Mishpachah magazine just featured an interview with Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America. I've met him, and he's a very nice, very intelligent person. But his comments are astonishing.
"Look, I don’t write off the bloggers as leitzanim and reshaim, because they will be judged, as we all will, after 120 years for their motivations and techniques. I'm not a condemner, by nature."
"I do believe that among them there are people who are deeply pained about certain issues and feel that this is the way they can express their pain. I will even go a step further and say that through the pressure they’ve created, communal issues that needed to be confronted were moved to the front burner and taken seriously. A case in point is abuse and molestation issues. The question is, if the fact that they've created some degree of change is worth the cost. At the very least, it’s rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman. That’s a high price to pay."
"Then there is the damage wrought to the hierarchy of Klal Yisrael. We've always been a talmid chacham-centered nation, and it’s dangerous to ruin the fabric of Klal Yisrael by denigrating the ideal of daas Torah and by allowing personal attacks on gedolei Torah.”
Reb Chaim Dovid believes that the process of decision-making through the Moetzes is as close to perfect as can be. “It’s a homogeneous group of the most intelligent, empathetic individuals — all great talmidei chachamim — and they grasp all aspects of an issue right away.”
Where do I begin?
Let's start with the positive. R. Zwiebel acknowledges that the charedi world was not taking the issue of abuse and molestation seriously. That's worthy of credit, even though it's blindingly obvious. Given that there are other Agudah spokesmen who only weigh in on this topic to claim that there is a baseless witch-hunt in this area, it's refreshing to see R. Zwiebel admit that the charedi leadership dropped the ball on this issue.
It's also good to see R. Zwiebel acknowledge that a large part of the credit for the charedi world beginning to take these issues seriously is due to bloggers. That can't be an easy admission to make; Failed Messiah and UOJ write many things that are distasteful, to say the least. But it is clearly due to them that the charedi world started to address abuse, and so it is good that R. Zwiebel gives credit where credit is due.
On the other hand, given these admissions, R. Zwiebel's other comments are all the more incomprehensible.
R. Zwiebel admits that the Charedi world did not take these issues seriously - that the abuse of hundreds, probably thousands, of children continued, while molesters were protected and parents were told to shut up. But he wonders if stopping that evil is worth rechilus, lashon hara, and - I'm almost gagging at typing this - bittul zman! By what possible measure might it not be worth it?!
Then we have to think about whether there really are crimes of rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman. Sure, there may be some accusations that are false. But, as Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz notes, the majority of discussions about abuse are about cases which are true, and talking about them on the Internet was leto'eles, since it has gotten them dealt with - nothing else worked! So where is the excess of rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman?
Then we come to R. Zwiebel's protest that the blogosphere has denigrated Daas Torah and the honor of the Gedolim. Well, yes, it has. But considering that Agudas Yisrael's version of Daas Torah is a recent invention, I can't see that the exposure of its failings is such a terrible thing. And considering that the Gedolim are the leaders, and are thus responsible for dropping the ball on the issue of abuse, surely any loss of respect is their own responsibility. I haven't seen anyone denigrating and losing respect for rabbis such as Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, Rabbi Yosef Blau, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. Respect is given when it is justly earned.
Next we have Mishpachah describing R. Zwiebel as believing that "the process of decision-making through the Moetzes is as close to perfect as can be." Given that he's just admitted that, unlike the majority of society, the Gedolim did not know how to deal with the issue of child abuse (i.e. they did not know that YES IT REALLY HAPPENS, YES IT'S REALLY TERRIBLE, NO YOU CAN'T DEAL WITH IT ON YOUR OWN, GO TO THE AUTHORITIES), how on earth does he believe that their decisions are "as close to perfect as can be"?
Look back at the fiasco of Daas Torah over the last decade. Banning Lipa's Big Event at Madison Square Garden, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, due to it being irredeemably wrong, then permitting it a year later (where Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky publicly admitted that the Gedolim erred). Issuing various bans based on information from askanim with a deserved reputation for incitement and devious behavior, in some cases an actual criminal record for fraud! Giving great honor and power in geirus to a known manipulator and scumbag, and failing to condemn him when his even worse crimes are exposed on the Internet. Protesting the innocence of the monster Elior Chen, and defending this on the grounds that other rabbis say he's innocent. Announcing to a crowd of 40,000 people at CitiField, who have been informed that Daas Torah in such a context is binding on all Klal Yisrael, that kids from homes with Internet must be expelled from yeshivos - then promptly retracting it the next week. Heck, there are still rabbis who covered up for molestors being honored as Gedolim! Even charedi apologist Jonathan Rosenblum writes subversive columns about the problems in the Daas Torah process, though he attributes all the blame to askanim. This is a decision-making process that every normal person can see is deeply flawed - and R. Zwiebel claims that it's "as close to perfect as can be"?
And what reason does R. Zwiebel give for believing this? That the Gedolim are talmidei chachamim, intelligent and empathetic. I am sure that they are; but these are not sufficient requirements for good leadership. It's troubling that R. Zwiebel sees a positive aspect in their being homogenous; that is, of course, a negative. Note that Chazal say that if a Sanhedrin reach a verdict unanimously, it is rejected! (There are a number of other halachos in the Gemara regarding the process of rabbinic judgment that are negated in the contemporary Daas Torah process. With all the talk about the greatness of Chazal, why are they not followed in this area?)
Good leadership requires people who are relatively young and independent, not elderly and relying on handlers. It requires people who are in touch with the community, not living in the ivory towers of the yeshivah world. Leadership in the area of abuse requires people who understand the problems, respect the expertise of people in the mental health profession, and respect civil law; not people who are too naive to believe the "tawdry tales," do not respect the expertise of people in the mental health profession, and think that the authorities are the goyishe enemy. Good leadership requires a system of checks and balances, not cronyism and the suppression of criticism and a constant fear of not appearing frum enough. And most of all, as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains so well, good leadership requires wisdom.
R. Zwiebel, representing Agudath Israel, has always insisted that someone with suspicions of child abuse may not go directly to the authorities without consulting a suitably-qualified rabbi first. Recently, he admitted that Agudath Israel will not be providing a list of such allegedly suitably-qualified rabbis (for the simple reason that any rabbi that Agudah names will face prison if he does not report the cases that come to his attention). And R. Zwiebel agrees here that many rabbis have not dealt with such cases properly. So he knows that the system is badly broken, but insists that it must continue!
Sometimes, observing the system of rabbinic authority in the contemporary Charedi world is like watching a comedy. Except that it isn't funny, because the consequences are so tragic.