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.