Last week, Yehuda Shohat and Ariela Sternbuch published a story in Yediot Aharonot about the advice that rabbis give regarding sexual molestation and abuse. Sternbuch called up 27 rabbis and community leaders with a story of how she or her child was sexually abused. In only a few of the cases did the rabbi suggest reporting to the police.
One of the rabbis featured in the Yediot article, Ratzon Arussi, is the chief rabbi of the town of Kiryat Ono. He has a doctorate in law, and teaches on the Jewish legal system at Bar Ilan University. He heads a beit din, or religious court, for resolving monetary disputes.
Below is my translation of the conversation between the reporter and Rabbi Arussi. I translated it from the original recording. A Hebrew transcript of the conversation appears in the Yediot article.
Sternbuch: My friend’s father touched me, really touched me. I wanted to file a complaint, but my mother says it’s not worth it. that it will interfere with shidduchim (finding a marriage match) and such, the question is what does the rabbi say?Arussi: What environment, not asking the location . . .Haredit.-Another question. What do you mean by touching, if I may ask?-He undressed and touched me in private places.-Okay, but he did not God forbid get to the act?-No.-I mean, he didn’t touch in an intimate place, and . . .-Yes, he did touch. He did touch me under the skirt, and such.-But he didn’t touch with something intimate of his to something intimate of yours?-Yes, with his organ.-Yes?-Yes.-So he did touch in that place with his intimate organ.-Yes.-Did you have contact with him before?-No, I went there, to my friend.-How did it deteriorate to that situation? Did he know you before? What?-I’ve been there before, and [my friend] has visited me. We would go into the room.-Ah, the father of a friend. You visited her as a friend.-Yes.-That’s how you know him, and he knows you. So he’s also haredi.-Yes.-So he took advantage of an opportunity when his daughter was not present?-My friend went to the makolet, and he came into the room and closed the door.-Did you object or anything?-Yes, yes, I told him that she would come back soon, and that it wasn’t pleasant. [Hebrew: Lo na’im. This is how children are taught to respond to behavior that they don’t like.]-Listen, unfortunately, your mother is right, even though in this case a complaint should be filed against him, because this went beyond any stam touching. –In fact, in effect, he committed an act. Can you hear me?-Yes.-He committed an act upon you. That is why I asked you these questions, and that is a serious thing. I hope, and I’m not God forbid asking out of curiosity, I hope he did not insert his organ, correct?-Yes. No, he didn’t.-So you remained a virgin.-Yes.-I understand. So there is no question at all of entering.-Why? . . . No.-Because if now you are not a virgin, then what he did would bother you. But, if you remained a virgin, and if it is not the level of forcing [Hebrew inus, same root as rape], but seduction [pitui], then your mother is right, but you must break of all contact with that house.-That’s clear, I don’t go there anymore.-When did this happen?-A month ago.-A month? And when did you tell your mother?-Immediately.-How much does it bother you that this happened a month ago and you are only asking me now?-I don’t know, I’m okay, I’m managing, the question is . . .-Your friend? Does your friend know?-I haven’t told her anything. It’s very unpleasant between us. But all of a sudden it occurred to me, maybe he is doing it to her too? To other friends?-Yes, that’s true. That’s true. And that’s a reason to complain, but your life comes before that of others. Because in the haredi world, this *can* harm you. In a few different realms. If it stayed on that level, and you stayed a virgin, and there was no forcing, stay away, change yourself, the fact that he succeeded in tempting you on one level . . . you must gather emotional and spiritual strength, to change completely,-This wasn’t wanted on my part, I tried to move away from him.-I understand. But he is haredi and you are haredi. Right?-Yes, he is a yeshiva student.-He’s a student. He suddenly comes and does something very rare and very, very serious in the haredi world. This needs to shock you, you were warmed up. -On one level he succeeded in tempting you. It’s not a simple thing.-But I didn’t want it. It’s not that I wanted it.-I understand. Okay. Strengthen yourself spiritually, very much, don’t file a complaint with the police, and, how old are you today?17.-Get away, get out of that environment, and find a good shidduch, as soon as possible.
