Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Blood of your Friend

Today I saw volume 15 of the Haredi publication Yeshurun. It opens with an important and well-illustrated article by Dr Ezra Chwat and R Nissim Sabbato, on the draft of Maimonides' commentary to the Mishna, fragments of which are found in the Geniza.

It also includes a special section, titled Dam Re'echa [The Blood of Your Friend]. This is a collection of responsa by contemporary rabbis, on the question of reporting abusers to the authorities. The impetus, as the introduction by Rabbi Zvi Gartner explains, is legislation in the US requiring teachers and others to report abuse immediately.

I haven't read it carefully yet. R Shalom Yosef Elyashiv contributed a couple of short responses. The first is about someone who knows for certain that someone else is abusing a child sexually or physically. Is one allowed to pass this information on to a government official without first applying to a rabbinical court?

Rav Elyashiv answers that, if the facts of the matter are clearcut, it is permitted to report the abuser. If, however, there is no basis at all (שאין אפילו רגלים לדבר), then this is forbidden since the accusation is probably false. [This leaves a tremendous gray area. But maybe that was the point.]

What I found interesting was his source. Only one (it's a very short letter). A responsum by the Rashba, R Shlomo ben Avraham ibn Aderet [vol. 3 no. 393]. It in turn is based on the Talmud BM 84b. Rav Elyashiv extracts from these sources his key concept in the discussion - Tikkun Olam. That rallying point of liberals. Interesting. Especially since it is not mentioned in the source (as my friend Dudi, who is writing his thesis on the Rashba, pointed out to me).

Then he was asked about abuse within the family. Here his answer is much more hedgy. If the child is liable to be taken out of a religiously observant environment and placed in a foster home with an irreligious or non-Jewish family, then that is like killing him. If he (or she) is not in clear and present danger to his life (pikuach nefesh), then reporting the case is not warranted. In any case, the definition of abuse should be examined carefully, since "their" concept of abuse is completely different from "ours".

If I understand that correctly, he means that the law might define corporal punishment as abuse, but "we" know that it is simply a form of educational discipline. But I may be wrong.

The next piece (and the last I copied) is by R Moshe Halberstam, who is described as a member of the Edah heHaredit court and Rosh Yeshiva of Divre Hayim Tchokova. His response is longer, but the essence is the same. He quotes a different responsum of the Rashba, one he knows only from the Beit Yosef [HM 388, 8]. It was found in a manuscript and published by David Kaufmann in the Old Series of JQR, and was included in a recent edition of Rashba's responsa (edited by Prof SZ Havlin, part 9 no. 282).

Towards the end, R Halberstam introduces another important concept, which for him sums up the situation. A child abuser is a rodef. It is a mitzva to stop him in any way. He adds that there are, of course, various issues to take into account, such as the need to try and provide him with a religiously observant doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc. And it should be done in a way that minimizes the damage to other people, such as his family members.

But he does not seem to have qualms about reporting such abuse to the police directly, without consultation with rabbis. But I may have missed something.

My comments:
1. It is good that the issue is being discussed. Admittedly, the editors of Yeshurun seem to be pretty open-minded. They even cite academics when making use of academic research in their articles.

2. No mention of the extensive halachic discussions regarding rumours about a public figure. They are focused almost exclusively on the victims and the need to stop the abuse. I think that's the point I made a few weeks ago. I'm glad it wasn't just my idea.

3. The story in BM which they both refer to is quite an equivocal one, as mentioned in Gertner's introduction to the section, and discussed extensively by Daniel Boyarin in Carnal Israel. Interesting that they would use that as their major source.

4. I summarized the responsum by Rashba I mentioned before, based on R Prof Havlin's notes:

This epistle was sent from Barcelona around the year 1280. A young man was accused of informing on many of the Jewish communities in Spain. The case reached the attention of King Pedro III, who eventually had him executed, with the encouragement of the communities. After his death, one of his relatives told royal officials that the communities did not have the authority to sentence people to death. This post-mortem development forced Rashba to canvass support for his pro-death position overseas.

The Jewish community in Spain, and especially Rashba, was adamant about its right to take steps, including capital punishment, against people perceived as being enemies of the community.

I think that emphasizes something under the surface of this whole section in Yeshurun. They perceive abusers as being enemies of the community. That is very important. But what happens when enemies of the community are leaders of that same community?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is so disturbing to read this down-playing of the harm being done to a child. Even if there is no "pikuach nefesh" and even if there is no apparent danger to the entire community the suffering of even one child - always vulnerable and always captive in these situations - should be enough to sound the alarms and rouse anyone who knows of it to drastic action to save that child. The damage done by such suffering is immeasurable by "our" and "their" standards. Abuse is abuse. Since when is Judaism lenient about it?
And please, how can one argue that if the only way to extricate a child from such an environment is to put him in an irreligious home that it's preferable for him to continue to endure abuse in the orthodox home. And we are supposed to revere the Rabbis spouting these piskei halacha?!

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Lia said...

"But what happens when enemies of the community are leaders of that same community?"

I wish that were an oxy-moron.

Why do people remain in communities in which the leaders are their enemies? In one sense, it is certainly for the same reason that people stay in abusive relationship. Plenty of psychologists have things to say about that. But in the Jewish community I think there is also a systemic problem in the way we often think of our leaders. They are deified and established with a dangerous firmness. Once that's the case, we often use having a leader (whether in the guise of an individual, or a legal system... or a God) as a scape-goat for all of our failings. "It wasn't my decision - the rabbi said to do this. It's not me - it's halakhah. It's not about my personal morals - God said so."
Then, when we've learned to pardon ourselves based on the perfection of our leader, it becomes totally impossible to criticize that leader.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we learned how to embrace our leaders and seek their guidance, but with the dignity and integrity of human beings who know that ultimately all of our choices are our own, and if criticism and responsibility were actually percieved as a natural part of life, rather than a threat to everything we hold stable and dear. Then maybe it would be easier to say to a leader: What you are doing is wrong; stop it, take responsibility, do teshuvah, and then maybe you can be our leader again.

(great post, m-boy. keep 'em coming.)

9:24 PM  
Blogger manuscriptboy said...

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1:32 AM  

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