Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How the Torah World Changes

A guest post by @berelshain

For the past two months and especially over the past week, the Agudah has been taking a well deserved beating for its dangerous and backward-thinking policy on the reporting of abuse. Lay, rabbinic and expert commentators alike have pointed out the obvious risks posed to the community by those would follow the procedures for reporting sexual abuse advocated by Shlomo Gottesman at the recent halacha conference and reaffirmed by Agudah's press release moments before candle-lighting this past week. I see no need to elaborate on those points.

However, a bit of history calls Agudah's sincerity and professed adherence to Daas Torah into question. At the Agudah convention in 2006, Rav Matisyahu Salomon gave an impassioned speech in which he excoriated the bloggers and participants in the frum cyber community for their disrespect of rabbonim and of the concept of daas torah. RMS spoke in the strongest of terms of the need to eradicate the evil web fiends from our midst and concluded his drasha with leading a reluctant crowd in the chanting of "Atta hareisa ladaas ..."

During the course of the drasha (which can be heard in its entirety here: Rav Matisyahu spoke of the way that the torah community (a euphemism relating exclusively to the chareidi world) has approached sexual abuse allegations. The Mashgiach said that the allegations are dealt with al pi torah and in a quiet way to preserve the dignity of the accused. In an infamous line (taken out of context by his critics) Rav Matisyahu explained that the actions taken by rabbinic leaders to deal with molesters are swept under the carpet; that is, they are not publicized.

Nonetheless, they are conducted in accordance with the holy torah. There was no mention whatsoever - not even the slightest hint - that the police should ever be involved under any circumstances. The Mashgiach's position was clear and unequivocal: this is and should be handled by the rabbis in accordance with halacha. Period. This statement by a respected gadol at the pulpit of the Agudah convention was not repudiated or otherwise qualified by the Agudah. Until now.

Agudah now states that not only is informing the police permissible, it is halchically mandated where raglayim ledava exists (a vague term that requires the rabbis to play the role of gatekeeper). Interestingly, the teshuvos of the poskim quoted by Shlomo Gottesman at the halacha conference and again by Chaim Dovid Zwiebel on the Zev Brenner show this past week as the foundation of the Agudah policy were all issued before Rav Matisyahu's speech! The letters can be found here, beginning at page 15 of the pdf and the dates confirm that they were all issued prior to 2006. So if, as Agudah suggests in its most recent clarification, there is a chiyuv to go to the secular authorities where raglayim ledavar exists, why did Rav Matisyahu not mention that most crucial halacha? Why did the Agudah not issue these guidelines until May of 2011 - 7 years after the first teshuva of Rav Elyashiv was issued?

The answer I believe lies in the fact that we are fortunate to have ignored the calls of the Mashgiach. The changes we are seeing (however painfully slowly) towards the attitude of sexual abuse by organizations such as Agudah were not inspired by the poskim; they were demanded by the community through the powerful medium of the unstoppable internet. Had we heeded the Mashgiach's call and shut down the blogosphere, Agudah's attitude toward sexual abuse would be the same today as it was ten, twenty and thirty years ago. Indeed the poskim themselves have reacted to the outcry of the community. Teshuvos on the permissibility and requirement to report sexual abuse were not written until recently - because the issue was not forced into the public arena until recently.

The revolution that continues to take place in the frum community concerning the proper approach to allegations of sexual abuse was started not by Agudah, not by a concerned posek, but by the rantings of an admittedly angry and at times out of control bloggosphere, which in turn inspired multiple victims to file federal lawsuit that accomplished the removal of an accused pedophile from a position that he held for decades. The gorilla tactics of anonymous bloggers changed our world forever - and for the better. At times, the tactics may have been unorthodox and the approach of some perhaps seemed over the top at times, but it was the blogosphere that affected a change that countless rabbonim declined to do themselves.

Agudah's policy requiring a posek to sign off before reporting sexual abuse to the authorities is dangerous. However, in the waters in which Agudah swims, the mere mention of reporting abuse to the police is, sadly, considerable progress. This progress is to the credit of the bloggers and the tireless advocates on the web who refused to bow at the alter of Daas Torah and instead demanded change. The poskim are slowly catching up and organizations such as the Agudah are even more slowly getting in line. But the credit belongs not to those in positions of leadership, not to those with long titles and seats at the dais, but to those in cyberspace who forced the leaders to act.

Nearly five years after Rav Matisyahu's blistering attack on the advocates for change in cyberspace, the bloggers and the commenters have only grown stronger. Baruch Hashem the hamon am turned a deaf ear to the Mashgiach's pleas. And today, every yeshiva boy owes them all a debt of gratitude. 

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