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Hassidic Rabbi sentenced 50 years for child abuse

Question: I read in the newspaper today about a Satmar Hasid named Rabbi Israel Weingarten, who  faces 50 years in federal prison for having raped, sodomized, and abusing his daughter. I cannot make sense of this story. What gives? Why are there so many cases of pedophilia in the Orthodox Jewish community?

Answer: Historically, incest has always been a serious problem to our ancestors; it is not a modern problem per se, but has ubiquitously present throughout history in all strata of human society. Jewish communities are not immune to this tragedy.

Curiously, in Jewish tradition during the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah service, the section from Leviticus 18 is read dealing with the forbidden sexual relations. Many years ago, when I was serving as a rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue, a gay member asked me: “Why we must read the section in the Torah forbidding homosexuality on Yom Kippur?” I answered him that the real reason we read this section is not for the homosexuals, but for those who are guilty of incest! By reading this passage, it is hoped that those guilty of incest and other sexual improprieties will take the necessary steps to repent and banish such evil behavior from their lives. Remember: Had this issue not been so rampant in ancient societies, it would hardly have been necessary to create all sorts of laws proscribing such deviant behavior.

Closed religious societies often form what could be called a “conspiracy of silence” might prove to be a more accurate explanation for why cases of abuse are seldom reported. Basically, religious organizations always want to project a healthy image of their institution to the general community. When deviancy occurs, it threatens to undermine the community’s self-image, hence silence is the way families and communities deal with the nature of their members’ dysfunction; these folks who attempt to cover up the crime or problem are classical “enablers”.

For instance: among alcoholics, when family and friends try to help an alcoholic, they are actually making it easier for an alcoholic person to continue in the progression of the disease without ever having to take personal responsibility in his recovery. In order to maintain an illusion of normalcy, enablers will lie to others about their loved one’s alcoholic symptoms; and they also refuse to talk about the problem with the individual; they will frequently give numerous chances for the drinker to get rehabilitated, but true to form, the drinker persists in his disease.

Many of the classic trademarks of enabling are definitely visible with the religious hierarchies that govern their community. Until they perform a fearless accounting of their role in the deviant’s behavior, the problem will not get better. Enablers are often conscious and deliberate in their cover up. I think it is no less plausible to say they are covering up the deviant and abuse because they are fearful that their community’s self-image will be tarnished. Unfortunately, by opting not to call the police, their worst fears of ruining the community’s reputation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think the closed nature of these societies, as seen in the way children are separated by sex, only contributes toward an over-eroticization of sex, and the sad reality is that no social group is immune from this problem. Orthodox zealots will often attack a woman who is wearing a wig that is too long or attractive, and yet they will defend “roshei yeshivos” who systematically sodomize their students, pedophiles who attack little boys, and so on. My cousin, who lives in Baltimore is outraged at his rabbi, a brilliant scholar, but who is too afraid to take a leadership role. Herein is our problem: our religious leaders often lack the pastoral courage to publicly address such issues to their flocks. The Satmar Hassidic community, like other Orthodox communities, is too afraid of losing respect—and unfortunately, they would rather sacrifice innocent children than face the music that their society is diseased and that they are personally responsible for the cover up.