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Guest Blog: Tragic Violence Awakens the Orthodox Community

Aug 15, 2011 — Categories: ,

The brutal murder and dismemberment just a few weeks ago of 9-year-old Leiby Kletzky, of blessed memory, a member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, NY, has shaken the Jewish community.

The brutal murder and dismemberment just a few weeks ago of 9-year-old Leiby Kletzky, of blessed memory,  a member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, NY, has shaken the Jewish community.  Such raw brutality and extreme cruelty is rarely seen, especially in this pious and insular community, and has stirred grief, angst, and introspection.  How could such a tragedy occur to one of our own by one of our own?

No tragedy like this, or any other form of abuse or violence perpetrated against another, is justified and no response to it or development resulting from it validates it in any way whatsoever.   But, as the verse says, “Out of the strong came something sweet.” (Judges 14:14)

The nature of the responses and reactions to Leiby’s initial abduction and the community’s review of its actions has led to a significant step forward in the safety of all children in the community; it sparked a heated debate over rabbinic rulings concerning reporting and cooperating with civil law enforcement and judicial authorities.

By way of background: The traditional Jewish community adheres to Halakhah, Jewish religious law, based on biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinic texts.  These precepts include not only spiritual and ritual instructions, but include social, criminal, financial, and interpersonal rules as well.  Ideally, all disputes and judicial proceedings should be administered in and by a rabbinic tribunal (bet din).  In addition, centuries of anti-Semitic discrimination have made traditional Jewish communities distrustful of non-Jewish authorities, often rightfully so.  This has led to rabbinic rulings against arka’ot (adjudication in non-rabbinic courts) and mesirah (reporting fellow Jews to them.)  in order to protect the welfare, safety, and integrity of individual Jews and the Jewish community. These biases have often been adhered to even in the United States, despite many rabbinic rulings by well-respected and senior rabbis that these restrictions do not apply in countries that are generally nondiscriminatory and where rabbinic courts do not have the legal authority, expertise, or power to deal appropriately with criminal matters.  Nevertheless, old fears and biases are hard to break.  These factors have often caused suspicions of child abuse to go unreported and have led to many cases being trivialized, denied, and swept under the rug. 

But Leiby’s murder has significantly changed things.  Rabbinic rulings previously underreported and rabbinic voices previously silent are beginning to be heard.  The Agudath Israel of America, a significant national communal organization representing and serving the right-wing ultra-Orthodox community, issued a statement that is significantly more far-reaching than any it has issued in the past.  It states that “where there is ‘raglayim la’davar’ (roughly, reason to believe) that a child has been abused or molested, the matter should be reported to the authorities.”  It asserts that the obligation to report “is not limited to a designated class of ‘mandated reporters,’ as is the law in many states (including New York); it is binding upon anyone and everyone. In this respect, the halachic mandate to report is more stringent than secular law.” Some controversy persists, however, because it requires people to consult with rabbinic authorities to determine whether or not the suspicions are reasonable enough to report.

In the wake of the murder, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America reaffirmed a long held position that “consistent with that Torah obligation, if one becomes aware of an instance of child abuse or endangerment, one is obligated to refer the matter to the secular authorities immediately, as the prohibition of mesirah (i.e., referring an allegation against a fellow Jew to government authority) does not apply in such a case.”  It calls on individuals to consult with rabbinic or lay experts only when uncertain if the suspicions are reasonable.

My own articles, “The 411 on 911: Reporting Jewish Abusers to the Civil Authorities" and “Few Are Guilty, but All Are Responsible: The Obligations to Help Survivors of Abuse”, which elaborate on these issues in much greater detail, are available on www.jsafe.org.

The Rabbinical Council’s position, in my opinion, is forthright and responsible and is both religiously and morally correct.  And despite the limitations in the Agudah’s statement, its declaration is a momentous and major step forward and it will have significant positive impact on the safety, security, and welfare of many children in the Orthodox Jewish community.

It will always be unknown whether responsible reporting would have or could have saved little Leiby Kletzky, but the change in attitude toward reporting will be a worthy, ongoing tribute to his memory, enabling many little Leibys to grow safely into adulthood which is the way it is always meant to be.

Rabbi Mark Dratch
Orthodox Rabbi
Founder of JSafe – Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment

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