Religion & Beliefs

The Heretic: How the Law of Lashon Hara Has Been Dangerously Perverted By Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis

A young boy is called up to his teacher’s desk in a yeshiva grade school. “Stay after class, Shmuley. I want to talk to you.” Shmuley stays, frightened that he has done something wrong and his teacher will punish him. … Read More

By / July 30, 2008

A young boy is called up to his teacher’s desk in a yeshiva grade school.

“Stay after class, Shmuley. I want to talk to you.” Shmuley stays, frightened that he has done something wrong and his teacher will punish him. Once the other boys have gone, his teacher – a rabbi – places Shmuley on his lap and uses his tiny, warm body to stroke his erection. When the rabbi is finished pleasuring himself, he tells Shmuley to leave. “But you be quiet. You don’t tell anyone what we did. It’s lashon hara, and it will hurt you and hurt your parents.” Shmuley leaves, frightened and confused. Later, after the fifth molestation or the fiftieth, after months or years have passed, Shmuley tells his parents. His parents tell the school’s head rabbi, who responds by denying the boy’s report. He sternly warns the parents not to “talk lashon hara” (gossip) about Shmuley's teacher or about the yeshiva. This is not the first time the yeshiva head has heard allegations about Rabbi X, and he knows how to effectively respond. “It is lashon hara to do so,” the yeshiva head says. “And it will only hurt you.” Your other children will have difficulty finding marriage partners, the rabbi says, and Shmuley – well, Shmuley will be “damaged goods” – no one, except a girl who is also very damaged, will ever marry him. This is far from an idle threat in a community that thrives on arranged marriages and rabbinic control. The parents leave, frustrated and frightened. Their eight-year-old son is now “damaged goods.” They approach another rabbi, powerful in their community, and ask his advice. “Your son is a minor. his testimony would not be accepted in beis din (religious court). It is his word against Rabbi X – and Rabbi X is a very well regarded teacher. And, from what you tell me, even if what Shmuley said is true – and I doubt that – no violation of Torah law took place. Shmuley was not violated. “So, my advice to you – my legal judgement, in fact – is to listen to what the head of the yeshiva told you. Do not speak lashon hara against him, or against his school – and most certainly, not against Rabbi X.” The parents go to another important community rabbi and get a very similar answer. Without community support to back them, and with the very real prospect of “destroying” their children’s lives by branding them “damaged goods,” the parents stay silent. Shmuley isn’t given counseling because the stigma, if revealed, would be too great. The family lives with this terrible secret, an elephant always in the room but never spoken of, the tarnished Elijah’s Cup of every meal, every celebration, every enjoyment they will ever have. Rabbi X continues to abuse young victims from his desk in the yeshiva, protected by a presumption of innocence belied by the facts, by the silence of Shmuley’s family – and by a Jewish law. This nightmare scenario has allegedly been repeated multiple times in Brooklyn, Monsey, Bnei Brak, and other ultra-Orthodox communities worldwide. How did this happen? How did a law meant to protect people from gossip become a club used by rabbis to beat defenseless children and their families into submission? There is a long answer and a short answer to that question, and both can be summed up in same three words: The Chofetz Chaim.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan is the iconic figure of today’s ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Kagan wrote many books on Jewish law in his long life. The first – and what may in retrospect prove to be his most controversial – was the Chofetz Chaim, a compendium of the laws of lashon hara. Nothing that Kagan wrote in Chofetz Chaim was really new. What Kagan did – to the dismay of a few prescient rabbis – was compile laws scattered is disparate sections of the Talmud and in codes of Jewish law, and publish them for the first time as an organic whole with his commentary woven in. Kagan wanted his “little book” to be studied by the masses. He lived his entire long life firmly believing the messiah was literally coming any minute. Legend has it that at one point, he went into training for the “event,” running the stairs in his home to keep his aging body in shape for the blessed day. He thought the study of these laws would speed the messiah’s coming.

But Kagan’s book did bring these disparate laws out of the shadows and into the spotlight of Orthodox observance. And that, by and large, has been a bad thing. Kagan’s idealism surpassed his realism. And, because Kagan’s book contained no dissenting opinions, that idealism became the baseline Jews were expected to follow – without nuance, without shades of gray, without real compensation for corrupt judges, rabbis, and leaders. It was Jewish law written in a vacuum but enforced in real life, law without context and without soul. Kagan was a founder of the Agudath Israel movement, whose American branch recently campaigned against mandatory background checks for religious school teachers and employees, and would itself be linked to inaction in the face of rabbinic sexual abuse.

He urged Jews (with a few notable exceptions) to remain in Eastern Europe rather than settle in Palestine or America, and would go on to write twenty more books on Jewish law and ethics before he died in 1933 at the age of 95, in the shadow of the Holocaust that took so many of his followers and townspeople. Kagan’s reputation as a saint survived nonetheless, and he and his books serve as totems worshipped with almost childlike veneration by ultra-Orthodoxy. He is often cited as the posek acharon, the final decisor and codifier of Jewish law, and his name and works have been preserved by the New York-based Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation. His books are found in almost every Orthodox home, library, shul and school – and in quite a few non-Orthodox settings, as well. Orthodox Jews would be quick to point out that Kagan’s laws of lashon hara are misapplied by the rabbis in Shmuley’s story. Orthodox Jews are correct – the law is misapplied. But, like Kagan, what they miss is the inevitability of that misapplication, and the certitude of it. The ultra-Orthodox community is not a democracy. It has no system of checks and balances, no ombudsman to press the case of the powerless, no campaign finance laws or transparency. It has no elections and no governance. It is a loosely joined series of potentates run by pashas dressed in black frock coats, fedoras and shtreimels, who owe allegiance to no one but themselves, and who are answerable only to God. And, as history and common sense tell us, God doesn’t often demand answers from those still here on this earth. Until ultra-Orthodoxy adopts a fully transparent form of governance with a working system of checks and balances, laws meant to protect reputations will instead often be used to destroy lives – especially the lives of the smallest and the weakest, especially the lives of children like Shmuley.