In praise of Normalcy

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Just before Pesach, the front pages of all Israel’s major papers were filled for days with three cases of horrific child abuse. In two of the cases, some of the children involved will likely never recover from their physical injuries, and it is hard to imagine the emotional injuries ever healing in any of the cases. Each of the three cases involved chareidi mothers.

One chareidi commentator noted that the explosion of the cases in the headlines seemed perfectly timed to coincide with the release of national figures on child abuse. And huge headlines quoting investigators describing the abuse as the worse they had ever encountered will be true only until the next sickening case comes to light. But the secret long known to social workers in the chareidi community is out of the bag: Our children enjoy no immunity from horrible abuse at the hands of their parents.

Each of the cases involved its own sensationalistic details, and together they raise many questions. The mother in the case in Beit Shemesh was the charismatic leader of a group of women, almost all whom came from non-chareidi backgrounds, who have taken to covering themselves in 18 layers or so of clothing, and who had already managed to achieve a certain international celebrity. The mother in the case in Jerusalem had apparently fallen under the spell of newly religious “mekubal,” who directed her.

Among the issues raised by these cases is: How is it that so many newcomers to the chareidi world have imbibed so many strange ideas? Who is teaching them? What kind of connection do they have with rabbonim once they enter the world? Even if they come with longstanding socio-pathologies, why does no one notice this?

Another issue is: How did these cases go unreported for so long? The abuse in the Beit Shemesh case went on for many years, and the screams of the children from beatings they were receiving and the marks they bore could not have gone unnoticed. Calev Ben-David, writing in the Jerusalem Post, asked a question that deserves an answer: If, as the chareidi world claims, the perpetrators of these heinous acts did not grow up in the chareidi world, were not educated in its schools, and do not represent it, why was the chareidi community hesitant about reporting their acts?

Now, the truth is, we do not really know what was observed and not reported, or whether there were reports and they were ignored. These cases did all eventually come to light. Nor should we assume that abuse issues are exclusively confined any particular segment of the community.

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has ruled that one may not remain silent where there are strong reasons to suspect abuse within the family or in other contexts. Proper procedural safeguards must be in place to prevent witch hunts based on scant evidence, but nothing justifies placing children in danger of terrible physical or emotional damage.

In the past, part of the reluctance of the chareidi community to report abuse to governmental authorities has been a deep, and often justified, suspicion of government social workers, and the fear, based on experience, that some of them are eager for any pretext to remove chareidi children from their homes. In communities where the government social workers are chareidi, there is, in fact, a high rate of reporting of abuse cases (though no one can say with certainty what percentage of the actual cases are reported.)

THE CASE OF THE BURQA WOMAN from Beit Shemesh also brings out a point that has application to many areas. Here was a woman ostensibly acting with such extreme care with regard to tznius, and meanwhile things were taking place in her own home over a prolonged period of time that were the height of immorality and a break down of all boundaries of tznius. How could such a thing happen?

The truth is that we should expect precisely that. Extreme modes of piety often betoken an unhealthy obsession with the particular area regulated by the halacha. The rabbis of Beit Shemesh, including the rav of a community known for its meticulous observance of the laws of tznius, recognized this and spoke out forcefully against the Burqa women.

In the classic work Kav Hayashar (Chapter 52), the author inveighs against external shows of extreme piety. He describes a father who leaves a tzava (ethical will) to his son, in which he warns him to always be wary of all forms of extreme piety. The author describes how that insight later serves the son well when his wife tells him that she no longer wants to leave the house because a man might look at her.

“As Shlomo Hamelech wrote [in Koheles], ‘Be neither too righteous nor too evil,’ and Chazal tell us to be wary of hypocrites, who appear to separate themselves from all materialism and then act like Zimri, while expecting to receive the reward of Pinchas,” writes the author of Kav Hayashar.

And even before the Kav Hayashar, the Gemara provided the same insight when it said that the Yishmaelites, who were always known for their extreme modesty in dress, received nine out of ten measures of immorality that came down to the world.

For Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky “normal” was a halachic criterion. He once said that he doubted that a particular type of matzos were those that the Torah intended since they did not fulfill the verse, “All its ways are ways of pleasantness.” Rav Yaakov had his own chumros in a number of areas, but they were never on showy display. And never did he seek to impose them on others.

I once asked a young man who had been a house bochur in Reb Yaakov’s house what he had seen. He replied, “Nothing, absolutely nothing.” Everything Reb Yaakov did was too worked out in advance to attract attention.

Reb Yaakov was one of the true “tzaddikim,” to whom the author of the Kav Hayashar tells us we should seek to attach ourselves. If there was anything notable about his behavior, it was not the display of piety but his meticulous care with respect to all aspects of mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro.

Published in Mishpacha May 4, 2008

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10 Responses

  1. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Rabbi Blau wrote:
    The problem of abuse is broader and will only be effectively reduced when the Orthodox rabbinical leadership sets up a clear process for responding to accusations. General pesakim will not eliminate fear of being called a moser (which is effectively manipulated by the abusers). The balance between lashon hara and lo saamod al dam reacha has to be spelled out.

    I think that Rabbi Blau very correctly alludes to the fact that bursting the mesira bubble (which has yet to be done in all communities) does not suffice. The fact that halacha mandates taking strong and unequivocal action against abusers – which means alerting the secular authorities who can deal with them – does not seem to be enough to get individuals to respond in a timely fashion. Community wide protocols are needed; I hope BE”H to write soon about one such system of protocols that have been adopted by the community in Los Angeles and that has attracted attention in other cities.

    The balance that Rabbi Blau seeks has yet another component. We should not replace the scourge of abuse with one of overzealous witchhunting. There are any number of websites and organizations whose purpose is “outing” people simply on the basis of unsubstantiated and anonymous accusations, without any oversight or control. The fact that they sometimes point a finger at those who are actually guilty is no excuse for the harm they do. While sunshine may be the best disinfectant, as the Judge Brandeiss saying goes, the light should be natural, not artificial and contrived. Controlling the viciousness of what is out there needs also to be part of the balance.

  2. cvmay says:

    NORMALCY is not fashionable or eye catching. (therefore its demise)

  3. zadok says:

    >For Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky “normal” was a halachic criterion. He once said that he doubted that a particular type of matzos were those that the Torah intended since they did not fulfill the verse, “All its ways are ways of pleasantness.”

    Then would it be safe to say that Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky did not eat the currently accepted Chareidi shiur of Matzah on Pesach Night?

    No.It would not be.In Mechitzos Rabbainu the author gives over Rav Yaakov’s opinions about the amount of Matzoh is a Kazayis.It’s the standard Shiur.

    “I once asked a young man who had been a house bochur in Reb Yaakov’s house what he had seen. He replied, “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

    As presented, the story is almost a deception.Based on my recollections from the Reb Yaakov book the bocher actually said that only when he learnt Halacha and Torah in depth did he fully understand how medakdik in Mitzvos Rav Yaakov really was.Reading the above alone we would think Rav Yaakov was just like anyone else (or even less makpid as the first comment shows)

    IMHO one the first reasons people go wrong is because they hear halachic concepts and misunderstand them.Saying that Rav Yaakov held ‘normal’ was an halachic criteria with no qualified explanation as to the parameters of that statement really leads to such a thing.

    As I once heard Rav Yaakov say (I think from an earlier source)”The way of Am Haaratzim is such, that a Rov allows something due to a shas H’dchack (or other such reason) and 100 years later they still insist on being meikel due to ‘our Mesorah’ to be meikel.

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    A story related to R. Yaakov’s view on normalcy is quoted by Rabbi A.H. Fried in “Are Our Children Too Worldly”(Hakirah Vol IV, pages 65-66, available on hakirah.org website):

    “…At the time, [the Drebins] had come to ask Reb Yaakov a number of questions regarding strictures that people were trying to introduce to the Bais Yaakov school where the rebbetzin was the principal. The rebbetzin saw these strictures as a novel form of possibly unnecessary excessiveness and sought Reb Yaakov’s opinion on them.

    In answering them, Reb Yaakov referred to the halachah which says that in forming a group for the korban Pesach it is required that at least one member of the group have been born Jewish. In other words, a number of individual geirim (converts) cannot constitute themselves as a group for the purpose of eating the Korban Pesach. Reb Yaakov explained that the reason for this is to protect the group from adopting strictures which will result in their transgressing major halachos. Thus he said, for example, an overly zealous ger-tzedek may decide that he feels unsure and is unhappy with the frumkeit (piety) of the Kohen who was assigned to shecht (ritually slaughter) his korban,
    lamb, and he would therefore rather not eat the korban. Thus, his chumrah, stricture, will result in a tremendous transgression, one that carries the punishment of kores. For this reason it is important that the group have at least one born Jew in it, so as to “keep the things in perspective.”

