Rabbinic Oversight: Expectations and Limitations

By Michael J. Salamon

The role of a rabbi traditionally has been to teach, render decisions, mediate disputes, and provide guidance to families and community—in sum, to act as an authority to his community in all matters religious, moral, and ethical. As the world has become more complex, however, the role has evolved. People can more readily find information on their own and are more likely to question decisions made by others, including their spiritual advisors. Although the changes in the rabbi’s role can be viewed as a motivator for growth and engagement, some see this as a challenge to the qualitative position that a rabbi should have, and therefore as a decrease in status.1

Nevertheless, students and congregants have expectations of and a need for rabbis. Therefore, like it or not, societal changes have largely brought about a more responsive approach by rabbinical organizations. Increasingly, the major rabbinical organizations have issued decisions that reflect the challenges of the times within the framework of halakhah. One of the most notable issues has been responding to reports of sexual abuse of children, both within the community at large and by rabbis themselves.

In some states of the United States, the law mandates all citizens to report any suspected case of abuse—physical, sexual, or otherwise—to the authorities. In other states, only health care providers and teachers are mandated to report. Within many of these states, however, clergy members, especially teachers, are not exempt. Clergy members who have knowledge of suspected abuse or who act as teachers, even in private schools, are mandated reporters.2

Over the past decade, as reports of clergy sexual abuse have proliferated, position statements have been promulgated by rabbinic organizations on just how to handle the mandated reporting to authorities. In one case, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) issued a resolution on dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by its members.3 No longer could rabbis who sexually abused be ignored, transferred, or privately scorned. In its 2003 resolution, the RCA publicly stated that it “commits … its members to report acts or suspicions of child abuse as required by civil law.” The RCA rendered a halakhic decision declaring that reporting abuse to secular authorities was not considered mesirah, the prohibition against turning over a Jew to non-religious authorities, but such an action was allowed and even encouraged.

This resolution seems to have been a stronger statement of intent and procedure than that proposed by Agudath Israel of America. The Agudah position, affirmed several years later, requires that, before going to the secular authorities, a rabbi must be consulted to determine whether there is sufficient evidence (raglayim la-davar) to report suspected abuse to the police or protective services.4 In practice, however, there may be little difference between the two positions.

Reasons for the Historical Reticence to Report

Historically, the facts suggest that when information indicating that a rabbi was an abuser was brought to rabbinic organizations, these associations, despite public comments to the contrary, conducted their own investigations and did not immediately contact secular authorities. This resulted, inadvertently, in protecting abusers and delaying intervention.5 Despite all we have learned from the Jerry Sandusky case or the growing Bill Cosby scandal, for example, there is a plodding hesitancy among entrenched organizations to involve the police.

We have seen within our own communities similar heinous transgressions and a similar resistance to reporting. Perhaps this is because most organizations do not want to believe that abuse can occur in their own backyard or they misunderstand how abusers operate. There are common misunderstandings of what paraphilias (sexual perversions and deviations) are. Pedophiles are thought to be worse than voyeurs (which is not necessarily accurate), and there can be a complete lack of understanding of the differences among pedophiles, molesters, and abusers. In the Orthodox world, the most tenacious mistake is that “Orthodox individuals, especially rabbis, do not abuse.” This misperception leads to fear that by making an accusation, one is smearing a reputation—committing the sin of lashon hara, slanderous talk. This prohibition is used by some to prevent reporting of abusers. Even though many rabbis have publicly indicated that reporting to the secular authorities is allowed, for a variety of reasons, hesitation to do so remains. Abusers are highly adept at selecting and grooming their victims while displaying a facade of morality.6 Abusers are, simply stated, very adept liars, and they exist everywhere, in every community, even within the Orthodox one. There is increasing evidence that within religious communities, more so than in secular ones, blame is less likely to be attributed to the molesters, and victims are more likely to feel compromised, abandoned, or blamed for causing communal turmoil by reporting their abuse.7 Even though it is true that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, victims of abuse should be shown equal consideration and given the assumption that they are not lying. There are compellingly credible data to indicate that the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse victims who report having been abused—as many as 98 percent, do in fact tell the truth, even though they may delay reporting what happened to them.8

What Is the Responsibility of the Rabbi?

From the perspective of a rabbi who is confronted with the possibility that he may have to deal with an abuse situation, the ethical consideration immediately arises: Whom does the rabbi represent? Is the rabbi’s role to act exclusively as the leader of the community, with his primary function being to protect his community, or as an advisor, counseling the victim and/or protecting the abuser as well? Rabbis have traditionally been placed in this confusing position and have taken on all three responsibilities, often simultaneously. A rabbi in such a multifaceted position is confronted immediately with the problem of mixed and divided loyalties.9 This is a common moral issue addressed in the ethics codes of most professions, with fines and loss of licensure being used to enforce compliance. Loyalty boundaries are not frequently addressed in the religious professions, however, and there is a very limited code of enforcement if, in fact, someone is found to have breached ethics.10

Who is being protected and cared for, and whose interests are being served? This question should be the first one asked, but, unfortunately, rarely is. The question cannot be asked if the rabbi is the shepherd of his community, gatekeeper for care of the victim, and also the decisor for whether to report an abuser (especially if the abuser is a well-known member of the community or a rabbi). Which of these three layers takes precedence? Can the rabbi advise the victim, shield the abuser, and protect the community simultaneously? Attempting to do so carries the potential of re-victimizing the victim by shielding the abuser and opens the community to greater harm.

