Friday, December 22, 2017

Shades of Contrition Regarding Betrayal of Young People Miketz

But we are guilty regarding our brother, that we saw his distress when he pleaded with us but we didn't listen…” (1). These words were read in Australian synagogues last Saturday, just one day after the release of a report - from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - about the betrayal of children (2). These words of contrition were spoken by the brothers of a defenceless young person who had been cruelly betrayed by them. The brothers of the Biblical Joseph had stripped him of his striped tunic, violently thrown him into a pit with snakes and scorpions (3), and then sold him into slavery (4). Both - the Biblical brothers of Joseph and religious leaders in our time - have offered apologies. However, contrition can be tricky to get right. In this post I explore the remorse of Joseph’s brothers and the implications for today.

As I read the Torah reading last week, I was struck by an apparent reversal of the brothers’ admission of guilt. Only seven verses after they accepted responsibility and linked their troubles with their crime, they seem to abdicate responsibility (5). The brothers found money in the bags of grain that they had bought from Egypt and assumed the money was planted there as part of a plot to accuse them of theft. They cry out “what has God done to us?!” This phrase is interpreted as them asking why God is punishing them “for no fault of their own” (6).  
The stark contrast between the contrition the brothers expressed and their complaint is discussed by various commentators (7). Some of these offer some technical, “very labored” (8) answers, giving reasons why the brothers felt they did not deserve any further punishment  after their ordeal in Egypt (9). Alternatively, the brothers thought that the main blame lay with the two key perpetrators, rather than those who had supported their deeds (10). For me, there are also simpler, more obvious implications of their cry, which relate to the difficulty of sincere and sustained contrition.  

A clear critique of the brothers’ complaint, quoted in the Talmud (11), was articulated by a young boy. He was an orphan and a nephew of the leading sage of that period, Rabbi Yochanan.“[The boy’s uncle] Rabbi Yocḥanan found the young son of [his brother in law] Reish Lakish, when he was sitting and reciting the verse: “The foolishness of Man perverts his way, and his heart frets against the Lord” (12).  The child told his uncle that the complaint of Joseph’s brothers when they asked “...What is this that God has done to us?” exemplifies the proverb that when one sins and encounters troubles, they often foolishly question why it is happening to them - despite their obvious guilt (13).  

It's hard for religious leaders to acknowledge the failures of our heroes. One of the men I most admired since I came to Australia, a leading Rabbi, was implicated in the royal Commission process as having failed to protect children. Similarly, in the Talmudic story, the senior religious leader appeared displeased with his young nephew’s critique of the iconic sons of Jacob. In contrast to the sages who praised the brother's contrition (14), this child drew attention to the weakness of their repentance. The senior sage Rabbi Yochanan “raised his eyes and stared at the boy. At this point, the boy’s mother came and took him away” to protect him from his uncle's “gaze”.

Some earlier attempts at apology (by representatives of the institutions where sexual abuse occurred) were described by Mr Manny Waks - a survivor of sexual abuse and campaigner on this issue - as “so qualified in its terms that he found it to be insulting” (15). Rabbi Moshe Gutnick was also less than impressed, making the comment that it was an “apology perfectly timed only a few days before the Royal Commission in order to maximise the PR effect”. He added, “and how did that make victims feel? They knew it was empty, they knew it wasn’t real…” (16).  

Last week the representative body of Orthodox Jewish clergy in Australia and New Zealand (RCANZ) issued an emphatic expression of contrition for the way we - collectively - responded to the betrayal of children and youth in terms of sexual abuse. It stated that “ The findings [of the royal commission] ... in relation to the failures of the rabbinic leadership of Yeshiva Sydney and Melbourne, must shake us to the core… We can make no excuses and any apology we may make at this time must not be mere platitude.  ...We must truly absorb the horror, that the Royal Commission has found, that instead of being protectors of the weak and innocent, Rabbis were directly responsible for the sexual abuse that occurred to children. There can be no greater shame, and no greater admonition to all of us, than that failure…. We of the RCANZ have resolved to do everything we can so that the light we generate dispels once and for all, the darkness that is the abuse of children and the abuse of survivors” (17).   I pray that this time the contrition is deep and enduring, and results in ensuring no child is ever betrayed by Jewish Australian religious institutions again.

We dare not backpedal on our confession, that indeed ‘we are guilty regarding our brothers [and sisters], that we saw their distress when they pleaded with us but we didn't listen…’

  1. Genesis 42:21
  2. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
  3. Talmud Shabbat 22a, cited in Rashi on Genesis 37:24
  4. Genesis 37:23-28
  5. Genesis 42:28
  6. Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel on Genesis 42:28,
     “וּנְפַק מַנְדַע לִבְּהוֹן וְתַוְהוּ גְבַר לְאָחוּהִי לְמֵימַר מַה דָא עָבַד יְיָ וְלָא בְּחוֹבָא דִילָנָא:”
  7. Maharsha, on Talmud Taanis 9a, Maharshal in Yeriot Shlomo and Tzeda Lderech on 42:28
  8. Torah Temima on 42:28 writes about the Maharsha טרח מאד
  9. Maharshah on Taanit 9a, Seforno and Tzeda Lderech on 42:28
  10. Maharshal/Yeriot Shlomo on 42:28
  11. Talmud Taanit 9a
  12. Proverbs 19:3
  13. Maharshah on Taanit 9a,
  14. Midrash Hagadol on 42:21 cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 1583, 77, Rabbenu Bchaya p. 341, Mosad Rav Kook Edition.
  15., p 195 (in the printed version, p. 205 in the online pdf version).
  16., p 195
  17. Statement of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand