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

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

  • leah

    In this day and age, the fact that a male unlicensed “therapist” would give counseling sessions to young troubled kids without taking precautions to have others there, that he would take a child alone in a car etc. all shows that there was something wrong – a normal man would not put himself in the position of being able to be accused. Frum schools need to establish rules – a teacher or principal cannot be alone with a child – male or female! – without an open-door policy. Teachers should be subject to background checks. And parents need to know what is acceptable and not acceptable, no matter what a school or rabbi says.
    However, we do as a community need to balance the “believe the victim” with an open mind, as there are some rare cases of false allegations. My child’s teacher was accused, I believe falsely, of molestation, and her life was ruined. There has never been one credible piece of evidence (physical or otherwise) to show abuse – and the police never charged her after investigating. The entire case was built on a troubled child’s “recovered memory” of what had supposedly happened to her as a 3 year old years before. Furthermore, many in the community said that this teacher had been alone on multiple occasions with one child while all the other children went with the other teacher to a park. I spoke to the second teacher, who said that she never left her alone with a single child and took the other 25 on her own to a park. So in order for these allegations to be true, you have to believe that a second, unrelated teacher was also in on the conspiracy to abuse a child.

  • Tzurah

    Kol hakavod! The last 4 paragraphs really bring it home.

  • Dr. E

    Hilchos Yichud are great, in recognition of “ein apotropos l’arayos”. But as written, they do not help with much of the same-gender abuse that occurs in schools, camps, and elsewhere. It’s interesting that the “anti-toevah” individuals and organizations love to lobby politically to fight same-gender marriage and rally against gay pride parades. However, same gender sexual abuse is just another form of homosexuality and is just as much of a toevah. Yet, those same people are quite silent in cases of abuse. Some even try to argue Halachically that more subtle behavior in this area is not so bad. Perhaps more broadly adopted guidelines akin to inter-gender Hilchos Yichud which would govern seclusion of a same-gender adult and child are totally appropriate here. That would serve as a “s’yag” for this malady as well.

  • Bob Miller

    It’s not always a halo effect or other presumption based on habit or naivete; some may know clearly but not act.

    What can be done about community leaders and followers who protect certain community members they know to be guilty of molestation, because they view all publicity as a danger to the group? This may be a rationalization, when what they really want is to keep themselves or their own subgroup or clique free of scrutiny. Their “ideal” solution of intimidating people into silence is becoming less and less effective, but that’s the only way they seem to know.

  • Yakov Horowitz

    To Dr E

    I did not address same gender in the column, but most schools and camps have it as part of their regulations that a faculty member may never be with a child alone — same gender as well.

    Torah Umesorah has it in its recommended contract addendum as well.

  • E. Fink

    I think we also need to be careful not to associate sexual abuse with taavas nashim. Abuse is more likely a product of taavas kavod or a general need for control others. If it was a mutual relationship it would be appropriate to associate with taavas nashim. I don’t believe that was the case here.

  • leah

    Why are people lumping together the Weberman story with a rabbi from London who had innapropriate relationships with women? One is illegal, immoral, and dangerous, but the other is simply not nice and wrong in a way that does not come to the level of the crime of molesting young children.

  • koillel nick

    Dr E, R Horowitz,
    According to Shulchan Aruch, nowadays, yichud between two males is also forbidden. See EH siman 24 end of saif 1.

  • melech

    is it true halachikally that a person that violates yichud loses the cheskas kashrus regarding a more serious offense? Let’s say a woman who was misyached with a man (not her husband), and there are allegations that she did something wrong, does she become assur to her husband (misofek)?

  • melech

    also: the lady that accused him, she too does not have halachiaklly cheskas kashrus.
    also: Is he accepting the claims disseminated, that he did not keep hilchos yichud. I understand that he claims that his wife was always around (the office was in his house).

  • Dr. E

    Having both inter- and intra-gender guidelines in place (whether suggested by Torah U’Mesorah, derived from open Halacha, or simply concluded based on seichel) is certainly a positive development. And thank you Koillel Nick for that apparently obscure citation. But, that’s not the point. At the ground level, there are few compliance and enforcement systems in place to serve as a checks-and-balances for what’s on a piece of paper somewhere. Many of the contexts in which these episodes have occured are fraught with nepotism and cronyism. As closed systems without transparency and accountability (e.g., to parents and the community), a connected, charismatic , or powerful individual can run roughshod over the law and Halacha, enjoying the privilege of the communal benefit of the doubt. Without strong deterrents, these abuses will continue–in Yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs, camps, and extracurricular groups within the youth population and with adults as well (e.g., women receiving pre-or post-marital “counseling”.)

