To tell or not to tell, that is the question

Long ago, the Talmud weighed whether or not offenders should be publicly condemned.

haredi 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It's the season for Orthodox scandal. From New York to Jerusalem, from Beit Shemesh to Melbourne, shocking tales of adultery and child abuse, infidelity and incest within the Jewish world are making front-page headlines. The latest incidents - a mother of eight beating her two youngest to the point of hospitalization, with no recovery predicted for the toddler; a mother of 12, practicer and preacher of an extreme form of female modesty, allegedly whipping and humiliating her children, several of whom admitted to incestuous relationships; the principal of a prestigious Orthodox Melbourne school dismissed for sexual molestation - remind us once again that the Orthodox community is not immune to the plagues of the larger one. Is it right and proper - constructive or destructive - to air this dirty linen in public, to name names, to splash the story for all to see? Or should we adopt the sha-shtill posture which castigates the whistle-blower? The observant are fearful of transgressing the prohibition of lashon hara - gossiping, rumor-mongering and character assassination that provides passing prurient pleasure to the perpetrator but causes untold, indelible damage to the victim. Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen was known as the Chofetz Chaim, from the verse, "Who is a lover of life? He who guards his tongue from speaking evil." He popularized the notion that tight lips and forbearance - that is, not everything that can be said should be said - provides a sure path to integrity, kindness and Jewish unity. Often, the word not spoken is the truest word of all. On other side of the equation is the public's right to know and the need to protect society from those perverse individuals who prey upon the young or vulnerable. Protecting others from being cheated by a con man or abused by a serial molester is a societal need that overrides the individual's right to privacy. Even the Chofetz Chaim permitted the release of information that protects a potential spouse or future employer from being victimized. IN A FAMOUS incident, a well-known American rabbi was visited by a man who confessed that he had just murdered his wife. The rabbi asked the man to wait in his study while he instructed his secretary to hold all calls. He then promptly phoned the police and informed them that there was a killer in his synagogue. Sanctuary? Rabbi-client confidentiality? "None of these apply," he explained, "when there is a menace to society on the loose. Our first responsibility is to take this killer off the streets before he kills someone else." The cover-up can be even more disgraceful than the crime. In many cases, the abuses are widely known for some time before anything is done about them. In the infamous Lanner case in New Jersey, numerous rabbinic officials were aware that this youth adviser was abusing young people, but were reluctant to come forward. They either "did not want to get involved," or felt the rabbi was too effective in his position to let him go. Only when someone of great courage stepped forward did the news come out; only when the story was picked up by a courageous editor - Gary Rosenblatt, in this case - did the case go to court, and justice, of a sort, was done. THE PROBLEM with taking a hush-hush attitude is two-fold: Many sexual offenders will move on to a new city, a new job, and repeat their abuses there. The fox always tends to find a new hen-house. Secondly, without publicity, the victims may never be identified and helped. Long ago, the Talmud (Moed Katan 17) discussed just this issue. A prominent scholar was alleged to have committed various sexual improprieties. While the rumors about him were widespread, the scholar was also an important member of the community who influenced budding young scholars. The sage Rabbi Yehuda agonized over whether or not he should publicly condemn the man and ostracize him. Though this would justly punish him for his actions, it would also rob the community of a valuable asset and could create a hilul Hashem (desecration of God's name) when it became public. Rabbi Yehuda chose condemnation, and refused to repeal his decision. Years later, on his deathbed, Rabbi Yehuda faced the scholar, and smiled. "Do you now mock me as well as having condemned me?" asked the scholar. "No," said the sage. "I smile because I had the courage to condemn you for your crime and to hold fast to my convictions. In heaven, that will hold me in good stead, and the angels will smile upon me, too." There is little to laugh about in these lurid events. Let us just ponder, as we consider whether to reveal or conceal, whether the ultimate Judge will smile upon us for the path we take. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. [email protected]