Friday, February 13, 2015

Responses to Sexual Abuse and attitudes to the secular - Mishpatim

The suffering inflicted by sexual abuse is horrific. The Jewish religious leadership in Australia has stated that the belief by some that involving secular authorities in situations of child protection is contrary to Torah is wrong. To ostracise or mistreat vulnerable people because of their speaking out in pursuit of justice and healing is both vile and a terrible sin. To protect criminals is to be complicit in their crimes. To say these things is useful, but I think it is not enough! We can’t just wash our hands of the unacceptable viewpoints that were expressed at the royal commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse. Instead we must reflect on how someone who is part of the same faith community as we are, can come to hold such views. 

One element is in this is the attitude that some religious people have to the secular world. In the Torah reading this week, laws relating to damages and similar matters are introduced with the phrase: “these are the laws you shall put before them” (1).   The words “before them” are interpreted as referring to a Torah court. "Even in cases where secular law (“of idol worshippers”) is identical to the laws of Israel, it is forbidden to use them (2)”.

Let’s look at this Torah reading a little more closely. In the first instance, context is critical. There is some value in monetary disputes (within faith communities) being resolved with the assistance of learned people familiar with the principles held dear to both parties to a dispute. The case of child sexual abuse is completely different, as has been pointed out by many Australian rabbis. The obligation to protect the innocent is paramount and must be handled by those suitably equipped, namely the police and the courts. It is outrageous that anyone could be so attached to religious authority (and mistrustful/disrespectful of secular authority) as to disregard the obvious imperative of child protection by secular authorities.    

As religious people, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the capabilities of the secular society that we are so fortunate to live in. Our tradition teaches that "while the Torah is to be found among Jewish scholars, wisdom is found among people of all nations" (3). When confronted with allegations of sexual abuse, we must call on those with the expertise to deal with it and the power to lock perpetrators away.

The cries of the abused are heard by God, and the response foreshadowed in the Torah is harsh and merciless. “If he cries out to me, I will surely hear his cries and my anger will flare up, I will kill you with a sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans (4)”. I feel some sadness for one of the perpetrators, who I know. However, the welfare of survivors (and the protection of potential victims) is far more important than the suffering of the perpetrators. Our sages teach that “those who are merciful to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful” (5).

Many years ago, Jewish law developed the concept of a “Moser”, which refers to "one who hands over a Jewish person to the authorities". This law developed during a period when governments were extremely corrupt and bigoted against Jews. A Jew could not expect a fair trial. This is not the case in Australia.

My prayer is that with all the problems exposed, my community will enjoy the benefits of a culture that fosters safety for young people, encourages whistle blowers, and fosters appropriate respect for secular wisdom and authority.

(1) Exodus 21:1
(2) Talmud Gittin 88b
(3) Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:13
(4) Exodus 22:22-23
(5) Midrash Tanchuma, Metzora 1, Yalkut Shimoni, 247