Rabbi Arussi’s response to the article appeared in the Orthodox website Kippah. Here is my translation:
I’ve received many inquiries regarding the media storm about the journalistic investigation done on the sly regarding a very important question, a haredi young woman who claimed that she was sexually attacked by the father of her friend and the mother of the complainant said not to go to the police, and she was looking for rabbinic advice about whether to go to the police anyway. And she turned to me, and I told her after questioning her, and weighing both sides, and I instructed her not to turn to the police, and then it turned out that they immediately turned to Yediot Acharonot and it turned out that this was a journalistic investigation. I told them my principled and practical approach regarding the case described, and already the next day, [the radio station] Galei Tzahal, on the basis of that article, wanted me to appear [on the program] but since I saw that there was a media “ambush” I refused to reply until I saw the article, because [as they say] someone who has been burned will be wary of lukewarm water.
First let’s determine the basis of the incident, and then we will relate to the phenomenon that is a side effect, but very serious, and relevant to the media ambush and the media’s approach.
This is what happened, as always we get inquiries by telephone, or face to face, of people in crisis, young men and women, old men and women, boys and girls, conflicts between people, many incidents come our way, there is no rest night and day. A week ago the clerk handed me the telephone and a young woman who identified herself as a 17-year-old haredi woman from Bnei Brak who was at her friend’s house, and suddenly the father asked his daughter to go to the corner store and buy a few things before it closed [HK: This detail was not in the taped conversation], and as soon as she went out the father came into the room, (so said the complainant,) locked the door and began to molest the complainant sexually, and she the complainant said that her mother told her not to turn to the police, and now she is asking if she should turn to the police. I apologized for having to ask her intimate questions but I needed to assess her statement. Because I wanted to know whether it was inus (forced, i.e. rape) or pitui (seduction, i.e. consensual). Because if it was inus, I told her, she would have to complain immediately but if it was temptation, or if he could maintain that it was, she will have what to lose because a 17-year-old girl when it comes to shidduchim (finding a groom) etc. there is a limit to how much she can sacrifice herself for the sake of fixing the whole, because to complain to the police is fixing the whole, and that is important, but there is a limit to how much a person needs to sacrifice himself for the sake of fixing the whole. Therefore, when she said that she had objected, I asked her why she didn’t shout. [HK: This also did not appear in the recording.] She said [she told the perpetrator] it wasn’t pleasant for her. And what did he do? So she stayed a virgin so she said, but he touched her in intimate places. It’s a little strange that he did what he did and there was no cry, but it’s correct that there are situations where the girl is in shock. But she said, “lo naim” (it’s not pleasant—this is what children are taught to say to object to something), meaning that she was not in shock, she objected but did not shout. Therefore I told her, based on these specific details, that it is not worth complaining to the police because he could claim that it was temptation even though you said that you objected and there will be what to lose, therefore break off with this house, strengthen yourself spiritually, and hurry to get married before God forbid this will harm you, and in this your mother is right.
As I said, a week later I get a message from Yediot asking for my response, how could I have advised her not to go to the police. I was very surprised that such an intimate, heart-rending conversation would suddenly get published in the media, a strange thing but I understood that we fell into a media “ambush,” and I said to the reporter, listen, I will shorten the way for you, I know what you are looking for. Am I one of those haredi rabbis who as a matter of principle does not turn matters over to the police? My answer is no. In principle I do instruct that men like this must be turned over to the police. But, there are special cases that must be checked to see if a police report will harm the victim or not. Because there are cases when a report will harm her and then one must take into consideration [the caller’s] welfare before correcting the whole. It wasn’t pleasant and I asked questions but I came to the conclusion that in those circumstances, there is a need to be silent to prevent harm in addition to the attack, that is what I replied to her and that is how it ended. As I said, the next day Galei Tzahal already wanted a response, see what a media “ambush” and what a storm surrounding this whole topic, I said I’m sorry, I won’t reply until I see the article, they said, “We’ll send it, we’ll read it to you,” I told them no, I won’t reply until after I have read the article. Therefore I refrained from responding, I was not afraid, but because there was a media “ambush” here and we need to be extremely careful of media people who have one main goal and that is their rating, not tikun olam, and they act in ways that are not appropriate, the way they acted is forbidden from a moral and halachic point of view, one who hits his neighbor in secret is cursed, this is a moral value of Judaism. But Israeli law in its iniquity compares it to something that has no place, let’s say I have a dispute with Ploni, if I come to him and talk to him, engage him in conversation and record him, that’s something else, but here they have no dispute with me, I am doing them a favor for free by giving advice, and she requests a favor from me, and then takes it and publishes it without asking me, that is the accursed hitting his neighbor in secret, this is a moral value of Judaism that we would do well to be loyal to.
But first the main issue, is there room to complain to the police? On principle yes, because if we have a sex offender and he is dangerous, tomorrow or the next day he will harm others, of course, but although this should be the approach in principle, every case needs to be assessed differently, we need to see if the complainant will be badly harmed, or not.
So let’s see, let’s describe a complainant who is very soft and gentle and will not have the means to stand up against all of the inquiries and counter-claims, and she could be badly harmed psychologically from the whole matter, the one who tells her to complain is a criminal, every case is different, therefore that is our position.
There are dear Jews. A Jew called me, he did not consider himself part of the religious camp, a man with connections, very admired, and said to me: “They did you an injustice, I am appalled, I know that you spoke from a pure place for the sake of the girl, I wanted to respond but I recognize this, this is twisted media and if I respond in writing, others will respond and the flames will go up, that is why I came to strengthen you,” and may he be strengthened. I said to him, “Know, my dear friend, when a few girls or women will ask for my help I will be careful, I’ve already instructed my clerks, everyone needs to approach me only by mail or by fax and not by telephone, and if she wants an in-person meeting then only when accompanied by a father, mother, etc. and we will talk, but without that, no. Who will be harmed? Those who want help without revealing their identity. But what to do? The media stifles the possibility of helping people in crisis.”
Yesterday a member of the city council called, a very dear woman, on the surface we are from two very different worlds, her name is Liat Arbel, a member of city council, and she established a women’s forum, and her life’s project is to protect women, including regarding sexual harassment. She came and requested a meeting, and we met yesterday. And we exchanged opinions with great respect, she learned of my pure considerations, and I learned something very important from her, “You should know, rabbi, that when they tell me that someone complains about sexual harassment I don’t accept it, I wait until there is another complaint from a second person, but understand from this, when is there is an instruction or approach in particular sectors not to complain to the police, then what happens? It could be that A was abused, B was abused, C was abused, none of them complains and the sex abuser sits in honor and abuses others.” A wonderful claim that should be considered, of course. I definitely respect that approach but today I don’t have a problem with you regarding the differences between us, I have a problem with the media because it is so vulgar, in your face, agenda-driven, and now every case that will come to me must be via fax or email and then I will check if there is a suspicion that he is a serial abuser or not, based on the circumstances. And our Torah gives us many ways to check the truth. I also said then to the reporter, in the Torah it says that if he caught a young woman in the field and the girl shouted and no one came to help, in the field it is considered rape if it can’t be proven otherwise, in the city it’s considered seduction unless it has been proven otherwise, because there can be rape in the city, therefore I told the reporter that according to the details that the woman told me, during the hours when the shop was operating, and an apartment building, in a haredi city, if she had shouted he would have run far from there as fast as he could, so I am not accusing her, but we have to take into account the fact that, as I said, all he has to do is claim that this was seduction, and this will seriously harm her, this the reporter publicized only part, and there is nothing that can be done, this is the way of the media. [HK: Part of the conversation initially appeared on the TV news segment, but what appeared in Yediot is the entire transcript.]
