A Yom Kippur Plea for Sensitivity

A concerned member of our community shared this plea with me and I feel it has such strong merit that it deserves to be shared, especially as we approach Yom Kippur and ask for G-d’s forgiveness. May we all be blessed with His mercy, compassion and forgiveness and be sealed in the Book of Life.

In recent years there has been an unfortunate surge of Orthodox Jews, Baalei Batim and Rabbanim alike, accused of being involved in various scandalous activities or behavior. Unfortunately, in many situations, however, the “defendant” is totally ostracized by the Orthodox community based only upon pure hearsay, rumors and accusations proliferated by the community itself, sometimes by the media and often publicized in Google and social media. In certain instances, the accusations are often trumped-up charges concocted by the District Attorney’s office that are at best only ”charges” – charges which have not and might never be corroborated by reliable witnesses or substantiated by a trial jury. The internet and social media have certainly played a role in perpetuating false information and spreading Lashon Hara, fueling the lack of support within the Jewish community.

In the recent, unfortunate, frequent cases of child or teen molestation, G-d forbid, where reliable witnesses have come forth to make a clear accusation, we must assume that the “defendant ” is “guilty”. The same is true if reliable witnesses, even one witness, accuse a man or woman of committing adultery, G-d forbid, or, for that matter, any other immoral or illicit behavior.

In all other cases, the Orthodox community is swallowing up lock, stock and barrel, these accusations and charges, primarily relying upon information gleaned only through Lashon Hara, the internet, Google, blogs, newspaper reports, etc…But didn’t our Rabbanim clearly authorize us to distance ourselves from Lashon Hara and the internet? If so, shouldn’t our Rabbanim, true “Ohavei Yisroel, ” protest the total vilification of these Jews based on information and accusations found here? Shouldn’t our Rabbanim set an example and reach out to those ‘accused’? After all, in the Torah’s eyes they are completely innocent until proven guilty! And even then, they remain a part of Klal Yisroel and we must continue to love every Jew as we love ourselves.

Why have we forgotten the beautiful and eternal concepts of “Its ways are sweet and its paths lined with peace” and Always give every man the benefit of the doubt”? Especially, if the “defendant” may very well be on his way to Teshuva. And in the case of Talmidei Chachamim, our Rabbis have taught us (Kiddushin 49a) that we can assume they immediately performed Teshuva after their inappropriate behavior!

There is a precious but hardly-known responsum, (Zekan Aaron, 2, Y.D., chap. 30), from Ha’Gaon Rebbe Aaron Walkin (of Pinsk) written to his famous brother-in-law, Ha’Gaon Rebbe Zalman Sorotzkin of Slutzk, concerning a Shochet/ Bodek ,about whom the neighborhood women were spreading a rumor that he was seen a few times entering and leaving the home of a woman of ill-repute. Rav Walkin, in his responsum, shows that there is absolutely no halachic basis whatsoever to remove the man from his position. One of his arguments is that there are no reliable witnesses, except for the rumor. And the “rumor” itself does not address any specific illicit or prohibited sexual behavior.

It is worthwhile to quote an excerpt from this remarkable responsum:

I, too, from the distance, am shocked to hear this about a servant of Hashem who needs to excel above others when it comes to G-d fearingness. However, when I am required to make a Halachic ruling, I fear Hashem if I were to pour my wrath all over him and hurt the livelihood of this family man. My entire body shakes in fear to become a slaughterer and slaughter a father of children, a husband to a wife, based on these weak rumors. If a ritual slaughterer whose hands are unsteady is disqualified to perform ritual slaughter, when I am summoned to slaughter human souls and my entire body trembles in fear, I should certainly be disqualified, especially since there is no Torah basis for such a slaughter.

