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D. was molested by an older cousin, a teacher at his yeshiva, for over a decade, before running away from home at age 18, breaking away from the hasidic world, and coming out. He started college, is struggling with faith, diagnosed with PTSD, an activist in a growing movement that refuses to keep silent about sexual abuse. This month he’s in Israel to confront the cousin, who now lives in Jerusalem, and to press charges. Why? He’s still angry and wants the man to be held responsible. “It’s not revenge,” he tells me over a beer in the center of the city, “it’s that he’s a respected teacher and religious role model, and he’s still doing it. The truth must be be revealed. He needs to pay, he needs help, and he needs to stop.” D.’s family, once supportive of his attempts to rehab his life, are now threatening to disown him again, threatened by his demand to go public and shame them. For D., they are taking his cousin, the famous teacher’s side, over that of their own son. It’s like his abuse all over again. He orders another beer.
Should the transgressions of leaders, and religious leaders, be accounted for differently, more harshly, than those of (so called) ordinary people?
D. is not the only one who thinks so. With public responsibility should come greater accountability. A public person, leader, cleric, celeb carries our collective investment in the possible, and in the good. When one of those elected or arisen mortals tarnish, blemish, fall – that fall is bigger, the price maybe higher – because it carries so much of us, of the collective soul.
And thus our rage, and rightful, righteous indignation.
When these fallen greater ones refuse to take responsibility for their shortcomings – a greater hole is dug in our hearts. Bigger role – greater hole.
We know enough psychology today not to label all such people as perverts – to understand that often the perpetrators were victims themselves – and we are called upon to exercise pity along with stern judgment. And while there is compassion for all involved, there is, like D’s case, a fair demand for payback, for atonement rituals, for public purging of the sins, for forgiveness, for healing.
But there is not enough of that.. And often lacking from religious leaders.
I don’t think it will be coming from the Vatican this week. The new Pontif is known for his humble, simple manners, but he has not taken a public position on the sex scandals of the church, and several of the cardinals who assembled for the Conclave played considerable roles in silencing the church’s voice against child molesting clergy. Never mind the rumors, rising, about the real reason for the pope’s resignation. The damage to the church, to plain pious people who’ve lost their faith in the leadership, in God, is huge. Maybe Francis I will surprise.
On more familiar turf: There are several rabbis and noted communal leaders in the Jewish world who have not stood up to take responsibility for weighty accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse. Despite allegations and actual court cases – so few rise to ask for forgiveness, raise hands up to heaven in real remorse.
There are many victims, survivors, family and friends who are in real need for these words and gestures of atonement, for the shame and the repression to give way to honesty and recognition, maybe a reconciliation – and the ability to move on.
A personal stake in this: Back in my Yeshiva High School days there was a certain rabbi who would often invite me into his office for conversations. Those sometimes became ‘playful wrestling’. There was a lot of shoulder hugging and affection and the body search for the wearing of ritual fringes, and I confess that at the time it didn’t seem out of place, if somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe I’m repressing more? Only recently, when allegations came out in the media against this prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi did all these memories resurface, along with vague recollections of all the early puberty confusion and shame that was my lot in those years. I’m not seeking revenge or payback. But I do think justice is called for. Unlike D. I don’t feel that I’ve been hurt or damaged. But I get the rage of others who have been hurt and bravely stepped up, in this case and others. And I’m angered by the denial on the part of this rabbi and his colleagues, attempts to hide the whole thing. I regret the lack of proper public ways to make amends, to come clean, to start again. Everybody deserves a second chance. And public rites can help.
There used to be such public rituals. Precisely for this need.
Earlier this week I read through the first few chapters of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah which begins its re-run cycle this coming shabbat. I scanned the recipes of sacrifices, trying to make sense of the system, to find metaphor and deeper meaning in this bygone technology.
In Leviticus 4 I find the procedures for transgression – for the ‘soul that shall sin through ignorance’ – which includes rites for anointed leaders – the priests themselves, upon their falling from grace:
Should a priest transgress he will:
Bring a bull to the threshold of the sacred tent
Place his hands on the bull
Dip finger in the blood and
Sprinkle seven times on the curtain the covers the sacred chamber
Mark the four corners of the altar with the blood,
Pour the remaining blood at the foot of the altar
Remove fat, kidneys, liver
Burn the rest, including skin and bones and dung
Watch the ashes being taken outside the camp.
And come clean.
So what’s that ritual today? How do we creatively replace the smell of blood, the bull of public remorse with some sort of meaningful ceremony of accountability and remorse? Trial? Press Conference? Maybe just public confession as a start?
Just this week the Chief Rabbinate of Israel announced a precedent – it will revoke the title of ‘rabbi’ from this guy who was found guilty, and publicly confessed and apologized, for stealing Torah scrolls. It’s a painful and important precedent. Can we expect the same for rabbis who’ve damaged not just holy objects and trust but the lives of members of their flock?
I find most of Leviticus useless archeology, relics only useful as reminders of the need for rituals that bring us closer to the reality of life and death. Can we activate the magic of atonement that worked for our ancients so long ago with some compelling results? For my friend D., and for the many others, for the tens of thousands victims looking to Rome this week, and for all whose voice has been silenced – I hope we do, and soon.
And in the meanwhile, it’s our duty to voice our outrage, not keep silent, name the shame, and cut the bull that covers up the secret sacrifice of our intimate and sacred lives. For good.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org