Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Canonist Off The Mark

Preface: I don't normally read Canonist*, though over the last week I have visited a few times. I was skimming through when I came across this piece, and, being a long piece, decided to post a response here rather than as a comment.

* edit - to clarify, this is simply because I don't; I have nothing against Canonist.

Steven I. Weiss wrote a post on Canonist responding to R' Gil Student's post on Hirhurim regarding the abuse issue currently at the forefront of the news in the Jewish community. He (respectfully) criticized Gil's post, but I feel that many of his assertions and complaints against Gil were unfair or completely off-base. One would have to read both of those posts to understand this one, so please do so before commenting on this post. Thank you.

Weiss starts by criticizing Student's statement that he has "no way of knowing whether or not the accusations are true and therefore prefer to let those most capable of evaluating such charges do so." Weiss complains:
Student does not and cannot lay out for us a set of specific reasons why the reports out there are not sufficiently believable to him, and similarly does not and cannot lay out for us a specific set of conditions that would make the reports believable.
This is unfair for a number of reasons. First, Gil clearly states (correctly) that he has no way of knowing whether or not the accusations are true. He then adds that "I know that false accusations of this nature occur and therefore cannot reach a conclusion on this matter." This is a perfectly reasonable approach, especially when one considers that there exists nothing but a lawsuit coupled with a somewhat over-the-top article in a magazine. Should we assume guilt until proven innocent in this case? Gil took the proper approach of not stating a definitive opinion of guilt in a case where nobody but the plaintiffs and defendants could possibly know what happened. Weiss seems to have a very low threshold for assuming guilt in this case. He implies that the reports, on their own, are "sufficiently believable" and asks at what point Student would agree; he does not state what his own standards are, and why they were so easily reached that he presumes guilt.

He then follows this with an outrageous sentence:
And this is the crux of the conflict that has faced anti-abuse advocates in their hopes of making real progress: an attitude of protecting the rabbinate that is so complete that it does not make enough room for extra-rabbinic, extra-Judaic, and extra-halachic claims to take seed.
Nowhere, in no way, did Gil "protect the rabbinate". He made one statement about not knowing for a fact whether the accusations are true, and Weiss has twisted this to mean something completely different. Weiss is seemingly dissatisfied with anything less than complete belief in the allegations, and any who do not do so are immediately categorized as trying to protect the rabbinate (and implying the abusers within the rabbinate).

Next, Weiss takes Gil to task for apparently not saying strongly enough that more work must be done to stop these abusers. Gil:
There are rabbis who spend a good deal of time investigating and preventing such matters. Are they entirely successful? Probably not. Could they be better trained? Probably. But they are putting forth superhuman efforts (without being paid or appreciated for it). Perhaps greater acknowledgment of their contributions to our community will serve to enhance their efforts.
This displays several elements harmful to the continued pursuit of an abuse-free clergy: a willing ignorance, a failure to comprehend the depth of the problem and the obstacles to solving it, and an overreliance on rabbis and the rabbinate as the totality of the solution.
It is unclear how Weiss saw "a willful ignorance", a "failure to comprehend the depth of the problem", or an "overreliance on rabbis as the totality of the solution" from Student's statement. Gil seems to be saying, "Don't think that nobody is doing anything." He then notes the flaws, and proceeds to suggest one way of enhancing what they are doing. Is his statement exclusionary? Not at all. Weiss is the only one who reads it in that fashion. Weiss then proceeds to state the problems the rabbis face - noting almost exactly the same points as Gil had.

The next few paragraphs involve Weiss quoting Gil, then disagreeing while saying much the same things as Gil had. Gil suggests that camps and the like need to be extremely vigilant, but they are lacking in training; Weiss then says "On the whole, Jewish institutions are profoundly lacking in procedures to detect and properly respond to abuse." Gil suggests that Jewish institutions contact JSafe and other experts; Weiss rejects the idea, claiming that Jewish institutions are not open to doing so and have rejected it in the past. In that case, what does Weiss suggest? Or is he simply saying, 'There's nothing to be done, because the Orthodox community will not allow anything to be done' ? This would be a reasonable statement, but he seems to be criticizing Gil for simply disagreeing with that notion.

