DA's Handling of Orthodox Cases Could be Troubling For All Jews

Rabbi Steven L. Dinker (Cleveland Jewish News)
May 17, 2012

What abuse?

If the New York Times coverage of sex abuse in the so-called "ultra-Orthodox" community were just another shonda (embarrassment), there would be little to say. If Brooklyn district attorney Charles J. Hynes were simply trading preferential treatment for votes, who would be surprised?

The existence of Jewish criminals is not news. Shakespeare put the words in Shylock's mouth: "Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" Even though some, due to distinctive dress and demeanor, are singled out for news coverage, let no one mistake issues surrounding Hynes's refusal to name Orthodox accused of abuse, his alleged reluctance to pursue cases because of his political ties to the Orthodox community, or the related concern about rabbis blocking the reporting of crimes as an "Ortho only" problem. Nor is this an indictment of Orthodoxy. No branch of Judaism is exempt; we all need to be concerned about the complex issues keeping these stories "on the boil."

At stake are the questions of what it means to be a Jew in modern society, how we view communal authority, our present community relations, and Jewry's future in the body politic. Current abuses call us to continue wrestling with our history, our place in society, and how present actions may influence the future.

Every rabbi, especially we who are on the liberal end, wishes his or her Jews would more readily seek rabbinic advice and Torah wisdom. Regardless of the shul's style or source of smichah (ordination), souls could be saved, families repaired – and even crimes averted – if Jews consulted their rabbis. But no rabbi should, as a few do, require followers to seek permission before reporting suspicions of sexual abuse. Some say consultation before reporting is needed only in cases of uncertainty – although the level of certainty required to report suspected abuse remains unclear.

Even the appearance of rabbis as gatekeepers to the justice system perverts rabbinic authority. It flies in the face of the dictum dina d'malkuta dina – just and equally applied laws of the land are the laws for Jews as well. It denies the premise of all modern streams of Judaism, which is that we can, simultaneously, be good citizens and good Jews.

The defense of gatekeeping has been a misuse of the halachah of the m'seer, informer. The laws of the m'seer are intended to protect the physical or economic security of Jewish communities against the dangers of a hostile, pre-modern world. This principle was never meant to shield miscreants. Jews, whose misdeeds reflected badly on the people of Israel, let alone the safety of children, were afforded no protection. They were handed over.

Invoking m'sirah in this context is wrong and a rejection of modernity. Gatekeeping itself can become an abuse when, instead of preventing m'sirah, it leads to standing by while our kin bleeds. At the very least it is maarit ayin – it looks bad!

Mr. Hynes may be abusing his office by regularly shielding the identity of defendants in sex abuse cases arising from only one segment of his constituency. Whether his office is lenient with the accused ultra-Orthodox voters remains a matter of debate, as is the effectiveness of a program to facilitate reporting from that segment.

But there is a larger picture. The New York Times's in-depth coverage of this subject ran on May 9 and 10 and included reportage on Mr. Hynes's allegedly bowing to the ultra-Orthodox community. A few days earlier, on May 5, the Times featured an article about rising political powers in New York. That piece pointed to Orthodox Jews as the one religious group whose power is on the increase.

No doubt, some groups' voting patterns follow the "recommendations" of religious leaders. A reliable voting block, even a small one, is a highly prized political commodity. However, there is a lot of daylight between currying favor and abusing authority to gain votes by perverting justice.

And why give our real enemies an opening to again accuse the Jewish people of subverting society by controlling government? If it becomes acceptable to single out Jews, or any group, for special treatment, it is more likely that, in time, the treatment may become "special" in ways we would not prefer.

Abuse begets abuse. Sexual abuse concealed by abuse of religious authority, protected by abuse of office in pursuit of abusing the political process, leads only to more abuse. The evil circuit must be broken, and that responsibility lies primarily in the hands of those whose lives are supposedly dedicated to teaching, upholding and uplifting The Law.

Rabbi Steven L. Denker is spiritual leader of Temple Emanu El in Orange Village. He was director of community relations for the New York chapter of The American Jewish Committee and a congressional aide in Brooklyn, New York. He may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .