Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter Stirs Hornet's Nest With Remarks — Again

'Shvartze' Cleric Spoke of Killing Israeli Premier, Compared Women to Monkeys

Not First Time: Rabbi Hershel Schachter is universally recognized as a Talmud scholar. When he speaks about more worldly matters, he has a history of making offensive remarks.
yeshiva university
Not First Time: Rabbi Hershel Schachter is universally recognized as a Talmud scholar. When he speaks about more worldly matters, he has a history of making offensive remarks.

By Paul Berger

Published March 21, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

One of Yeshiva University’s leading rabbinic scholars is in trouble — again — after using a derogatory term to refer to African Americans and questioning whether child sex abuse allegations should be brought directly to police.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter, regarded as one of America’s most influential Modern Orthodox rabbis, previously provoked ire for appearing to equate women with monkeys and for seeming to condone the killing of Israel’s prime minister.

This time, Schachter is in trouble for telling an audience of British rabbis that American state prisons are dangerous for Jews because they could be locked up “with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.”

Schachter also suggested that Jewish communities set up panels of Torah scholars who are trained in psychology; this way, before children’s allegations of sex abuse claims are reported to the police, the panel can determine whether the allegations are legitimate. “It could be that the whole thing is a bubbe-mayse [tall tale],” Schachter said.

Click to see the rest of the section, Click for more stories about abuse at Y.U.

He also claimed that New York hospitals are covering up cases of ultra-Orthodox mohels transmitting herpes to infants during circumcision because the hospitals fear they will lose Haredi patients.

A recording of segments of the talk, which was delivered in London in February, was posted on FailedMessiah.com March 15 and independently verified by the Forward.

Schachter, one of the most respected faculty members of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, is called upon regularly to lecture and advise America’s leading Orthodox organizations, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union.

“Hundreds of rabbis hang on [Schachter’s] every word and interpret his every utterance as binding Jewish law,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, spiritual leader of Washington’s Ohev Sholom National Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation. “Because of that, he has a tremendous responsibility to speak carefully.”

Y.U. hosts more than 3,700 of Schachter’s shiurim, or lessons, on its affiliated Y.U. Torah website. The Forward asked a Y.U. spokesman whether Schachter’s complete London shiur had initially been posted on this site and, if so, what had happened to it. The spokesman did not respond by deadline.

After Failed Messiah’s posting of the recorded excerpts, Y.U. sought to distance itself from Schachter’s remarks, citing its faculty’s “freedom of speech and expression.” But one day later, under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League, Y.U. condemned Schachter’s use of the word shvartze.

“The recent use of a derogatory racial term and negative characterizations of African Americans and Muslims by a member of the faculty are inappropriate, offensive, and do not represent the values and mission of Yeshiva University,” a Y.U. spokesman told the ADL, which, in turn passed on the statement to the Forward.

In an interview with the Forward, Y.U. spokesman Michael Scagnoli declined to comment on Schachter’s other remarks, including his position that child sex abuse allegations within the Jewish community should be screened by a panel of Torah scholars trained in psychology before those deemed valid are brought to the police.

The university has faced intense scrutiny in recent months following an outpouring of claims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse against former employees of Yeshiva University High School for Boys between 1970 and 1995.

Herzfeld, a prominent graduate of the school, said Schachter’s child abuse comments sent a message to victims that Y.U., which is conducting an investigation into the abuse allegations, is not receptive to hearing about claims. “It’s really very sad and very, very concerning,” Herzfeld said.

In December and January, the Forward published several reports in which more than 20 Y.U high school students told of being sexually and physically abused at Y.U.’s high school over a period spanning three decades. The reports led Y.U. to commission its investigation, still ongoing, into the allegations

In his talk, Schachter recounted how decades ago he decided not to tell law enforcement authorities about abuse allegations brought to him by a student at Y.U.’s high school. He said he decided not to do so when the student, citing deep embarrassment, declined to see a school psychologist

Schachter went on to suggest that the student was responsible for any further students who may have been harmed by his alleged abuser, because he would not see the psychologist.

“So now, 40 years later, the guy’s spilling everything out to the newspaper,” Schachter said.

Schachter also cautioned against reporting abuse to the authorities without first seeking advice from a Torah scholar, because, he said, police and social service workers often “don’t handle the situation properly.”

After citing anecdotes of alleged wrongful accusations against men in Israel and in America, Schachter said, “Before you go to the police and before you go to family services, every community should have a board… to investigate whether there’s [reasonable suspicion of abuse] or not.”

Erin Duggan, chief spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, said her office “strongly encourages” adults, whether or not they are mandated by law to report abuse, “to report any suspicions of child abuse to law enforcement.”

“Law enforcement personnel who specialize in investigating crimes against children have unique training to evaluate a report of abuse and to determine if a further investigation is appropriate,” Duggan said.

Schachter’s statements have caused uproar before. In 2004 the rabbi invoked a common talmudic idiom about monkeys to explain why any Jew, even a woman, may publicly read out a Jewish marriage contract, or ketubah, as part of a wedding ceremony. In 2008 he was forced to cut short a trip to Israel and to issue an apology for suggesting that the Israeli prime minister should be shot if he ceded control of Jerusalem.

At the time, Schachter and Y.U. President Richard Joel said in separate statements that Schachter’s words did “not represent [Schachter’s] views.”

Several leading Modern Orthodox rabbis, speaking off the record, described Schachter as an open-minded and tolerant man. They expressed sadness at his remarks, particularly at his use of the word shvartze. “That’s just not who he is,” one rabbi said.

Schachter’s defenders point out that he stated clearly in his talk that mesirah — the traditional prohibition against informing on a fellow Jew to the secular authorities — is not an issue in cases of sex abuse.

Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA, said Schachter “has the respect of the RCA.” But he stressed that his organization’s official position on reporting abuse does not require a panel of Torah scholars to evaluate claims.

“Our position is that credible allegations of abuse should be reported directly to the authorities,” Goldin said.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the O.U.’s executive vice president emeritus, said his organization followed the same policy as the RCA on reporting abuse.

The O.U. turns to Schachter regularly for advice on Halacha, or Jewish law. Weinreb said Schachter is the “final halachic authority” only with regard to kosher food, and that “he is not a spokesman for O.U. on other matters, although we consider his input respectfully.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.