    Reb Yaakov then turned to Rav Drebin and his rebbetzin, and said: We live in a generation of converts (ah dor fun geirim). You both come from a long line of committed and learned Jewish families. You are seeking a “normal Yiddishkeit.” I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. You’re simply “out of style.”

    The above was a private conversation critiquing a certain trend, and I think that R. Yaakov might balance it with a contemporary assessment(from last week’s Mishpacha) that “the bulk of chareidi society’s agendas, baruch Hashem, are positive…To watch Yiddishkeit growing and developing in America and Eretz Yisrael is wonderful and heartening…”. Nevertheless, one can see from the above how strongly R. Yaakov valued “normalcy” on the community and individual levels.

  5. Yosef Blau says:

    Two distinct issues are raised in this column. There is a need for normalcy. Expressions of extreme piety should be rooted in the behavior of gedolei Torah. Even then, when adopted by ordinary Jews there may be a question of mechezi kiyuhara.
    The problem of abuse is broader and will only be effectively reduced when the Orthodox rabbinical leadership sets up a clear process for responding to accusations. General pesakim will not eliminate fear of being called a moser (which is effectively manipulated by the abusers). The balance between lashon hara and lo saamod al dam reacha has to be spelled out.

  6. David Gold says:

    Rabbi Broyde, a dayan in the Beth Din of America, states directly (http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/mesiralaw2.html#b102)
    Thus, it is clear, that one must report allegations of child abuse (sexual or physical) when one is aware of it, (even if this means that the child might be places in a Gentile foster home).102

    In Footnote 102, he states “Abraham Sofer Abraham, Nishmat Avraham Volume 4, pages 307-11, quotes responsa from Rabbis Auerbach, Elyashiv and Waldenberg in agreement on this point, that one must report cases of child abuse. No alternative view is quoted in this enclyopedic work. Rabbi Abraham writes:

    A child or infant who is brought to a hospital with symptoms of being a battered child… it is prohibited, after an investigation to return him to his home as they will continue to beat him until he might die. Because of the real danger, it is obligatory for the doctor to inform the courts, and with an order from the court, place the child with a foster parent or agency. There is no problem of informing since we are dealing with danger to life and the parents are the pursuers. This is permitted even if they will place the child, due to no choice, with a family or agency that is secular. It is incumbent upon the Jewish court to do everything in its power to insure that the child is placed with an observant family or agency. Particularly in the diaspora it is important that the Jewish court work to insure that the child not be placed with a Gentile family or agency. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach agreed with all of the above.

    Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashi recounted to me that it is permitted for the doctor to inform the authorities even if it is possible that the child will be placed with a family or agency that is not Jewish ….

    Rabbi Waldenberg wrote “if there is a real risk that the parents will continue to hit the child …. it is obligatory for the doctor to report the matter to the police…” Sexual abuse (of either boys and girls) is no different than physical abuse. [Rabbis Waldenberg, Elyashiv and Auerbach agree that reporting is mandatory also.] Rabbi Elyashiv writes “there is no difference between boys and girl since one is dealing with a seriously life wounding event (pegiah nafshit) and a danger to the public … this is much more serious than theft and one certainly must report this matter to the school administration and if nothing is done, even to the police even in the diaspora.”

  7. Chaim Fisher says:

    Steps are being taken in the Charedi community to address these problems.

    Yad L’Achim now has a private hot line for youths in trouble. Many of the chedarim are now more alert to problems with teachers. Doctors check out more children for signs of trouble.

    Obviously more needs to be done. But the Charedim do have a good point. They are definitely politically incorrect: they discriminate on the basis of sex and creed; they forbid all kinds of innocuous things to their children; they circumcise and shecht; and so on. So they have to keep out the non-religious social workers as much as possible, because those people are just itching for any excuse to break down the “incorrect” religious practices of Judaism.

  8. Dr. E says:

    –Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has ruled that one may not remain silent where there are strong reasons to suspect abuse within the family or in other contexts. Proper procedural safeguards must be in place to prevent witch hunts based on scant evidence, but nothing justifies placing children in danger of terrible physical or emotional damage.