A bit later on in the post, Weiss quotes Gil once again.
Earlier today I had a long talk with a fellow parent and the principal of my sons'’ yeshiva. He told us what he does to avoid such problems and listened to our suggestions on what else can be done. His basic approach is to follow common sense and if a teacher violates that, fire him (or her). As his posek told him, his responsibility is the safety of his students. The teacher'’s livelihood is God'’s responsibility.
Weiss then argues (correctly) that this is different from the approach some other institutions have utilized. This is true, but does not contradiStudent'sl's statement; clearly, the principal of this yeshiva is the one with the proper approach, the approach with which Gil and Weiss both agree. Weiss seems to be using this and other points simply to rant somewhat at the problems he perceives (rightly or wrongly) in the Jewish community.

A bit further down, Weiss makes a statement that seems somewhat hypocritical:
But what'’s more confusing about this is the underlying assumption that false claims are of great concern to the rabbinate. How many false claims are you aware of that have harmed a rabbi's career?
Firstly, two come to mind immediately. However, that is not the issue. Does it matter whether or not any false claims have ruined a career? No. We need to have protections in place, first and foremost to students from abuse, but also to rabbeim and teachers from false claims. To allow any claim to have credence simply because someone made an allegation is foolhardy and leads to the reverse problem. A set of guidelines must be put into place to protect everyone, as Gil suggested.

Finally, Weiss takes issue with Gil's statement that "when a great Torah scholar is quoted on a blog or in a secular magazine as saying something that seems outrageous, assume that he is being misquoted. I believe you are halakhically obligated to do so." Weiss disagrees vehemently:
Who are we to say what should “seem outrageous” from the mouth of a Torah scholar? To be quite specific, to assert that the statement attributed to R’ Pinchas Scheinberg is outrageous is to say that our own differing values can reasonably determine that he must not have said so, without further evidence.
On the other hand, Weiss is doing the exact same thing in reverse, assuming that R' Scheinberg must have made such an egrerious statement simply because someone alleged that he had. As Weiss himself says a few lines later, "The entire issue of clergy abuse — from the micro of a specific rabbi to the macro of the broader Jewish community — is about competing claims." Exactly! For this very reason, assumption of guilt is unfair and foolish, and outrageous or out-of-character claims are ones which deserve an extra dose of skepticism. If they are proven true, then by all means, believe them; but until that point is reached, there is no reason to assume they are true.