It makes little difference whether a rabbinic board decides that there are raglayim la-davar or hires its own private investigators to evaluate abuse claims. By doing either, the board is taking an ethically ambiguous stand. Any delay in reporting abusers to the secular authorities—who can provide professionally trained investigators and have the authority of law to act on their findings—inevitably protects the abuser, giving him time to consolidate his lies and threats. Abusers are known to have many victims. If the abusers are not reported as soon as they are known, they are given more time to molest.

For some, the expectation for a rabbi is that his opinion will be da’at Torah, the final word of sage counsel based on Torah law. At the very least, though, our expectation for our rabbis is that they should act as moral leaders and religious guides. Their holiness is meant as a beacon to teach and lead their followers to be better people. We must understand, though, that they are humans as well. People are fallible. Human behavior is often misdirected by cognitive dissonance, the lack of conscious willingness to accept that what we believe, especially about others who may very well be dishonest, could be inaccurate. This is a serious moral and religious issue that cannot be set aside, especially in situations in which there is suspected sexual abuse.

Laws of Mandated Reporting Are Helpful

The laws of mandated reporting help to provide ethical and moral guidelines for everyone, including rabbis, as to the proper interventions. Rabbis are not trained to conduct a proper investigation into who is an abuser. One need not wonder about how to handle a suspected case of sexual abuse when it is reported to the proper secular authorities. The authorities, not the rabbis, have the training and resources to investigate properly and to do what is necessary, assuming that they are given information in an open and timely fashion.

Expectations of whom rabbis are responsible to, at least initially, should be clear. Our expectation is that they will protect their community in the proper manner and help victims, to the degree that they are capable. Protecting a community and a victim requires rapid and proper intervention. Although it is undoubtedly within the purview of a rabbi to offer spiritual guidance and direction to an abuser, that same rabbi should not provide the same services to a survivor of abuse from a molester. Doing so would immediately destroy credibility and put the community at risk.

Dr. Michael Salamon is a psychologist, researcher, and a fellow of the American Psychological Association. He is the director of ADC Psychological Services and a consulting psychologist at North Shore–LIJ Health System, and is the author of Abuse in the Jewish Community (Urim Publications, 2011).


1 Melamed, E. “Judaism: The Role of a Rabbi Today: The Changes and Challenges in a Rabbi’s Role.” Israel National News, February 6, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article. aspx/14489#.VcOpDvlVhHw.

2 See “Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect,” Child Welfare Information Gateway: Children’s Bureau Association on Children, Youth and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2013). Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare. gov/pubPDFs/clergymandated.pdf.

3 Rabbinical Council of America (2003). RCA Resolution Regarding Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Rabbis, May 28, 2003. Retrieved from http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=105491.

4 Shafran, A. “Agudath Israel Statement on Reporting Suspicions of Child Abuse.” Cross Currents, July 22, 2011. Retrieved from http:// www.cross-currents.com/archives/2011/07/22/agudath-israelstatement-on-reporting-suspicions-of-child-abuse/.

5 Brown, E. “Rabbi Freundel: A Watergate of Our Own: The Mikvah Scandal Underscores the Need for Regulating the Rabbinate.” Jewish Week, October 20, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.thejewishweek. com/editorial-opinion/opinion/rabbi-freundel-watergate-our-own.

6 Cheit, R.E. The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014; Salter, A. Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

7 Feinson, M.C., and Meir, A. “Exploring Mental Health Consequences of Childhood Abuse and the Relevance of Religiosity.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2015) 30(3): 499–521. http://dx.doi. org/10.1177/0886260514535094; Powell, M. “After Sexual Abuse Case, a Hasidic Accuser Is Shunned, Then Indicted.” New York Times, June 17, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/18/nyregion/after-sexual-abuse-case-a-has... Ratner-Stauber, A., Muschel, A., Polonsky, J., and Margolis, A. “Victimizing the Victim: Reactions to Child Molestation in the Orthodox Jewish versus Secular Community.” American Psychological Association Convention, Honolulu, HI, 2013. doi:http://dx.org/10.1037/e591102012-001.

8 Children’s Bureau: Administration on Children, Youth and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Child Maltreatment (2012) (cf. Table 3-3). Retrieved from www.acf.hhs.gov/ sites/default/files/cb/cm2012.pdf.

9 Salamon, M.J. “The Limitations of Rabbinic Oversight.” The Jewish Press, October 29, 2014. Retrieved from http://jewishpress.com/ indepth/opinions/the-limitations-of-rabbinic-oversight/2014/10/29/.

10 Von Stroh, S.P., Mines, R.A., and Anderson, S.K. “Impaired Clergy: Applications of Ethical Principles.” Counseling and Values (1995) 40, 6–14.


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