In many of the unfortunate scandals that have come to light in recent years, Rachmana Litzlan, the scandalous behavior, involving money or otherwise, the “accused” are rumored to have engaged in is nowhere as damning, illicit or suspect as the behavior of the ritual slaughterer in Rav Walkin’s scenario. Yet our Orthodox community, including many of our Rabbanim, have totally distanced themselves, short of excommunication, from the “accused.” Do they disagree with Rav Walkin’s ruling? On what basis? They must provide clear and authoritative halachic leadership.

In fact, even in those cases in which the scandal is not limited to the insulated Orthodox community, but has, unfortunately, become public knowledge, as part of the criminal judicial system, there is absolutely no halachic basis to “destroy” a person’s life, or, G-d forbid, not apply the all-powerful commandment of “vahavta lraiAcha kamocha” to these “accused.” Indeed, a misdemeanor or even a “felony” charge or accusation of guilt, without reliable witnesses, does not automatically constitute halachic liability. Even a plea-bargain admittance of guilt in a secular court, is not a halachic ruling of “guilty;” it is no more than that: a plea-bargain of “guilty” to avoid a trial, or, G-d forbid, jail. It might even be argued that in these three instances, what transpires in a secular court, without reliable witnesses, is no more than “rechilus” and “lashon hara.

Certainly, in all the scenarios discussed, an Orthodox Jew should consult his Rav or a Beis Din as to how to “handle” those “Baalei-Batim”or “Rabbanim” who have been rumored to.have indulged in inappropriate behavior. Google is not a substitute for a Rav or Beis Din! And until this Halachic Orthodox Jew receives guidance from his Rav or a Beis Din, there is no Halachic question that he is obligated to treat the “accused” and his family no less differently than the” warm manner” in which he treats other families in his Kehilla.

The “ways of the Torah are sweet” and we can only hope and pray that in most cases, our Rabbanim will be inspired by Rav Walkin’s approach and continue to lead and be an example to welcome and warmly embrace these ”accused ”into the community.

In the case above regarding the “Shochet”, there is no question that the “Shochet” was liable to some serious “control” and “punishment” for his suspect behavior. Rav Walkin, therefore, suggested the following:

  • The Shochet should appear before a Beis Din and accept upon himself, under oath, to distance himself from any suspicious behavior, whatsoever.
  • For an entire year he must have his knife checked twice a week if he is to continue serving as a ritual slaughterer

In our present day situations, our Rabbanim can certainly come up with controls and a custom-fit Teshuva prescription, without hurting the “accused” in any harmful way and without ostracizing him and his family from the community. Ha’Gaon Rav Yecheskel Landau, of Prague, the “world- Posek” in the second half of the 18th century, in one of his most popular Teshuvos (Nodal BYehudah, vol.1,Orach Chaim, #30 ) prescribes a “teshuva” process for a distinguished Rav who admitted to have actually indulged in adultery over a period of three years. For our purposes, a teshuva cocktail for inappropriate behavior (but not in violation of any Biblical or rabbinical commandment) is certainly advisable. What is especially amazing about this responsum is the tremendous sensitivity Rav Landau displays in trying to upkeep the honour of families involved and ensuring that the entire episode does not become more “public”. We need to learn sensitivity from the “Nodah BYehudah”!

Rav Walkin himself realized that his lenient ruling would be looked at disapprovingly by the Charedim” (Rav Walkin’s terminology) but as he remarkably concludes his responsum:

I realize that my ruling will not satisfy the Charedim but I know that his honor (Rav Sorotzkin) seeks true justice and all our ancestors, from many generations, were Rabbanim whose hands were not defiled by spilling the blood of Jews. We, too, their descendants, must continue their tradition and ,G-d forbid, not contaminate our hands with human blood.

As Yom Kippur approaches and we ask for G-d to forgive our sins and seal us in the Book of Life, may our Rabbanim rise to the occasion and be inspired by the sensitivity and “Ahavas Yisrael” of Gedolim like the “Nodah BYehudah and “Ha’Gaon Rebbe Aaron Walkin, of blessed memory to be the examples of kindness, love, acceptance and forgiveness and inspire their communities to act in the same way.