    In the past, part of the reluctance of the chareidi community to report abuse to governmental authorities has been a deep, and often justified, suspicion of government social workers, and the fear, based on experience, that some of them are eager for any pretext to remove chareidi children from their homes. In communities where the government social workers are chareidi, there is, in fact, a high rate of reporting of abuse cases (though no one can say with certainty what percentage of the actual cases are reported.)–

    One of the unresolved issues in the area of abuse as it affects the Chareidi community, is that no protocol exists for reporting, beyond bringing it to the attention of “the Rabbonim” to handle as they see fit. Unfortunately, the Rabbanim overestimate their own abilities to deal with psychopathology, often relying on Sifrei Mussar, Chazal, and life experience to earn them a degree as a “gevaldigge baal eitzah” (in Chareidi lingo, loosely translated as “Licensed Psychologist”). [It is no wonder how pseudo-Rabbinic types also dabble in Kabbalah to deal with mental health.] The fear of airing dirty laundry of the Chareidi community, Chillul Hashem, and shidduchim are all taken into account before there is any consideration of bringing matters to the attention of the authorities (who are for the most part secular). In addition, with no training or benchmarks of what consitutes abuse, this puts the Chareidi community at a disadvantage in terms of identifying, what may be glaring to others, the obvious symptoms.

    So, what Rav Elyashiv is saying is not such a great progressive chiddush, if in practical terms, there is little chance of effective implementation. The Chareidi community in the U.S. is far from being enlightened and the Chareidi community in E.Y. is light years away from that. And without an educational system that permits one (l’chatchila) to be competently trained in areas of mental health, the resources will always be outsiders looking in. I venture to say that most social workers who practice within the Chareidi community are either not Chareidi or not home-grown.

    On another point, unfortunately, Rav Yaakov’s “normal” criterion has gone by the same wayside as the rest of his Hashkafa–which if anyone has been following, has been under attack for a few generations now, as being too “Lite” for the tastes of many who think they know better.

  9. Garnel Ironheart says:

    In answer to your questions:

    >How is it that so many newcomers to the chareidi world have imbibed so many strange ideas?

    Because those are the ideas they’re offered. Most baalei teshuvah are normal people looking for more Jewishness to put in their life. You never hear about them because they’re well adjusted and don’t do anything to make the news. But there are those who were fanatic in their former life and have brought their fanaticism with them into their newly religious one. The former drug abuser or hedonist who was always looking for the next materialistic thrill will bring that urge and look for the next spiritual thrill. This leads from normal Jewish practice to the religious wackery that passes for “mysticism” and “kabbala” these days.
    There’s also the sense of insecurity many baalei teshuvah feel, especially heightened by attitudes within the Chareidi world such as yeshivos that won’t accept their kids because of their backgrounds and shadchans who avoid them for the same reason. So they compensate by adding holiness to their lives and some go too far in search of elusive personal security and acceptance by the community. And for all those people, there seems to be rabbonim out there happy to indulge them.

    > Who is teaching them?

    He’s hiding out in Toronto right now, as of the last news report.

    Listen, a few years ago I had a guest on Shabbos who styled himself a Bratzlover chasid, complete with the white kippah and bekisher. We got into a heated argument over his assertion that it’s okay, in fact it’s meritorious to do mind altering drugs because this mind expansion increases your understanding of the spiritual elements of the world. And when I told him all the poskim who disagree he assured me his rebbe was smarter than all of them put together. So there are people out there. We just don’t look for them or dismiss them as weirdos when we do find them.

    > What kind of connection do they have with rabbonim once they enter the world?

    One in which they are told that everything is a shailoh, that they can’t make any decisions on their own, that thinking for themselves means forgoing the advice of one “gadol” or another. Again, the majority are not like this but there is a minority that falls for this view and there are rabbonim happy to take advantage.

    > Even if they come with longstanding socio-pathologies, why does no one notice this?

    Because in the yeshivah world, the kid with obsessive compulsive disorder who has to say Krias Shema 20 times and checks his tzitzis for an hour before putting them on isn’t sent for counselling. He’s called a tzaddik.

    > Another issue is: How did these cases go unreported for so long?

    Because there are still too many rabbonim and lay authorities who think that telling the police is “mesirah” and are prepared to ruin the lives of anyone who disagree. Because for all the talk about how wrong child abuse is, in the day to day world, that message simply hasn’t filtered down.

  10. Baalhabos says:

    >For Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky “normal” was a halachic criterion. He once said that he doubted that a particular type of matzos were those that the Torah intended since they did not fulfill the verse, “All its ways are ways of pleasantness.”

    Then would it be safe to say that Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky did not eat the currently accepted Chareidi shiur of Matzah on Pesach Night?