Michael Lesher's Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities is a clear-headed, investigative account of the systematic protection of child sex abusers, and corollary silencing of child sex abuse victims, in Orthodox Jewish communities. The book is meticulously documented, and unfortunately at this point, less shocking than it is confirming of what many of us have already suspected or known.
I am not an Orthodox Jew, but I am a Jew, and many aspects of the culture depicted in this book are familiar to me on some level. While I want to stress, as Lesher does, that sex abuse is not condoned in Judaism (far, far from it), I am familiar with that paranoia that somehow "they" (the other, the gentile) will get wind that we have done wrong, and use it as an excuse to persecute and annihilate us. This attitude may sound crazy in present-day America--but coming from the history of the Jews, well, it's the attitude that has kept us around this long. And I do honestly think that the self-preserving, suspicious instincts of Jews are an attribute that have allowed us to survive as long as we have. I am not defending the rabbis and authorities who have allowed these terrible abuses to happen, who have allowed these abuses to happen to children, to Jewish children, and by protecting their abusers, as Lesher points out, effectively excluded them from the community. No, I am not defending these people--but I am explaining their logic. They have created a society that protects criminals--in response to a larger society that uses the actions of criminals of particular groups in order to persecute innocent members of particular groups. Recent events in American history ought to reinforce that lesson for anyone reading this.
As it happens, sex abuse scandals have touched even my much more liberal, entirely (or almost entirely) compliant with secular authorities, sect of Judaism. At my synagogue, there was a much-beloved rabbi. I knew him well enough, or thought I did. He was the kindest of the rabbis, and the one who paid the most attention to children. He was always with us, playing games, singing songs. Unfortunately, he was passed over for promotion to head rabbi, and left in a huff. He had many supporters, and many people were upset that he was passed over for the position. In his new position in another state, his wife left him and took the children. He returned to our area, and began work for a well-known Jewish organization. the clergy at our synagogue invited him back to promote this organization to the children in the Hebrew school. Thus it was that I had seen and spoken with this rabbi only weeks before, when he was revealed very publicly as a child molester on a popular television show. Obviously, the show had been filmed much earlier. This man resigned from his job only right before it came out, and afterward a letter was sent around our synagogue offering counseling and inviting victims to come forward. As far as I'm aware, no one did.
It occurs to me that I simply don't know what went on behind the scenes. Did the other clergy and administration have some idea of what he was capable of, is that why they didn't offer him the head position? When his wife divorced him, was this part of the reason? When should people have sat up and taken notice? This man was continually around children, until the television show exposed him. Is it really possible that he had no actual victims? This, as Michael Lesher might say, is one of the "good" cases. This man was part of a community, and enough a part of the secular community, that held him responsible and had him legally prosecuted. Even so, it was a shameful day in our Jewish community, at our synagogue, in my household. We were not only horrified that we had been harboring this man, but we felt personally embarrassed, in front of the larger secular community, that such a person existed among us. We worried how it would make "us" look.
This is the mentality that the larger community foists upon minority groups, and makes crime a particularly fraught issue. What if we, all of us, could be blamed or tainted by the actions of the few?
This is the fear that drives rabbis and Jewish authorities to attack people like Lesher for exposing the criminals in Jewish communities. We want to deal with this privately, alone, so "they" don't know, so they can't hold us all responsible. As Lesher documents, these systems, from beit din (rabbinic courts) to Jewish "patrols" in Orthodox neighborhoods (essentially, private police), end up silencing victims and protecting perpetrators, all in the name of protecting the community overall. Victims and their families are pressured into not speaking up, forbidden to go to secular authorities. And perpetrators, often rabbis and people who work with children, continue with impunity.
This, as Lesher's book demonstrates, is the real problem. There are not more child molesters in the Jewish community than in any other community. There are not more child molesters in Orthodox Jewish communities than in Catholic Churches. In fact, the number of child molesters is parallel with the proportion expected in society overall. Child molesting is not a Jewish problem, it's a human problem. But the way certain Orthodox Jewish communities have organized themselves, child molesters are allowed to operate more freely, and accrue more victims, than if they were prosecuted when initial allegations were uncovered.
In Orthodox Jewish communities, as in all communities, the larger problem is power dynamics. This is the problem of feminism, the problem of civil rights, the problem of humanity. If those in power, in this case, the rabbinate, are threatened, then those not in power will suffer. While the culture of fear may be genuine, it also serves to bolster, knowingly or unknowingly, the power of the leaders. And, unfortunately, how leaders gain power is delineating between "us" and "them." "We" are right, and "they" are wrong. In Jewish communities, especially those in Israel, this means Jews vs. Palestinians. But it could also mean Jews (specifically, the rabbinate) against anyone who dares tell them they are wrong (specifically, outspoken victims of sexual abuse). Lesher, rightly I think, links the attitude toward child victims of sex abuse to similar attitudes towards women, and towards Palestinians. Poignantly, he writes:
If we tolerate the teaching that other people's children are legitimate targets, we have no right to be astonished when the same teaching is applied to our own children.
Chilling, isn't it?
Of course, this is not pleasant to talk about, but now is a time when all kinds of unpleasant conversations are coming to a head. So, let's begin at home. How do our attitudes, our prejudices, blind us to suffering? How can we stop? How can we begin to see, and begin to heal?
For the readers who want to answer those questions, this is a book for you. And I'll leave you with another quote from Lesher:
The questions we ask are driven by what we know; and what we know depends on the questions we ask.
Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.