Anyone avidly following the Jewish blogosphere over the last 10 years knows that there are certain topics that have consistently remained topics of discussion over that time even as other subjects have risen and fallen in general interest. The number one topic, it seems, is the existence and prevalence of physical and sexual abuse in the Jewish community, especially of children. Even a casual perusal of such leading blogs as Failed Messiah and The Unorthodox Jew demonstrate how this subject maintains a high level of importance in discourse.
Into this discussion comes Michael Lesher's book, Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities. I bought it with great interest and in the hope that it would be more than just a regurgitation of all the material I've been reading on-line over the last several years along with a predictable rant against Orthodox Judaism. Unfortunately I was disappointed as much of the book turned out to be exactly that.
A good portion of the book deals with many of the high profile stories that have appeared in the media and on the Internet over the last decade and before. This is important because, although one might think that Lesher is rehashing old material, due to the sheer amount of physical and sexual abuse stories coming out of the Jewish community, chalilah, there might be a fear that over time such incidents would become like background noise and lose prominence in people's attention. Lesher deftly details the multiple incidents in a way that sends a clear message: each of these stories is important, each must be paid attention to for the way justice was miscarried and for the way the rabbinic leadership of the various communities helped perpetuate the abuse and because these are just the tip of the iceberg. In this regard Lesher is doing a huge service to the victims to ensure their suffering is not forgotten and to perhaps push forward justice for future victims.
Lesher notes how modern rabbinic leadership (and, citing history, it seems it isn't just the last century or so but much further back) demands absolute control of the Torah community and insists on the individual sublimating his desires and goals to those of that community as represented by the leadership. In such a framework children lose their identity as precious gifts from Heaven to be nurtured and protected and instead become cogs in the machine. And like any cog that doesn't function well, a community member, including a child, that doesn't play the stereotypical role to perfection as demands by the rabbonim is cast out lest the machine be damaged. This attitude is what is behind the Orthodox obsessions with concealing physical and sexual abuse at the expense of justice or even empathy for the victim. The imperative that the community's public appearance of spiritual and moral perfection must not be damaged trumps all else. One cannot avoid feeling rage as Lesher details case after case where rabbonim who should and did know better sacrificed innocent children and their families in their name of their version of Orthodox Judaism.
Lesher also deals with the topic from a halachic aspect, albeit simplistically. He correctly notes how the initiative of the Chofetz Chayim, ztk"l, to eliminate loshon horo from the Torah community has backfired and is now used to protect abusers even though the Chofetz Chayim himself detailed how his rules did not apply in dangerous situations such as there. He discussed mesirah and how is does not apply in modern cases of abuse in Western societies and how the charge is used improperly and maliciously to protect abusers and intimidate victims and their families. One of my disappointments with this section is that he did not go into greater halachic detail but he's not a Rav so this isn't surprising. Certainly his superficial treatment of the subject is complements by existing books written by bona fide talmidei chachamim.
The final part of the book deals with specific suggestions for dealing with abuse within the Jewish community. Lesher appeals to the Orthodox laity and strongly suggests that we demand moe responsible leadership from our rabbonim. He reminds us repeatedly that loving our children is one of our most important values which has been perverted and demeaned by a leadership that wants our loyalty even at the expense of our children's health and safety. His appeal is heartfelt and his basic suggestions are meaningful although sadly the audience that most needs to read them will likely never even see a copy of his book.
So why was I disappointed with the book? The problem wasn't with the basic material or even many of Lesher's suggestions but the overall tone of the writing. Now Lesher was clearly in a difficult position. One simply cannot write dispassionately about child abuse outside of a strictly clinical setting such as a medical journal. Has Lesher tried to be emotionless his material would have had far less impact than it did. There is, however, a fine line between urgency and being shrill and several times in the book Lesher crosses that line. I can't fault him for doing so; one can only imagine the emotional upheavals he felt doing his research. However when it happens, such as when he inserts words into descriptions of testimony of abusers like "He sneered" which are not necessary, it detracts from the text.