    Many of these cases have involved individuals who are uncredentialed in terms of licensing or formal training, relative to the guidance or services being provided. For those who have had to obtain and maintain legitimate credentials, there is an element of “mirsas” (fear). For others who hang out a shingle or otherwise serve as proxies for licensed professionals in the heimishe world, there is no such built-in compunction. So, let the buyer (whether parent or adult) beware, by first researching through legitimate government or professional bodies.

    Looking at it this way addresses Leah’s question and E. Fink’s astute point. These are merely two sides of the same coin.

  • Avrom S.

    RY Horowitz… I was following you, through both your postings. I felt
    very sad for the victim and was happy you were involved. And then you
    wrote this:

    “”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.””

    This comment seems very naive… or you’ve just chosen to ignore how
    now every woman is believed, how “he said she said” is all you need to
    “prove” he’s guilty.

    Three words: Duke Lacrosse Case. A drunk stripper and prostitute with a
    previous history of false accusations gets in an argument with a Duke
    lacrosse captain, and claims, with no evidence, that she’d been
    assaulted and violated. The university cancelled the lacrosse team’s
    entire season, and three students, none of whom had a criminal record,
    had their names splashed on national TV and their lives ruined. At
    least one of the three was a mile or more away when it happened, seen
    on surveillance camera withdrawing money from his bank.

    No venue, no opportunity, absolute proof he wasn’t there… no
    difference. They’ll be infamous for life.

    Crystal Gail Mangum is now being held awaiting trial for the murder of
    her boyfriend. But that wasn’t the first time she tried to kill someone —
    she just used the justice system the last time around.

    And we already know of one case against a Rabbi in which it turns out that
    several “victims” were paid to make false claims, while the one behind it
    was shaking down the family for $400,000. The rabbi was sent to jail for
    10 1/2 to 30 years until an appeals judge found he’d been denied a fair
    trial.

    So please, Rabbi Horowitz. I have little knowledge about the Weberman
    trial, and I’ll be the first to agree that the violations of Yichud with
    young girls, if true, do make this one case pretty strong. But tell us
    how “Torah-true behavior, 24/7″ will protect us from everything from
    mistaken identity to malicious lies, when everyone from bloggers to
    reporters to prosecutors is happy to believe whatever filth someone
    can make up.

  • leah

    Avrom S. – the Duke Lacross players were not exactly living Torah-true behavior at the party…need I say more?
    R’Horowitz’s point is that if you act the right way, it is UNLIKELY that you will be subject to false accusations…but not impossible. Had Weberman NEVER been alone with the girl, he’d have a secretary on the stand to testify that he was never in a closed room with her, and she knows, because she was sitting at her desk during the therapy sessions…etc.

  • L. Oberstein

    This discussion seems to be focusing on yichud and the conclusion that Weberman lost his chezkas kashrus because he secluded himself for three hours behind locked doors with females. That sounds pretty open and shut to me (pun intended). I am told that the Satmar Chassisim are growing in numbers at a very rapid pace and that both branchs also have many wealthy businessmen who donate fortunes to their mosdos. If you are no longer a poor group of refugees but a major element of the orrthodox community, then this requires some accounatbility. I think that much of the problem is the siege mentality of the persecuted outsider. It is not unique with Satmar but any group that feels overwhelmed gets very defensive. My point is that they should move beyond that mind set and honestly deal with their issues.
    I am concerned that Weberman is just one of many issues being pushed under the carpet. Gambling addiction, substance abuse, and an amoral approach to civil law are among the accuations hurled at some who outwardly look like Chassidim but who act otherwise. These people are no longer insignificant, we cannot ignore aberations in their community.

  • rachel w.

    Are people really suggesting that a secretary should be sitting in the room during therapy sessions? What about breach of privacy issues?

  • Avrom S.

    Leah, I thank you for proving my point. What you just said is no different than implying that a female victim “asked for it” because she was wearing non-tzniyus clothing, but because they were men, blaming the victim is ok in your eyes. Someone there hired a dancer (I wish I could believe this was unusual for college students), so it’s their own fault that these boys were falsely accused of an indecent assault.

    And like I said, at least one of the boys wasn’t even there.

    This is why what R Horowitz wrote is naive at best. Anyone can make an accusation, and forget the Chofetz Chaim, the Leahs will say that even if it’s false it’s his own fault.

  • melech

    But, as far as hilchos yichud (which would avoid all problems) then it would be more appropriate for girls to have female therapists and male patients have male therapists.

  • Bob Miller

    In general, are the frum Engish language publications dealing at all with the Weberman trial and verdicts and their implications? If not, is their silence part of the overall problem?

  • Steve

    Bob,

    The Frum publications will likely not cover this because they’re family magazines.

  • Shlomo

    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.”

  • Shlomo

    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

    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.

  • Bob Miller

    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.

  • aron feldman

    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!