Sex-Abuse Cover Ups: The Mesirah Mess
Tue, 06/05/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Joshua Hammerman
Joshua Hammerman

There has been considerable consternation and media coverage of late about how child sex abuse cases are handled in the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community. The Brooklyn district attorney, no doubt feeling the pressure, is now pushing for legislation that would require rabbis to report such crimes to the authorities. This scandal has been discussed for years in The Jewish Week and other Jewish media, and recently in The New York Times, with reports of how informants are routinely shunned and victims banned from reporting abuse to the authorities. Anti-Semitic websites have had a field day, comparing this Jewish “code of silence” to the Mafia’s.

The coverage has pinpointed an obscure rabbinic prohibition as a major source of the problem: the ancient prohibition against mesirah, the handing over of a Jew to non-Jewish authorities.  Ironically, the same Hebrew root forms the word “masoret,” or tradition, describing a priceless heritage handed over from one generation to another. But in this case, mesirah, the public disclosure of allegations against another Jew, is considered to be an act that desecrates God’s name.

It is important to emphasize that most rabbinic authorities concur that Judaism has no place for the protection of sexual predators.  Even for those who might otherwise support mesirah, the prohibition does not apply when there is a perceived public menace. As Rabbi Moses Isserles states in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, “A person who attacks others should be punished. If the Jewish authorities do not have the power to punish him, he must be punished by the civil authorities.”

While unfortunately there is still considerable resistance in reporting dangerous behavior to secular authorities among the haredim, the problem is less mesirah itself than how these rabbis choose to apply it. To paraphrase the NRA gun lobby, mesirah doesn’t harm people: people do. In this case, those people are insular and misinformed Jewish leaders.

That said, when you read Maimonides’ full explanation of mesirah, it gives one pause to wonder whether the time has come to eliminate it completely from the halachic lexicon.  Maimonides, after all, was neither insular nor misinformed, and he lived in a society that was relatively benign toward Jews. Yet he writes: “It is forbidden to hand over a Jew to the heathen, neither his person nor his goods, even if he is wicked and a sinner, even if he causes distress and pain to fellow-Jews. Whoever hands over a Jew to the heathen has no part in the next world. It is permitted to kill a moser (informant) wherever he is. It is even permitted to kill him before he has handed over (a fellow Jew).”

Maimonides’ condemnation of the moser is reminiscent of the law regarding the rodef (the life-threatening pursuer), whom one is also allowed to kill. This rabbinic concept was employed most infamously by those advocating the murder of Prime Minister Rabin. The moser and rodef are linked explicitly in a commentary by Rebbenu Asher: “Thus, an informer is like a pursuer to kill someone and the victim may be saved at the cost of the life of the pursuer.”

In our world, it is the molester who is clearly the pursuer, not the guy who calls 911. It is the cover-up that shames the entire Jewish community, not the informant. In a free society with just courts and equal treatment under the law, mesirah is a relic, a conversation piece from a more perilous past, like that section of the Haggadah where we ask God to pour out divine wrath against our enemies.

The idea that Jews should be protective of Jewish sinners stems from a longstanding mistrust of just about every government we’ve lived under — everything until right now, here in America. The most obvious example was the Romans, whom the rabbis had in mind when they advised their students, “Love work, despise positions of power and do not become overly familiar with the government.” But the idea of protecting Jews from secular authorities has reached absurd extremes in Jewish law. The principle of mesirah has been used to dissuade Jewish auditors from reporting other Jews to the IRS for tax fraud and, as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled, to prohibit us from turning a Jew in to secular authorities for fraudulent kashrut supervision. I for one am glad the Agriprocessors scandal was handled by the secular courts and not kept “within the family.”

Where does mesirah come from?

It all goes back to Moses. When he struck the Egyptian taskmaster, Exodus tells us that fellow Israelites began taunting him about the incident, which led Moses to become fearful that someone would turn him over to Pharaoh. Rashi posits that Moses wasn’t so much concerned about his own fate; he was concerned that his act would lead “villains and informers” to turn him in, making them unworthy of redemption. So he fled, not so much to protect himself as to protect his accusers from suffering the fate of the moser.

But change “Pharaoh” to “NYPD” or “FBI,” and the story reads quite differently. If Moses had struck a cop not in Egypt but Brooklyn, wouldn’t it have been absolutely appropriate for a fellow Jew to notify the authorities? Now replace “NYPD” with “Sheriff Jim Clark,” and would you turn in Moses for striking a cop who was assaulting peaceful protesters in Selma? Wouldn’t you want your moral code to protect him? True, one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist, but I can stand behind an objective moral standard that says that Moses was right, in the context of his times, and a child molester is wrong, anytime, anywhere, and Pharaoh and the NYPD are not created equal. 

We can both protect Moses and turn in the molester for lots of reasons, but in each case, the least relevant factor is that the perpetrator happens to be Jewish. That’s mesirah’s fatal flaw.

It’s time to declaw this dangerous concept, so that it may never again be used to justify the protection of those who inflict suffering on innocent children.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.
 

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Something to keep in mind-

Child predators are very cunning and manipulative. They know every trick on how to groom, threaten, lie, and put the fear of god into their victims and sometimes even their family members.

They also appear to do a lot of goods things, they can be very charismatic and you may think they would never harm a child. They have to be this way, in order to not get caught and to continue to abuse

Sexual predators are often powerful and well-loved. It would be comforting if those who preyed on the vulnerable were obvious social misfits whose appearance would somehow set off alarm bells and give us ‘the willies’ or ‘the creeps.’ They rarely do. Usually, predators are among the last people we would suspect of sexually violating others. At a party, the predator isn’t some oddball sitting alone in a corner because others feel uncomfortable with him. Most often, the predator is the guy throwing the party.

We must overcome the dangerous myth that because someone is successful or warm or caring, he or she “couldn’t have done that!
Also, we must stop thinking that because a man is old, that somehow he’s automatically “safe.” It’s just irresponsible to endanger kids by assuming an adult is “harmless” simply because he or she may be losing hair, wearing glasses, using hearing aids or walking with a cane. These can be signs of advancing age, but they are not signs that an individual is safe around kids.

It is extremely rare that a child predator has only one victim. Hopefully anyone who has knowledge or may have been harmed within the Jewish community, will contact the police.

Also keep in mind your silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.

Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, 636-433-2511
snapjudy@gmail.com
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world's oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims.
SNAP was founded in 1988 and has more than 12,000 members. Despite the word "priest" in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers and increasingly, victims who were assaulted in a wide range of institutional settings like summer camps, athletic programs, Boy Scouts, etc).

In most places wilfully hiding a crime is in itself a crime, so separate laws for particular social groups should not be needed and should be avoided because special laws imply special treatments which in themselves would tend to exacerbate pre-existing social divisions.

I agree with much of what you write, and indeed there is halachic precedence that mesira is no longer prohibited for those Jews who live in just and fair societies.

However, it is extremely naive, to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just as we continue to mean it when we pray each year that G-d should pour out His wrath on the nations who are in every generation plotting the destruction of the Jewish people, so too there still exist societies in which, it would be a terrible thing for a Jew to inform on another Jew, unless that Jew was himself a rodef, such as a child molester.

Many present day countries including some European ones still have incredible amount of irrational hatred of Jews that is built into their national psyche, or as Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir said about one such country, they get antisemitism in their mothers milk. In some places like Saudi Arabia and Syria, it is built into the law of the land. In many places , Gaza strip, Lebanon, etc., open calls for killing the Jews and destroying our homeland abound, and in Iran, they are actively plotting as we speak to carry out this goal.

In places like Iran, handing over a fellow Jew for tax evasion would be a traitorous threat to the Jew's life, and somebody who would do that should be stopped in any way possible.

Unless the individual being turned over was a threat to the physical safety of children, such as child molesters, in which case, current halacha holds that you have not only a right, but an obligation to turn them in no matter what happens to them. Which, I believe, is the main point necessary for Charles Hynes as well as the Agudah and its followers to understand.

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