The Soul of Halakha

The Soul of Halakha

By Blu Greenberg

This is the season of teshuva, of repentance and of turning one’s life in new directions. On a communal level teshuva means reorienting our values and reordering priorities. In this spirit, we devote the JOFA Journal to the Lanner case.

An important youth leader, Rabbi Baruch Lanner has been accused of sexually harassing girls and physically abusing boys. The allegations against Lanner are compounded by accusations that those who had the power to protect the victims did not take appropriate action (The Jewish Week, June 23, 2000).

Questions of whether Lanner is guilty and whether his superiors were aware of the allegations but remained passive are the substance of an investigative commission. Regardless of their findings (JOFA bases itself upon reports in The Jewish Week and does not take a position on the guilt of Lanner or his organization), we must explore the questions that will likely remain beyond the purview of the commission — the “why” questions.

One such question regards oversight. It hangs disquietingly in the air, for it cuts deeper than the story of one alleged abuser. As a community, we must ask what principles or mind-set might enable Jewish leaders to turn a deaf ear to young victims and hear only the accused. When the accused is viewed not only as a charismatic leader, but also as a talmid hakham — a Torah scholar, we find that some in our community apply a different standard of accountability.

There are several signs of this double standard. One is the accusation that defaming a talmid hakham constitutes lashon hara (slander). Another is the charge that disclosing the aberrant behavior of an individual who represents Judaism amounts to a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. Third is talk of the intervention of daas Torah in establishing a differential set of parameters of confidentiality and responsibility for a talmid hakham.

Perforce we must ask: Is it merely collegiality or is there a basis in our sacred texts for judging an errant talmid hakham by a different set of rules? One would imagine that a rabbi and purveyor of Torah would be held to a higher moral standard, a more rigorous public accountability, not a lesser one. Indeed, one can find numerous text references that hold leaders to a higher standard.1 Yet there is also a strand in our tradition that permits covering up the sins of a talmid hakham as well as disciplining him less stringently. 2 Regrettably, many of those who hold the interpretative keys to halakha have chosen to lean on the former, on those sources which offer leeway to cover and whitewash misdeeds of a leader.

Something is terribly wrong with this picture. An emphasis on legal detail divorced from the humanity of the halakha negates the true purposes of halakha; to develop a relationship with God, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to improve the world. The process of bifurcation applies to issues concerning women as well.

That the agunah’s cries carry less weight than purely legal or procedural issues dramatizes not only the failure of religious creativity but also the disembodiment of halakha and its disconnection from a woman’s trauma. We should be concerned that the next generation of talmidei hakhamim are trained not only to apply legal structures, but to attend to the human suffering behind the questions.

How can we increasingly restore the humanity to the halakhic enterprise? We must search for ways everywhere. One way is to bring women more fully into the halls of learning, and religious and communal authority. If women were involved in scrutiny and oversight of leaders when girls complain of harassment they would not likely be asked, “But he didn’t rape you, did he?” If women were involved in halakhic decision making, they would lend weight to those halakhists who are attentive to human feeling, extending beyond strict application of legal principles. If women were fully accepted in the beit midrash, we would learn to read our sacred texts in a new light. Walk into a women’s beit midrash and you will find that talmudic texts concerning aginut or rape are read with a different sensitivity, one that would enhance men’s understanding of these texts, and ultimately, p’sak (halakhic decision) on these issues.

All of these concerns must now be taken up by the whole community and not swept under the rug. Teshuva means it is never too late to re-chart a new path. It is possible to achieve many things as a community: to break the chain of women’s vulnerability, to elevate the sanctity of an individual to his and her proper level of tzelem Elokim (creation in God’s image), to restore a single standard of ethics for the whole community, and to place moral and ethical issues on a plane of ultimate halakhic significance. T eshuva is the path to tikkun olam, repair of the world. it is only when we repair our own house that we will be able to influence the world, as God has set us upon this earth to do. Wishing you, dear readers, a sweet and healthy New Year. Le’shanah tova tekatevu ve tekhatemu.

1 See for example Bavli Moed Katan 17a, Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 7,1, Shulkhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 334,42, and Yoma 86a

Go back to Community Challenge, Baruch Lanner Case: Fall 2000