Sunday, March 17, 2013
defending HaRav R' Herschel Schachter שליט"א (Guest Post)
Dear frum Jews: The Forward does not care if your kids get molested.
This isn’t an exaggeration, a joke or some kind of bombastic Avi Shafran style rhetoric. It's an inescapable and repugnant conclusion. For those of you not keeping track, at a recent Rabbinic conference in London, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, one of the foremost Halachic decisors of the generation, said unequivocally that there is no issue of Mesirah in handing over abusers to the police. Mesirah, he averred, refers to a situation where an illegitimate government is trying to confiscate Jewish property. It has nothing to do with reporting abusers to the police. After covering Weberman and Finkelstein so assiduously, after publishing the demonstrations of Judy Brown, the Forward should’ve been delighted. "Yeshiva Rabbi Bluntly Warns Sex Abuse Reports Are Required”-- That’s the headline you should’ve opened up to on Friday morning. A premier posek, not a professional controversy hound like Yosef Blau, not a fourth rate YCT rabbi struggling with Rashi script, said almost exactly what you’d want him to say. Certainly, if the Forward cared about your kids, this’d be newsworthy. Think your Boro Park rabbis knows the laws of Mesirah? Nope. Not anymore. Think that its ok to cover for someone on unsere team? Turns out, you’re going against Halachah. Think your punctiliousness with shemirath eynayim will save you from your shemirath yadayim issue? Turns out, it doesn’t work that way. Unfortunately for him, Rabbi Schachter added some caveats. He didn’t stop with this powerful denunciation of the major problem plaguing Orthodox Jewry today. He noted that Federal Prisons are fair and accommodating of Orthodox Jews. And then he said that state prisons can sometimes be hefker. They might put you with a “schvartze," - pause - a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.
There are two possibilities here. Larry Cohler-Esses says he I felt "I knew this man like I knew some of my own relatives." He must be sure that Rabbi Schachter paused to reemphasize his irrational hatred of people of color and Muslims. I know Rabbi Schachter pretty well too. It seems to be he said an offensive term, one he might’ve been habituated to from his upbringing as a Yiddish speaker. Then he paused, corrected himself, and specified that he meant a member of the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam has a large prisoner contingent. They utilized “bigoted and anti-Semitic rhetoric” the ADL’s words, not mine that “has included statements calling whites "blue eyed devils" and Jews "bloodsuckers" that controlled the slave trade, the government, the media, Hollywood and various Black individuals and organizations.” Schachter might not be right to be too concerned about the future cellmates of the Webermans and Lanners of the world. He certainly should’ve avoided the outdated and offensive term schvartze - a word that, while not laden with the hate of a racial epithet, is equivalent to “Negro” in its anachronism. This would all be a major issue if he wasn’t in the middle of solving the major crisis of Orthodox Jewry today.
Sadly for the Forward, he was. He was giving Halachic sanction to people who speak out about abuse. He was doing more to end it from the inside than the Forward could do with a million Judy Brown stories. He digressed, opined, added in colorful and misshapen linguistic infelicities. He didn’t do this because of his intense racial or religious bigotry or his love of abusers. He did it because he’s Rabbi Schachter. Rabbinic authority doesn’t come out of thin air. Schachter’s corresponds to what Max Weber called charismatic authority. He is a raconteur, a Yiddish storyteller and king of caveats. If you want a story about R' Velvele Soloveitchik, an obscure teshuvah from the Koziglover Gaon, or a scintillating conceptual distinction first proposed by Yerucham Fishel Perlow and then mercilessly plagiarized, Rabbi Schachter is one of the only living people who can give you that. Besides his stand on abuse, Schachter is also a moral voice in other areas. He’s condemned the practice of Metzizah bePeh since it endangers infants. He courageously stood up in public in Ami magazine urging reform of the corrupt system of Batei Din. He lends his weight to an interminable and acrimonious battle on behalf of agunot; a battle that's earned him the ire and opprobrium of vast segments of Haredi Jewry. It's doubly impressive that Schachter’s mastery of vast corpses of Rabbinic literature and his spellbinding storytelling and sense of humor are yoked to a moral vision so idiosyncratic and so obviously based on doing what he thinks is the right thing.
What’s so disturbing about this story is that Rabbi Schachter is being skewered for being Rabbi Schachter. The off the cuff style, exaggerated anecdotes and Yiddishisms that lend him his power and charisma are what keep getting him in trouble. The same Rabbi who uses words like ferd and schvartzer also cries (in this same lecture) about someone coming to observe the laws of Taharas Hamishpacha. He laments his own public position --- “The Ribono Shel Olam is a Kel Mistater.” He breaks down in tears describing his own teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik, and his impact on him. I’m not saying Rabbi Schachter shouldn’t be more circumspect about his choice of words. Though it’d rob us of his charm, it might be a necessary concession to the constraints of publicity placed on him by virtue of his position. Maybe we will lose these unguarded moments. Maybe a story about Rabbi Belkin or Rabbi Yerucham Gorelick will go down unrecorded because Rabbi Schachter will hesitate to say it. However, if you want abuse to end, and you want to take away the fig leaf of “Halachic” protection deployed by abusers, you might not want to bash Rabbi Schachter. If you want Orthodoxy to wake up to its internal problems and start handing people over to the authorities --- boker tov. This is what that looks like. Of course, if all you want pious nostrums about the word schvartze and long winded stories of the duplicity of the Orthodox about abuse --- Rabbi Schachter isn’t your guy. Ask the ADL and the Forward.