Lesher also seems to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the importance of community in Jewish tradition. Yes, the degree to which some modern Chasidic rebbes and "Gedolim" demand that their followers descend into a clone state and eliminate all traces of their individualism is excessive and unprecedented, as the famous New Square Shabbos dinner menu demonstrated. On the other hand Lesher comes across as a post-modern individualist, a "Ask not what you can do for the state, ask rather what the state can do for you" type. Typical of a liberal entitlement society, this position is quite the opposite of traditional responsibility-based Jewish societal structure. Any student of Jewish history knows that the survival of the Jewish nation is a fundamental principle to us and the commitment to that survival by martyrs over the millenia is what allowed us to survived the destruction of both our Temples (may they be speedily rebuilt) and ultimately return to and re-establish Jewish sovereignty in our Land. Making my personal desires and goals secondary to those of my community when the two sides conflict is a requirement of Jewish membership in the nation. The problems caused by rabbonim taking this to any extreme cannot be countered with a radical reassertion of individualism. Ultimately the compromise position is one in which members give their best to the community while the leadership performs its designated function of ensuring that safety and justice are enforced in that community. It means I don't have to see a conflict between protecting children from abusers and being a good community member because the community sees protecting the children from abusers as a priority.
My final area of discomfort with the book was Lesher's frequent tendency towards hateful rants. In one chapter, for example, he discusses the abuse of women and children in a fundamentalist sect of the Mormon community. Having details the perversions that occur he immediately rushes to assure us that the mainstream religion we shouldn't think of when it comes to women being oppressed is Islam. He makes the readily-discredited claim that radical Islam is as misogynistic as we think it is (a la Ben Afflack) and instead tells us that if we want to find a religion comparable in hatred of women and children we need look no further than Orthodoxy! He also uses a clever linguistic trick in which he mentions Orthodoxy in proximity to horrible crimes but then hastens to add "Not that I'm suggesting that there's a connection." This is an old trick done to avoid being labelled with a specific hatred while still planting the hateful suggestion in the reader's mind and Lesher seems to delight in doing it. It detracted from the book because, while I appreciate that a certain amount of outrage needed to be expressed, the crossing into what read like a personal vendetta jarred me.
What's more, rabbis guilty of either committing abuse or protecting the menuvalim weren't his only targets. In what feels like a literary mad swinging of fists, he attacks Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt"l, for writing an essay about making a personal peace with the mitzvah of destroying Amalek and then noting that such an attitude is not far from that of a child abuser. He takes Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, zt"l, to task for daring to suggest that Torah Judaism has something moral to teach a depraved world as such as statement confirms that the Rav was, at heart, a xenophobe convinced that all Judaism's ills are due to the influence of an "orgiastic" outside world. Lesher seems to reveal his agenda at this point and that agenda is that all rabbis who don't agree with a post-modern, anti-tribal outlook. It's not just enough for rabbonim to reject a "Don't make us look bad" attitude but rather they need to reject any notion of Jewish exceptionalism, something that goes against any ethnic or national group's sense of identity.
Lastly there are his frequent rants against Israel and its politics. One might ask what place such a topic has on a book on physical and sexual abuse but Lesher has an answer, implying that on the world state, Israel is the abuser and the so-called Palestinians are the abused, not much different than a predator rabbi and his helpless student victim. Over and over he repeats canards and distortions, the products of Israel-hating sources such as Noam Chomsky and Norm Finkelstein. For example his presentation of the 2006 war with Hezbollah clearly places all the blame on Israel and presents Hezbollah as the aggrieved victim just trying to fight back! At one point I wondered whether he would bring up the matzah blood libel and accuse Israeli settlers of performing that fictitious rite. After all, Arab propaganda sources have made such an accusation and since Lesher obediently repeats all their other falsehoods.
So why is that important? Simply put, it undermines his entire thesis. I very well know that everything he states about Israel is incorrect, twisted or missing critical details in order to place blame on the Jewish state. If he's that inaccurate and biased about his recollection of recent Israeli history then can I trust his recollections of abuse in the Jewish community? In short, if he hates Israel so much (a charge I'm sure he'd deny) then does he hate Orthodoxy so much? If he does, is this book just a hateful screed or an important place to start a discussion on how to confront abuse within the Orthodox community?
And that's ultimately the problem because starting that discussion, as Lesher documents, is a major priority for us to prevent even more lives from being damaged.