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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

Several weeks ago, the Orthodox world was shocked to its core with the revelation that renowned author and therapist, Chaim Walder, was accused of sexual abuse. The Safed Rabbinical Court found that over a period of twenty-five years, Walder had sexually abused women, girls and boys that had come to him for treatment. Walder was summoned to the Safed Beth Din to address the accusations, but he refused to attend. The Chief Rabbi of Safed, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, said that based on testimonies, pictures, and recordings, Walder's guilt was beyond doubt. He concluded that Walder was a danger to society, whose forbidden acts had destroyed many lives. On December 27, 2021, Walder was found dead next to his son's grave (who died in 2019 from cancer) in Petach Tikva by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The allegations and death provoked much discussion in the Haredi and the broader Orthodox community on the appropriate response to allegations of sexual abuse.

Truth be told, it took me a few weeks to process this terrible tragedy. In my opinion, I think that many rabbis were too quick to respond with knee jerk support of Walder and condemnation of his accusers. After analyzing all the information I’ve read about this horrible story, I think that two religious precepts were incorrectly applied and therefore, led to aiding and abetting Walder’s abuse.

  1. There is a rabbinic prohibition called Mesirah, which is when a Jew reports the unlawful conduct of another Jew to a non-rabbinic authority that has the power to arrest or imprison the offender. Unfortunately, people mistakenly think that the prohibition of Mesirah is absolute with no exceptions or qualifications. Without going into this curious topic right now, suffice it to say that (almost) all contemporary authorities agree that Mesirah in a case of sexual abuse is permitted. The reason being the divine obligation to help someone in danger and not stand idly by. People need to realize that there is a communal responsibility to confront and prevent sexual abuse using every possible means, even Mesirah
  1. All of us are (or should be) aware of the divine prohibition of speaking Lashon Hara. Just to be clear, the prohibition of “lashon hara” is saying something that is 100% true BUT negative about someone for no constructive or productive reason. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly don’t realize that if there is a constructive or productive reason, such as saving a person’s life, it is not just permitted to speak lashon hara, it’s actually a mitzvah! As a matter of fact, Rabbi Yisrael Isser Isserlin (1827-1889) in his commentary P’tchei T’shuva to the Shulchan AruchOrech Chaim 156 writes: 

...there is a sin far greater than lashon hara and is far more common, and that is preventing oneself from saving the oppressed from their oppressor for fear of speaking lashon hara. The magnitude of this sin is unbearable, since there is a violation of standing by idly while your brother’s blood is spilt.

In addition to these two take-aways, I think that there are a few more things that should be given consideration.

  1. As much support as possible needs to be given to victims of abuse, it is a crucial factor in helping them heal. One of the most painful things that victims experience is having their abusers continue to be respected and honored. This was demonstrated a few days after Walder killed himself. Shifra Yocheved Horovitz, one of Walder's victims, committed suicide at age twenty four after seeing Walder eulogized and mourned in the Haredi press. 
  1. Educating children about personal safety is an absolute necessity. Even though doing so to a certain degree breaches the typical boundaries of Jewish modesty (Tzniut), protecting children from predators demands it. 
  1. Lastly, regarding Walder’s books. Typically, a person invests a lot of themselves in the work that they produce. That being the case, why would one want to be influenced or have their children influenced by a sick and evil person?

I hope that this overview helps us to gain a better understanding of what went wrong in the response to the Chaim Walder incident and what we can do going forward to support victims and protect our communities.