, allow this to go on in your name?
- Irrespective of who is the victim.
1. The sudden reversal of the public image of Jimmy Savile reminds me of one of the few strong points that institutional religions still have going for them.
2. Children raised in any environment, religious or secular, will look around for role models, because human beings are naturally imitative and inspiration is a human need.
3. In an environment that does not subscribe to religion or another all-encompassing philosophy, there is no choice but to seek inspiration in individuals. Many children, and adults, are left with nothing to look up to but the public images of footballers or singers, even though they can inspire people to nothing more than the acquisition of wealth and obsession with self-gratification, neither of which are particularly helpful life-goals.
4. How often must Savile have been held up as a particularly inspiring role model, since his celebrity was so largely earned by and directed to the doing of purely secularly-inspired good deeds, from volunteering as a hospital porter to realising the dreams of those in distress? But in the space of a few days, the inspirational value of his life is reduced to less than nothing, recalling Undy Scott’s dismissive summary of a fellow corrupt politican in Trollope’s The Three Clerks: ”Yesterday he was a god; to-day he is a devil; to-morrow he’ll be a man again; that’s all.”
5. In CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, a young woman raised in a vehemently anti-religious environment turns to a fellow member of a resistance movement who has dared to doubt the wisdom of its leader and asks him indignantly whether there is no such thing as loyalty. Her colleague, a staunch atheist product of a religious background, turns to her with “generations of Calvinists glinting in his eyes” (I cannot find the book just now, but the actual quote is much better than that!) and remarks something along the lines of “Young lady, indeed there is, and as you grow older you will find that it is too precious a commodity to lavish on individual personalities”.
6. Organised religion is not without its problems; indeed, sometimes it seems to me to have little but problems left. But it has one immeasurably important advantage: take away the rabbi, priest, imam or other leader who has been preaching the religion, expose him or her as a hypocrite, and the religion remains. Catholicism has been damaged by the revelations of priestly misbehaviour; but it has not been destroyed, because there is more to it than belief in individual personalities. If one exponent of the religion is revealed as a shallow fraud, one can always look for another whose life is enriched by his or her religious conviction; and human frailty and dignity being what they are, one will always find both.
7. As I bored my children by repeating, with very few exceptions indeed nobody is quite as good or quite as bad as they appear to the outside world. Children who grow up without being offered anything other than individuals to look up to are being condemned to a life of inevitable disappointment.
- As the Tal law exempting religious (“Chareidi”) Jews in Israel from military service finally expires amid confusion as to what will succeed it, I declare an interest. My younger son is a strictly-orthodox Jew: he follows the Code of Jewish Law as meticulously as anyone in the Chareidi community, and his rabbis are as pious and learned as anyone in the Chareidi community. He emigrated to Israel last summer and has already been signed up for military service, although he could have avoided it pretty much forever had he chosen to.
- But my son prefers to be able to look himself in the face in the morning than to avoid army service.
- If you live in a country where the borders need guarding, then you take your turn in guarding them: otherwise, what are you but a coward and a parasite, living off the efforts of others?
- The argument that one often hears – that by studying in yeshivah a boy does more to invoke divine protection of Israel than any soldier can achieve – holds good for a tiny minority of boys who are such devoted and successful scholars that not one man or woman in Israel would wish to disturb their studies, or would think them more useful in the army than in the yeshivah. By definition, however, these boys will have the humility not to see themselves as anything special, and they will wish to take their turn in the army along with everyone else, and will have to be restrained.
- Anyone who protests that he is too good or too holy for the army proves the falseness of the proposition by making it.
- As to the suggestion that army life will corrupt boys, it is either complete nonsense or a horrendous indictment of the Chareidi educational system that needs to be corrected whether or not their boys go into the army.
- Israel has stumbled by blind degrees into a situation that would now be farcical if it were not so tragic. Boys hiding behind their religous books in order to evade army service don’t damage the army, but they threaten the nature and future of Israel as a Jewish State, which can be justified only when all Jews present a united front, held together by love and respect for each other, with our cultural and religious differences simply enhancing our overall unity.
- If I were a non-religious Israeli today I would hate Judaism. I would look at the many tens of thousands of Jews who tell each other how superior they are to me, and live a life characterised by cowardice. I would see the orthodox boys who come from abroad to learn in yeshivah, and whose wives become immigrants in order to collect welfare benefits while they themselves remain foreign-nationals in order to evade army service; and I would be disgusted with them, with their rabbis who allow it, and with their God in whose name it is done.
- The crisis over the Tal law has little or nothing to do with the army, but it has everything to do with the health of the nation. For those of us who believe that God protects Israel and the Jewish people only while they deserve protection, finding a solution that allows the Chareidi world to recover its self-respect by playing a full and equal part in society is the last chance.
1. I was asked to write something about the case of Ronite Bitton.
2. Details of her case are already available on the internet. In essence, she is facing a lengthy term of imprisonment, in addition to terms already served, because she is accused of having removed her son to Israel and arranged for him to disappear, in order to avoid the possibility of his being ordered to return to live with his father in Belgium.
3. There are plenty of impassioned pleas and opinions about the case in various places on the internet. I am not going to add to their number: apart from anything, I have had no opportunity to check the truth of any of the factual assertions made in the case.
4. Whatever the facts, the case is a reminder that the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction can be a two-edged sword. The Convention was designed as a tool against injustice and a way of imposing rule of law among the 80 or so signatory countries. A fantastic idea: to protect children from being dragged from one country to another in order to evade justice or to frustrate orders of courts made with their welfare in mind.
5. But all legal systems can go wrong: and what happens if one legal system, whether through corruption or incompetence, threatens to detroy a child’s life? Like diplomatic immunity or extradition, the only way the Convention system can operate is by unquestioning respect by each participant for each other participant’s processes, even in cases where they seem to have miscarried. As soon as you allow a participant to examine the quality of justice in a particular case, the system starts to break down and to become infected by political and other considerations.
6. So can the Convention be used to enforce injustice? Yes, of course it can.
7. If the assertions made on Ronite’s behalf are true, she has been the victim both of this inflexibility of the Convention, and also of actual injustices and failures within the Israeli judicial system.
8. In the United Kingdom now there is a Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is able to review criminal cases independently and, if they believe that justice may have miscarried, instigate fresh proceedings. Perhaps the Convention needs to have a similar system on an international scale so that, without compromising the automatic nature of the Convention as a general rule, there is a non-political and independent way of intervening in cases where the Convention appears to have been used as a weapon of injustice, whether through corruption or incompetence. I have a troubled feeling that if such a body were to exist it would find more than enough cases to occupy it.
9. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone who feels strongly about injustice to access some of the petition and other sites about this particular case, to satisfy themselves as to the facts, and then to take any action they feel inclined to take, whether by signing a petition or otherwise publicising the case. A forgotten injustice will never be rectified: a publicised one just may be.