by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Why does every religion seem to have a problem with sex criminal clergy sheltering under its protection? In our Jewish world too. The Charedi world has been shaken by another sex abuse scandal. This latest case of a man called Chaim Walder has, like no other, rocked the community.
He was a very popular writer of children’s books about religious life, providing moral and religious guidance to thousands of young boys and girls both in English and Hebrew. He was a constant media presence. Almost every Charedi home had him on their bookshelves. He headed a Center for Child and Family in the Charedi town of Bnei Brak in Israel. He was idolized. Until a well-known journalist exposed him as a serial abuser and rapist, not to mention an adulterer, over twenty-five years during which time he ruined countless lives.
The Charedi world refused to deal with charges against Walder when an article appeared in Haaretz documenting his crimes. It was all a malicious muckraking plot. It was a political plot by the secular world to discredit them. Nevertheless, a Beth Din was convened of three very highly respected Orthodox rabbis, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu the Chief Rabbi of Safed and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, Rav Reuven Nakar and Rav Aaron Yirchi, examined the charges. They took evidence from a large number of witnesses beyond those mentioned in the article and summoned Walder to appear to defend himself. At first, Walder denied the charges. Then he argued that he was under extreme pressure. And finally, he took his own life. And this comes just six months after another well-known Charedi luminary, Yehudah Meshi Zahav the founder of Zakah, a much-admired voluntary rescue operation in Israel, was also outed as a sex criminal and tried to commit suicide too.
The action of the Charedi world was typical. It rallied around him. They pretended it had and has no problem. Walder was the victim. One of the most prominent heads of the largest yeshivah in Bnei Brak poured scorn on the accusers for daring to testify against him and for spreading scandal. They were responsible for his death. And he issued a proclamation forbidding victims from reporting such crimes to the press. Leading Charedi rabbis and politicians eulogized him rabbis rushed to visit his family to comfort them and to praise Walder. Amongst them was the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. He was roundly excoriated for honoring the perpetrator instead of comforting the victims. And only backtracked after the furious public reaction.
To make matters worse a few days later one of Walder’s victims, a young woman who had been serially abused by him, committed suicide precisely because she was so shocked by the rabbinic support for Walder and attacks on her rather than sympathy. Belatedly the overwhelming majority of Charedi rabbis have now condemned Walder and have recommended banning and removing his books from book shops and libraries.
The reaction of the Charedi world reflects a distorted attitude to conflicting moral principles. It may be right that Walder’s family cannot be blamed for what he did and suffers too. It remains a mitzvah to go to a shivah house to comfort mourners even if suicide is a grave religious offense. But this still does not excuse eulogizing someone who the evidence shows beyond doubt that he was a dangerous, evil person. It is the defensiveness born of years of psychological alienation and isolation that puts the self-protection of the community above the suffering of individuals.
The Charedi world indeed has a problem with secular culture and the values of the gutter press and journalists in search of scoops. and in this, they are not wrong. They also mistrust secular social services which often show scant sympathy to their way of life. Lashon Harah, gossiping, even talking about others is strictly forbidden by Biblical law and a vital principle in the observant world. This is why they avoid washing their dirty laundry in public. But this is no excuse for turning a pedophile and a confessed adulterer into a heroic victim or blaming those who only go to the press when their voices and their pain are ignored. Even within Torah, some moral obligations are superior to others and suffering victims trump perpetrators.
Above all this is a failure of a Charedi society led by a gerontocracy out of touch with reality. No matter what great scholars they may be because in their infirmity they are often surrounded by a protective circle of relatives and sycophants who filter what goes in and comes out to suit their personal agendas. And they are motivated as much by money and politics as they are about the moral health of their society. To make matters morally worse, there seems to be one law for the rich and famous and another for the poor and downtrodden.
A consistent feature of much of the Charedi world is the way that anyone who steps slightly out of the Charedi convention is ostracized. But if you have money, then no matter what you do, financially or sexually, you will be praised, even glorified. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says (Kohelet 10:19) “Money cleanses everything.” The Charedi world bounces between great piety, charity, and concern on the one hand and blindness to moral ambiguity on the other, in its desire to avoid shedding light on its shortcomings.
The shocked public reaction that forced the Charedi world into damage control has now led to a re-think and many Charedi spokesmen and leaders have publicly called for the removal of all Walder’s books from circulation. Extremes always beget extremes. And some want to burn his books in public.
This raises other issues altogether. The first is whether we should or can separate the person from the creation. If for example, someone is a moral reprobate or a rabid anti-Semite, a Wagner, a T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Roald Dahl, should we refuse to enjoy their work or not? It is arguable and I can see both points of view. But should we burn books as some rabbis are saying we should burn Walder’s books?
I strongly object to the idea of burning books. It was, I believe the Roman Emperor Augustine who first burnt books he did not approve of. Then the Church got in on the act and burnt books (as well as people) who they thought were a danger to their orthodoxies. The Talmud was burnt in Paris several times in the thirteenth century, by the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth and in the Papal States in the sixteenth. Savonarola was a great one for burning books in his Bonfire of Vanities in 1497 in Florence. And no one was more enthusiastic about burning books and Sifrei Torah than the Nazis!
Besides, Jewish Law opposes destroying stuff generally under the rubric of Baal Tashchit, “Do Not Destroy.” And if you want to be mystical about it, then Hebrew letters are holy vehicles of the Divine energy and should never be burnt! And yet we do have a history ourselves of rabbis burning books and opinions they do not like. There are always outliers.
Even so, logic dictates that it’s the content of a book that might be offensive, not the paper it is written on. No one compels you to read it if you don’t like it. This is just as ridiculous as banning great books because they were written by white males. If the contents of Walder’s books are so essential, why shouldn’t they be read until they can be replaced by some author who sets a better example?
Nowadays burning flags is the favorite pastime of mobs of primitives who are incapable of rational thought. The very notion of burning books can so easily develop into that dangerous fanatical mentality that ignores human suffering for the sake of degenerate ideology. You start burning books and you end up burning people.
This problem of the Charedi world facing up to its darker side has been brewing for years precisely because so many cases of abuse have been brushed under the carpet and perpetrators are both defended and honored. Sadly, this Chillul HaShem, Desecration of God’s name, overshadows the magnificence of their achievements in so many other areas. I pray their leadership takes note.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.