Weiss concludes with a number of statements, many of which I agree with, some which I do not.
To start with, it’s absolutely clear that the most reliable form of verifying claims of abuse lay with law enforcement; they have the forensic capability and access to evidence that no voluntary organization will ever have. If each Jew takes it upon themselves to properly communicate allegations of abuse to law enforcement, as opposed to relying on any rabbinic body to take charge of the situation, we will have removed from the equation those abuse cases that more properly belong there than in the hands of rabbis who could never be properly equipped.
Very well said, and little to add. I would only note that the rabbinate should work with law enforcement, and not be sidelined. Sidelining people of authority may result in (further) backlash against those who bring in law enforcement; better to work with them.
Secondly, given that we cannot trust the rabbinate to properly police the problem, we cannot trust the rabbinate to properly communicate the reality of the problem. For this reason, Student’s assertions about news reports indicate an allegiance to rabbis as sources of information who will never prove reliable enough to approach the possibility of solving it. I assume that Student’s natural distrust of news media as purveyors of information about abuse stems from his overreliance on rabbinic outlets as the proper purveyors of this information; but we already know that those rabbis won’t be able to do the job. In order to assure proper vigilance in policing abuse as individuals, we have to trust those sources of information we can rely upon, and this includes traditional news media and, increasingly, blogs.
I partially disagree. We cannot trust the rabbinic outlets to be the only ones policing these situations, but they must play an integral role. Most rabbis are not corrupt and are able to provide meaningful assistance, yet Weiss would prefer that they be cut out of the solution. I think this is the wrong approach and does more harm than good. He continues further...
If we, as individuals, are left in some doubt as to the veracity of the claims, it is our duty to pursue that by addressing our remaining questions in specific terms so that they may be answered.
To simply leave the information in a credibility limbo, saying we don’t know what to believe, is to fail to be vigilant in certifying claims of abuse.
No - it is taking the responsible approach and not jumping to conclusions before knowing all the facts. Picking one side or the other before learning all that can be is irresponsible and fails to be vigilant in pursuing the truth.
And if we expect that in leaving it in such a limbo, we can reliably wait for the true answer to come from our rabbis, we are fooling ourselves.
But nobody does so. The answers come from the truth - evidence, testimony, and the like. Weiss finishes his post with the following:
The only solution is for those of us who really care to be individually vigilant in a manner appropriate to our means. And that requires relying upon those with means unavailable to us to serve in our place, such as investigative journalists with unblemished reputations who put their evidence out there for us to see. Surely, it also includes the kind of vigilance Student pushes for, as well: it would be a good thing if JSafe caught on; it would be a good thing if rabbis signed up to the idea of JSafe, even if they later abandoned it; it would be a good thing if individual institutions developed the kind of standards required for certification by JSafe; and all of these can happen in greater amounts with individual vigilance, as Student suggests.

But part of that vigilance is in knowing that all of these endeavors, no matter how successful, would not be a complete solution and that any and all of them are subject to crumbling at a moment’s notice, and most importantly that a failure to implement them will not mean that we do not have proper means at our disposal to confront abuse. We must know that the additional methods of investigative journalism and heavy reliance upon law enforcement, among other things like an honest acknowledgement of the size and scope of the problem and solutions, are necessary parts of the abuse-resistance whole.
Absolutely. I don't think anyone disagrees with this conclusion, particularly R' Gil. Weiss would have been better off writing just these last paragraphs. They are excellent.


  1. Other than the obvious misquote of Rabbi Scheinberg, the other thing that bothered me was the question of false allegation. If many of those commenting on the topic of abuse had their way, there'd be no protections and the charge of abuse could be much too easy to make.
    I know of a case where a false charge was made - a wife against a husband -and the person who was accused took years of legal proceedings to be cleared. Even after he was cleared he couldn't be alone with his children for some time either.

  2. But the possibility of false charges brings up another problem: at what point do you believe the charges are true.

  3. Ezzie - In relation to your reasonable questioning about when to believe accusations of abuse, I think you have to ask yourself, "what possible gain does this person get from the accusation?" and "what possible loss does he risk?" In most cases, the risks of public humiliation are far greater than any gain. So why does the person make the accusation? Because it is true, and the victim needs to seek justice, not only for his own healing but to protect others from a predator. Another thing to think of is the "worst case scenario". If a paedofile is accused, and the community initially believes the accusers and he is jailed, then scores of children are protected, both physically and psychologically. If someone is falsely accused, then perhaps one person loses his parnassa (which he will gain again if he is cleared). Another point leading me to a "knee-jerk" belief in those making these allegations, is that when one person has the courage to come out and accuse someone of sexual abuse, it usually brings out many more who corraborate the information because they too were abused by the same person. It is extremely rare that an abuser has only one victim. But if our knee-jerk reaction is to deny the accusations out of hand, or put extreme pressure on the accuser to just be quiet, then we don't have the opportunity to hear others who may have similar stories to impart.

  4. Ezzie,

    Thank you for the defense. I would add that I do not share Steven's faith in investigative journalism. Just because a journalist thinks it's true, and can get it by his editors and lawyers (perhaps with very careful phrasing), does not mean that it is true.

  5. Thought I would never see it! A newbie blogger engaging in an intellectual debate with the J-blogsphere's original most sophosticated intellectuals?.

