Friday, 4 January 2013

Reb Tickle’s Swan Song: Part I – On Rabbis and Rabble

The time has come to bow out of Towelgate. I shan't refer to it as the 'Painful Saga' as those who coined that name had in mind only the pain of the poor accused and his 'distinguished family'. But not a word was heard from those quarters to acknowledge even the existence of victims and never mind a kind word for their pain.
It's a propitious time of year for reckoning so as we move on from the winter of discontent that has rocked our community it wouldn't be a bad idea to stand back and reflect. The basic facts hardly need repeating and the outcome is still far from certain. The reverberations will be felt for some time to come and there will be ample opportunity to analyse the causes and effects, exposures and cover ups, successes and setbacks, and winners and losers. On balance, however, I think we as a community have plenty to be proud of.
We have shown that rabbis too can be responsive when the weight of public anger is brought to bear down on them. Despite a hesitant start, those rabbis who acted showed resolve and courage in taking a stand to stamp out abuse in our midst. This was then followed by a dignified silence despite many provocations. One rabbi went even further by targeting those harbouring abusers and covering up for them. They were all in unchartered territory in respect of a scandal of this magnitude, concerning allegations this heinous, regarding a rabbi this senior in a community this frum. Yet act they did. While it is legitimate to criticise the manner they went about it, their fortitude in what they did must never be forgotten.
And seeing how such scandals have been dealt with in other parts of the world we can hold our heads even higher. What has transpired is truly unprecedented in a chareidi community where cover ups and denials are the order of the day. It has unfortunately been shown time and again that the more frum the community the more tolerant it tends to be of its sexual deviants and the more unable and unwilling it is to make difficult decisions. Perversely, this apparent inability turns to complete paralysis when the victims are themselves members of these same communities.
It is inconceivable that in Israel a group of chareidi rabbis would take on one of their own in this manner over sexual allegations. Over the excavating of non-existent graves, possibly. Over wig lengths and lycra content in women's tops, probably. Over political affiliations and fratricidal succession battles, definitely. But over touching up some women? We don't do such things and certainly not our rabbis, and anyway they're only women. Over there they call hospital heads 'Mengele' for the crime of rescuing a child from its deranged mother and burn rubbish on the streets when a father is arrested on suspicion (subsequently convicted) of murdering his own son.
Even in the USA where the civil authorities are less indulgent, no rabbi publicly condemned the convert specialist who sold Judaism for a song, or, to be more precise, a blow. Nor have I heard a single, sane voice from a senior chareidi figure in the furore following the conviction of Weberman on 59 charges relating to molestation. Here in London by contrast, a group of rabbis, some as chareidi as they come, condemned one of their own as unfit for purpose. This, my friends, is progress. It will no doubt in the course of time be pointed to as a turning point in the treatment of these issues in our communities and for this they deserve our unreserved gratitude.
Make no mistake, however. There are still plenty of dark forces out there desperate to turn the clock back. To them the corollary of the accused being innocent until proven guilty and permitted to retain his public role despite the relentless rumours and numerous allegations is that the victims are guilty until proven innocent. And if they're not guilty, they're mad, which indeed they must be to take on this dangerous lot.
Yet even this camp was relatively restrained. The letter from the Stamford Hill rabbis was moderate by their usual standards. They did not resort to ad-hominem attacks on the opposing side as is their wont and they condescended to provide reasons for their dissention which is rather gracious. This too is progress.
It has often appeared in recent times that rabbis have forgotten how to disagree on substantive issues. Whereas in days bygone disputes would be conducted by exchanges of responsa where the authors set out their respective positions, in recent years almost everything is sorted by a phone call to this or that godol following which all dissent is silenced. And on those occasions when differences do arise it is usually related to territorial or succession battles which often turn to violence. There has been little or no violence in this dispute and while ordinarily that is hardly something to be proud of, the reality of dispute handling in the chareidi world is such that this is also a form of progress. Even the invective unleashed in the comments is tame compared to what passes for a low key affair in Brooklyn or Bnei Brak.
Turning now to us Joe public, something this affair has revealed is the absence of a forum for UK, particularly London, frum Jews to talk and debate. I am an accidental askan in all of this and I was happy to host it only because no alternative existed.
Setting up a forum does not require a large initial outlay but simply a format that people take to and some TLC from the moderators. Many of the sites like vosizneias and YWN Coffee Room in the US or JDN, Ladaat and that unsavoury site, Behadrei Hareidim in Israel arose from humble beginnings but evolved to become primary news sites and talking shops for their respective communities. Less than a year ago there was established a Yiddish forums site, Kave Shtiebel, and it has already clocked up 10s of thousands of comments.
So I say to anyone out there who wishes to continue the conversation: go for it. It is not difficult to set up a site for forums and the demand is there. We have shown ourselves to possess far more intelligence, articulacy and maturity than our leaders and press credit us with and it would be a shame not to capitalise on the momentum.
To be continued…