The Halo Effect and Good Fences-The Weberman Case and Abuse Prevention in Our Community – Part Two

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by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Imagine entering a nearly deserted shul one morning and seeing a fellow taking a number of dollar bills from the pushka (charity) box. Would you suspect that he was stealing charity money? Well, it depends. If the person is attractive, well-dressed, and “your type,” you will probably assume he had put a large-denomination bill in the pushka and was merely taking change. However, if it was an unsavory character, you would be quite certain that he was helping himself to some of the charity funds.

The logic that drove your thinking was coined “The Halo Effect” by Edward Thorndike, former president of the American Psychological Association, in an article published in 1920, where he described it as, “A generalization from the perception of one outstanding personality trait to an overly favorable evaluation of the whole personality.”

He based his findings on a study conducted on two commanding officers who were asked to evaluate their solders in terms of physical qualities (such as neatness and bearing), intellect, leadership skills, and personal qualities (including responsibility, selflessness, and cooperation). He discovered that once a soldier was given a high rating in his physical qualities, he was far more likely to be given better grades in the all other categories.

This phenomenon extends itself to all facets of our lives including classroom grades, brand acquisition, and courtrooms, where studies have consistently shown that attractive people are given far shorter prison terms than their unsightly brothers and sisters.

It is extraordinarily important that we reflect on the raw power The Halo Effect has on our minds in light of accused child molester Nechemya Weberman’s trial. Why? Because for many years, blaring warning signs of flagrant and very serious violations of Hilchos Yichud (laws forbidding opposite gender people who are not family members secluding themselves with each other) went unheard due to the soothing white noise generated by The Halo Effect – with disastrous results.

The Williamsburg community would never have tolerated a male “outsider” conducting four-hour counseling sessions with a young lady behind a triple-locked door. But a trusted member of the kehila was given a full pass on this critical component of Hilchos Arayos (laws governing immoral activities).

Many centuries before the development of the current norms of behavioral transparency (which, for example, has made it common practice for a female nurse to accompany a male doctor who is examining a woman), our chazal (sages), in their infinite wisdom, created Hilchos Yichud, fulfilling their dictum in the opening words of Pirkei Avos (1:1), “Asu s’yog la’Torah (build a [protective] fence around the Torah).”

These laws were not developed for teens-at-risk. They were meant to protect everyone from the ferocious power that the Yetzer Ho’ra unleashes in these arenas. In fact, a governing principle of these halachos is “Ain apitropis l’arayos,” loosely translated to mean that there no exceptions whatsoever in their application regardless of the individual’s standing or piety.

Does the fact that Weberman violated Hilchos Yichud mean that he is guilty of the unspeakable crimes he is accused of? Not necessarily. But it does mean that he totally has lost his cheskas kashrus (presumption of innocence).

Since the trial began, countless people have asked, “What is to stop people from making such allegations against any of us?” The answer is responsible, Torah-true behavior, 24/7. If one lives his life in accordance with the letter and spirit of Hilchos Yichud, it is almost inconceivable that any allegation would gain traction, since the accuser will be unable to prove venue and opportunity.

As for those who don’t exercise prudence, it ought to become crystal clear to all of us that their halos have slipped far off their heads.

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aron feldman
2 years 8 months ago

Have the defenders of Weberman provided anything more than “The victim is a shiksa (and every other pejorative in the book), bent on revenge” excuse? With out rehashing all the lurid details that came out in the testimony this man in a best case scenario is not a very pious Jew, yet he has and continues to enjoy widespread communal support, that is very disturbing especially when Satmar cheder yingelach are being told to daven for a falsely accused Tzadick!

Bob Miller
2 years 8 months ago

We should avoid thinking that the problems discussed here only affect the other guys’ communities. Cover-ups by leaders and institutions have also been coming to light where you’d least expect it.

Shlomo
2 years 8 months ago

Rabbi Horowitz — I would have to disagree with your premise.

Better yet, I would like to extend it.

The “halo effect” is that we bend over backwards to be melamed zechus for those with whom we identify, even past the point of reason.

It assumes that we defend the guilty-looking person only because we don’t believe he is actually guilty.

