Many members of the Jewish community are scratching their heads these days about the seemingly bizarre decision by the board of the Riverdale Jewish Center to keep on Jonathan Rosenblatt as their communal rabbi despite significant evidence that he has been acting inappropriately in his leadership role. To be fair there are people like Dr Steven Bayme who, according to the New York Times, decided that they cannot morally justify staying in such a synagogue, despite four decades of commitment, and for that they should be commended. And yet, despite what seems like an obvious history of violations of some basic moral and Jewish tenets, the board is retaining Rosenblatt, making victims of sexual abuse and their allies question the ethical backbone of the entire Orthodox community.
In fact, though, we should not be so surprised by the support that Rosenblatt has gotten from some of his balabusim and some of his peers. There is a long list of sexual predators and other Torah offenders who have received enviable support even as their sins come to light. Motti Elon, for example, who was convicted of sexual assault against his male students, has a strong following in Israel and abroad, and is frequently invited as a lecturer around the country. Marc Gafni, another long-time sexual offender, is considered a celebrity in many places, while his offenses barely find mention in his bio or on his Wikipedia page (“Best-selling author” it is). Michael Broyde, whose bizarre crimes of fraud were not sexual but nevertheless far out of the bounds of Torah, seems to be leading a new minyan of followers. And while Barry Freundel is largely condemned for his outrageously hurtful crimes of mikveh voyeurism, he had many vocal supporters before the undeniable evidence against him came to light, and many voices of support during sentencing — including Orthodox machers and pundits declaring, “It’s not rape” and therefore he should have gotten a much shorter sentence.
It is not only in the Jewish world where high-profile sexual predators find high-profile support. It has taken dozens of testimonies of women and several decades before anyone began taking seriously the allegations against Bill Cosby — and he still has some major celebrity supporters. Accusations against Dominique Kahn-Strauss were dismissed by some of his peers with a jovial, “Everyone knows he likes women.” And in fact all we have to do is look to the Supreme Court where Clarence Thomas has been sitting silently for over two decades despite powerful testimony about sexual harassment against him. It seems as if it is often easier for men in positions of power to wiggle out of accusations of sexual abuse than it is for victims to be believed.
This dynamic has a lot to do with bystander phenomenon. As Judith Herman wrote in her trail-blazing book “Trauma and Recovery,” all that abusers need from the world is passivity in order to continue abusing. Intervention, which benefits the victims, is much harder to receive than passivity. The default position of the observing world, of standing and doing nothing, is all the abuser really asks for.
In cases of sexual abuse with high-profile offenders, the dynamic is even more troubling. In these cases, abusers ask their high-profile peers for actual support, which can be very commanding. It is also relatively easy for some people to offer that kind of support; if you have been working or communing with someone for a long time, you don’t want to believe that he or she has been living a secret life of abuse or pedophilia. You want to think you know the person. His reputation also impacts your own. Acknowledging that your peer or friend has been doing this challenges your own ego, and your own reputation as well.
But that is exactly how abuse works. Extensive research shows that most abusers have a “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” personality. The most charming and charismatic leaders are often the greatest monsters. This is a fact known to all professionals dealing with sexual abuse and domestic violence. In the famous list of “23 signs of an abusive partner” circulated by social workers in the field, charm and charisma are often sign number one.
Support for abusers can have more sinister origins as well. A blog post circulating recently by a former student of the Board Chair in Rosenblatt’s shul alleges that the Chair, too, has a child molestation problem, and claims to be his victim. When leaders identify with the accused more than they identify with victims – as the RCA did for so long despite accusations against Freundel, for example – one cannot help but wonder what they might be hiding themselves.
More commonly, support for the accused comes from a more mundane human dynamic. People do not want to believe what they have not seen for themselves. Feminists get this all the time. If women describe experiences of exclusion or abuse or inequality, we are often met with those same incredulous responses of, “Well, it didn’t happen to me so it’s obviously not an issue.” Women do this to one another as well. Women — and men – will often stop believing testimonies that do not mesh with their own personal experiences. As if to say, if I haven’t experienced it, it didn’t happen.
But there is a brilliant Talmudic response to this that the community would be wise to remember. “Eino ro’eh eino ra’ya”, which means, the fact that I haven’t seen it is not a proof of anything. We should all remember that.
Supporters of high-profile offenders – even alleged offenders – would do well to step out of their own personal experiences and listen with compassion to the voices of the victims. The pain of being sexually abused as a child, compounded by years or even decades of secrets and silence, is something that a community needs to be able to hear and empathize with if we are going to be a Torah community.