In reality, our position in these cases is that in principle of course you must turn over to the police, but I can embarrass the non-religious world. According to Jewish law if a man sees his father run red lights all the time and tells him that it’s not okay, you can’t run a red light, and the father continues to do so, according to Jewish law, if he continued to urge his father, and his father didn’t listen, he can complain to the police even though it’s his own father. A non-religious person who will rise up at the storm against us, and will say, if so, then he would also instruct [about the traffic lights] as we instruct in this matter, because there it is talking about the father of the family, and apparently they will decide to overlook it despite the danger to life, etc., so this is something very clear that with us the considerations are relevant and specific, it’s clear, but what can be done, there is an agenda-driven media in which A looks for ratings, B wants to hang the religious public, I’ve seen the headlines in Yediot, “sacrificing victims,” as if we the rabbis are sacrificing victims, in that we say not to go to the police as if it’s consistent that we advise this, we are the ones who sacrifice abuse victims as a result of our actions. But they are the ones who sacrifice victims, the woman is finished after this exposure, not to mention that they sacrifice me as a victim, they sacrifice others who now want my help and I’ll be doubly careful, but the one who sacrifices victims for their ratings and not because of fear of God, meaning we have a vulgar media, with no ethics, nothing matters to it except itself, and all this in order to presumably do tikkun olam. But they tear in a hole in society because it’s as if they are saying, these are the children of darkness?the religious and the haredim, and those are the children of light, and thus they tear a hole in the fabric of society.
Now as a result of these things, in the era of Facebook and WhatsApp etc., a few will rise up and say a few bad things about me without checking and investigating and all this because of incitement. So is this a society that can start a dialog? To try to understand? Look and see, Liat Arbel came, she learned from me, I learned from her, it’s a connection between worlds, there is mutual growth, that helps both the victims and Israeli society. This is the way that leads to the house of God.
If the media will not restrain itself and I don’t mean by enacting laws, it needs to rein itself in, one can’t harm the freedom of speech through legislation, the media needs to abide by ethics, because if not, as said, it is the one sacrificing victims and harming the thing that it is trying to help. The path that goes to the house of God is the path of communication and listening to one another. There is a lot to learn from the Torah of Israel, I am not operating in a vacuum, I am coming in the name of Torah, wisdom with wonderful and strong moral values with life wisdom, this is what I am here for and what I work for and not to get a prize, I don’t get anything for this counseling, every other advisor gets paid for each session and I don’t get anything, only the benefit of doing good. And only a small amount of appreciation and honor for this rabbinic work.
And the Holy One, Blessed Be He should spread His spirit from on high and cast out baseless hatred from within us and instill unlimited love within us and light our eyes with the light of the Torah, and God willing we should first of all be a light unto ourselves, and afterward a light unto the nations.
I’d like to summarize a few of the issues with Rabbi Arussi’s approach:
- The media’s “agenda” is irrelevant. The public has the right to know how its officials respond to complaints.
- A chief rabbi of a city is a paid employee of the government, not a volunteer as he implies. Unlike most private therapists, he even has clerks to answer his phone calls.
- He did not consider whether a victim of sex abuse might need treatment. At no point did he express sorrow about the incident, or inquire about the caller’s emotional state.
- He told the caller not to report a crime.
- He made it all about whether or not there was penetration. According to this theory, which abuse advocate Yerachmiel Lopin calls the “penetration fallacy™”, there is no harm done if intercourse did not occur. However, this is merely a justification for protecting the abuser. Penetration is irrelevant as far as Israeli law or trauma to the victim.
- He fancies himself an expert, yet has little or no training in issues surrounding sex abuse or in questioning abuse victims. The police have specially trained investigators. They know how to ask the right questions in order to determine whether a charge is credible, what kind of help the victim needs, and if the case is prosecutable.
In light of the article, Knesset Member Michal Rosin of Meretz proposed a law, together with the Central Organization of Sex Abuse Victims, to add rabbis to the list of professionals required to report abuse. Failure to report will be punishable by imprisonment. The Religious Ministry would train rabbis on the subject of sex abuse, and act in cooperation with authorities to find the correct way to address the problem.
Coincidentally, the press reported that a yeshiva head from Safed has been arrested on his way out of the country for allegedly raping and molesting two women who had come to him for counseling. One can only wonder how many rabbis this rabbi’s victims consulted with, before the case got to the forum Takana and ultimately to the police.
I recently published a few articles elsewhere:
- The Rosenblatt Case: Mentorship or Abuse?
- Will El Al Step Down from Its High Heels?
- What Happens to Sexually Active Orthodox Singles?
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