It assumes that in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the individual is, in fact, guilty, we would cease defending him, no matter how much we identify with him.

My personal experience within more than one orthodox community (not hassidic), regarding some very significant matters, has been otherwise.

Specifically, it is my experience that, for many — and I include both religious and “lay” leaders — morality, common decency, basic fairness, and halacha play no role whatsoever when it comes to defending and protecting those with whom they identify. (No matter what they’ve done.)

Communal loyalty (self-interest included) rather than decency and halacha is the primary factor that enable wrongdoers to continue their wrongdoing. This is most possible where the victim(s) is (are) perceived as powerless and therefore unable to challenge what was done.

Appeals to basic decency and appeals to adhere to basic halacha play no role – NONE. (Given the immense power and social control — with no checks and balances — that are at the disposal of community “leaders.”)

In other words, I do not think it much matters whether they think that the charges, whatever they are, are untrue.

That matters only to those with either a conscience, moral courage, or genuine yiras Shomayim — and, quite sadly, these are not always the qualities one finds amongst those who carry the most power and influence within our communities.

Am I saying that societies other than the Orthodox are more willing to “do the right thing” and to defend the less powerful against the powerful? No.

What I’m saying is that within more-open societies and less inter-dependent communities, when there is an overstepping of power at the expense of the individual, there is a realistic fear that there might be consequences.

Shlomo
2 years 8 months ago

Rabbi Horowitz — I would have to disagree with your premise.

Better yet, I would like to extend it.

The “halo effect” is that we bend over backwards to be melamed zechus for those with whom we identify, even past the point of reason.

It assumes that we defend the guilty-looking person only because we don’t believe he is actually guilty.

It assumes that in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the individual is, in fact, guilty, we would cease defending him, no matter how much we identify with him.

My personal experience within more than one orthodox community (not hassidic), regarding some very significant matters, has been otherwise.

Specifically, it is my experience that, for many — and I include both religious and “lay” leaders — morality, common decency, basic fairness, and halacha play no role whatsoever when it comes to defending and protecting those with whom they identify. (No matter what they’ve done.)

Communal loyalty (self-interest included) rather than decency and halacha is the primary factor that enable wrongdoers to continue their wrongdoing. This is most possible where the victim(s) is (are) perceived as powerless and therefore unable to challenge what was done.

Appeals to basic decency and appeals to adhere to basic halacha play no role – NONE. (Given the immense power and social control — with no checks and balances — that are at the disposal of community “leaders.”)

In other words, I do not think it much matters whether they think that the charges, whatever they are, are untrue.

That matters only to those with either a conscience, moral courage, or genuine yiras Shomayim — and, quite sadly, these are not always the qualities one finds amongst those who carry the most power and influence within our communities.

Am I saying that societies other than the Orthodox are more willing to “do the right thing” and to defend the less powerful against the powerful? No.

What I’m saying is that within more-open societies and less inter-dependent communities, there is a realistic fear of the consequences.

Shlomo
2 years 8 months ago

Rabbi Horowitz — I would have to disagree with your premise.

Better yet, I would like to extend it.

The “halo effect” is that we bend over backwards to be melamed zechus for those with whom we identify, even past the point of reason.

It assumes that we defend the guilty-looking person only because we don’t believe he is actually guilty.

My personal experience, regarding some very significant matters, has been otherwise.

Specifically, it is my experience that, for many — and I mean major religious figures — morality and halacha play no role whatsoever when it comes to defending and protecting those with whom they identify (no matter what they’ve done) and — more seriously — allowing them (enabling them) to continue their wrongdoing as long as the victim(s) is (are) perceived as being powerless and not a threat to the privileged and the powerful of the community.

Appeals to basic decency and appeals to adhere to basic halacha play no role – NONE. (Given the immense power and social control — with no checks and balances — that are at the disposal of community “leaders.”)

In other words, I do not think it much matters whether they think that the charges, whatever they are, are untrue.
What matters is to do whatever is necessary to protect those on the “inside” and to crush, with no limits to the ruthlessness, those perceived as the “other.”