  6. SoccerDad - Exactly. I think precautions always need to be taken immediately; I know personally someone who turned out to be a child molester. (See my post below.) But the door can't be left wide open for false accusations.

    WBM - Unfortunately, there is much to be gained. Sometimes it's to strike at whomever is being accused, even for something legitimate. Sometimes it's money. Sometimes the person simply is not stable.

    I agree and disagree with the 'worst case scenario' approach. As I wrote to SD, all precautions must be taken - but the presumption of guilt should not be made. Let the case be investigated before we assume that the accused is guilty of a heinous crime. Many people know others who've been falsely accused; even when fully exonerated, their lives are somewhat destroyed. It's not just a loss of parnassah at all. The more we can limit that, the better. False accusations simply shouldn't be stood for.

    But if our knee-jerk reaction is to deny the accusations out of hand, or put extreme pressure on the accuser to just be quiet, then we don't have the opportunity to hear others who may have similar stories to impart.

    I think that's the mistake many are making. There is a choice between acceptance and denial. Not accepting the claims outright is not denial, and is not putting pressure on the accuser to be quiet. It's saying: "Wow. That's terrible. Let's investigate and prove this is true before we just accept it at face value."

    Gil - Very strongly agree. The burden of proof for allegations and for a news story are far lower than what it takes to actually prove something. Investigative journalism provides a wonderful, important service, bringing stories such as this under public scrutiny - but it is then up to the public (courts, police, etc.) to determine if they are actually true.

    Anon - Newbie? You should visit more often. :)

  7. I liked Gil's approach of looking at where we are not safeguarding our students and teachers (it reminds me of my approach :), but felt that some of the underlying premises and assumptions were flawed, so I was glad to see Steven put his name out there to say that self-policing doesn't work.

    Your follow up critique combined with the other two left a lot to think about and brought home the most important points.

  8. Efrayim - well put.

    SL - Thank you!

  9. Ezzie - I came away from my original reading of the 2 posts - as I do from your comments - saying that this all works much better in theory than in practice.

    We have seen a string of incidents - not all of them related to sexual abuse - in which the closed political ranks and clan mentality of the Orthodox world have resulted in terrible slanders and injustices - the Slifkin incident being the most prominent of the non-sexual examples.

    I - and many others - no longer believe/trust our leader's assurances that "we will handle this with decorous caution" - which is essentially what Gil and you are calling on us to rely upon.

    In these abuse cases, "due caution" basically amounted to passing the buck - and allowing more innocents to be wounded at other institutions.

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Let claim and counterclaim be argued in the adversarial court system - in which damages can be awarded for spurious claims.

    Is this the lowest common denominator? Yes.

    Would we religious Jews like to think that we are "better" than this? Yes.

    But as much as it affronts our pride, we have to admit that our leaders and communities don't seem to be on any higher level of ethical integrity.

    And the first step up is to shine a light on the filthy corners, dry them up, clean them up.

    I and many others no longer trust our leaders to do so.

  10. westbankmama,
    Fear of public humiliation is an issue when the charges are made publically by a know claimant. Mosts of the claims flying around on the blogs are anonymous. Understood, they could be %100 true and it is certainly much more than understandable that they want to remain anonymous. But they cannot then enjoy a presumption of truth.

  11. I - and many others - no longer believe/trust our leader's assurances that "we will handle this with decorous caution" - which is essentially what Gil and you are calling on us to rely upon.

    That is NOT what I'm saying. What I am saying is that accepting claims unskeptically causes serious problems and destroys lives, much as abuse does.

    Let claim and counterclaim be argued in the adversarial court system - in which damages can be awarded for spurious claims.

    Absolutely. But don't accept the claims as truth before that happens.

    I and many others no longer trust our leaders to do so.

    Count me in. But that does not mean that being equally filthy will solve the problems - I think it only excaberates the current issues.

    Understood, they could be %100 true and it is certainly much more than understandable that they want to remain anonymous. But they cannot then enjoy a presumption of truth.