A Sex Scandal Splits Orthodox Zionist World Between Silence and Action

By Nathan Jeffay

Published February 24, 2010, issue of March 05, 2010.
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Israel’s influential Orthodox Zionists have divided into two camps following a sexual-abuse scandal involving one of their most renowned and charismatic leaders, stoking fears for the future of rabbinic authority.

Takana, a rabbinic forum established in 2003 to clamp down on sexual misconduct by Orthodox educators, went public February 15 with allegations that Mordechai “Moti” Elon had taken advantage of his influence over male students and performed “acts at odds with sacred and moral values.”

The panel later said that two people, whose complaints alleged acts from about 25 years ago, had been under 18 at the time. More recent alleged acts involved students of Elon who were 18 or older. Since its initial disclosure, the panel reports having received one more complaint of an alleged underage encounter, which it has not yet reviewed.

In the wake of this news, Orthodox leaders and activists have split between those wishing to discuss the allegations openly and support the secular law-enforcement authorities investigating them, and those urging silence, lest the principle of rabbinic authority, which Elon embodied, come into question.

“I am telling everybody — keep silent,” the head of Jerusalem’s Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, told the Forward. He said that the affair must not be allowed to undermine the rabbis’ authority. But in deference to the stellar stature of the rabbinic panel that exposed the allegations against Elon, Aviner also said, “I think we have to trust these and these — and respect these and these,” referring to Elon and the rabbis on the panel.

Other Religious Zionist public figures are lauding the Takana rabbis as courageous, saying that making public allegations against one of their own is an important step in the right direction. Jerusalem-based novelist Naomi Ragen told the Forward that while the affair is “tragic and heartbreaking,” she thinks that “the positive aspect is that we see a new era, in that things which years ago would have been swept under the carpet are being brought into the open.”

Efforts by the Forward to reach Elon were unsuccessful. But he has publicly denounced the allegations against him as “a blood libel, a complaint without foundation.”

Elon is almost unique in his ability to so deeply cleave the Religious Zionist community. Son of former Supreme Court justice Menachem Elon, and brother of former lawmaker Benny Elon, his disciples number in the thousands. He has held senior posts in several educational institutions, including Yeshivat Horev and the flagship rabbinic school Yeshivat HaKotel, both in Jerusalem. He is a widely known figure among reli- gious elementary school children across the country. They read his weekly publication, which carries cartoons along with his thoughts on the weekly Torah portion. The secular public remembers him from a television show on the weekly portion that he used to present.

Yaakov Katz, a Religious Zionist lawmaker, described the affair as an “earthquake.” The impact on the Religious Zionist community, according to Hanoch Daum, who writes for the news Web site Ynet, must be reckoned by the fact that Elon “was not just another rabbi. He was a master and leader.” While the ultra-Orthodox world features many Hasidic rebbes, among Religious Zionists, Daum wrote, Elon was “the only Hasidic leader with followers; the only one who truly had a Hasidic court.”

The details of Elon’s alleged behavior, and the precise ages of the complainants who took their allegations to Takana, are unclear. The Takana forum members say they must remain vague to protect the complainants’ identities. But what has given the allegations credibility in the eyes of the public is the fact that the membership list of Takana reads like a Who’s Who of Religious Zionism. It includes Aharon Lichtenstein, son-in-law of the late Modern Orthodox icon Joseph Soloveitchik and head of the Har Etzion yeshiva in Gush Etzion, as well as Yuval Cherlow, founder of the Tzohar organization for Orthodox-secular reconciliation.

The Takana rabbis were very clear about why they chose to make the sexual-abuse allegations public now, several years after they themselves were made aware of them. When they were first informed about the charges, the rabbis said, they tried unsuccessfully to persuade the complainants to go to the police. In 2006, they also approached the attorney general at the time, Menachem Mazuz, who felt unable to probe the matter without the complainants’ cooperation. The current attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, has now told police to look into the allegations.

Stymied on the law-enforcement front, Takana rabbis said they demanded in 2006 that Elon cease face-to-face teaching, counseling and other rabbinic activities; he agreed. That year, he retired from his post at Yeshivat HaKotel and moved to the Galilee. But the forum rabbis say that Elon failed to honor his commitment, leaving them, according to a statement they released, with “no other way to protect the public from possible future harm” than by going public. The final straw was that the forum believed he had resumed counseling young men on sexual matters.

The backlash was not long in coming. On February 18, Elisha Vishlitzky, who is an influential rabbi at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem and a longtime Elon associate, gathered 50 Religious Zionist rabbis at a meeting, where they spoke of a desire to minimize public discourse on the affair. At this forum, Haim Druckman, chairman of the Bnei Akiva yeshiva network, gave what appeared to be a coded message of support for Elon, citing a rabbinic dictum that if one sees a sage sin by night, one should “not pursue him about it” by day, as he will have repented.

Settler journalist David Bedein told the Forward: “What I’m critical of is something very simple — trial by media. It’s terrible.” He said that if Takana rabbis believed that Elon had violated his agreement to refrain from educational work, they should have summoned him to a religious court. “It’s hard for me, given that I know both sides, to think that [Elon] would not have responded to a summons to a beth din [rabbinical court].”

But experts on the Religious Zionist community say that the damage to rabbinic authority is unstoppable.

Ira Sharkansky, emeritus Hebrew University professor and expert on Orthodox Jewry, said given that leading rabbis are seen as inheritors of an ancient line of tradition, “the aura that surrounds a rabbi of Rav Elon’s stature brings a degree of prestige, and when the expectations are violated, it’s a shock to a foundation of the Orthodox community.”

Debate on student adulation of their rabbis has become a popular theme in the Israeli media since the story broke. Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist with the daily paper Haaretz and former student and follower of Elon, wrote that the “only lesson” he can impart to his children from his experience is, “Never suspend your critical faculties toward figures of authority; do not become dependent on objects of admiration; and beware of charisma, as if from fire.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com

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