Latest update: March 21st, 2013
I met Rav Hershel Shachter about 25 years when he was the scholar in residence at HTC. I was the chairman of the culminating Melave Malke event. I remember being mesmerized by this Gadol as he addressed the Melave Malke guests. I no longer recall the topic. But I do recall that it was a brilliant and well sourced exposition of a Halachic principle that was not well known and counter intuitive. I also recall that this clean shaven (at the time) Rosh Kollel was as comfortable quoting his college English professor as he was quoting his Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik.
What was particularly significant at that time is that HTC had no Rosh HaYeshiva. In fact the Yeshiva had hit its nadir just a few years before that and had a hard time getting new students. With the innovative help of the newly hired President, Rabbi Don Well – the Yeshiva had restored itself to a place of respectability and was on an upswing by the time of that weekend.
The thought of many board members at the time, I among them, was to try and convince Rav Shachter to become the new Rosh HaYeshiva. The following Sunday morning we had an informal get together with Rav Shachter at the home of a nearby board member in order review the weekend and thank Rav Shachter personally.
I will never forget that meeting. We were all sitting around Rav Shachter in a circle. And we were all thinking the same thing. As someone who has little shame in trying to start a conversation about our desires – I posed the idea about his becoming the Rosh HaYeshiva to an unsuspecting Rav Shachter. I tried to convey to him what it would mean to us (HTC) to have someone like him in that position. After I opened those doors – we went around the room and every board member in that room gave his own pitch to Rav Shachter along those lines.
I recall Rav Shachter’s look. He seemed dumbfounded. He did not respond at all to any of us at that meeting. In retrospect I guess it was kind of an ambush. And I now feel bad that we put him on the spot like that. The next day it was reported that after that meeting he told key members of the board that he was not interested in leaving his position at YU. That was that.
Interestingly I recall my later approach to Rav Ahron Soloveichik on behalf of then President Well for a possible reconciliation with HTC – where he might return as Rosh Hayeshiva. During the course of an over three hour meeting, Rav Ahron wondered how HTC ever considered Rav Shachter for that position. He felt that Rav Shachter was a bigger Knaoi (zealot) than he was… which he felt was one reason he was let go by HTC many years previously.
I bring all this up to show that Rav Shachter was not a completely unknown entity to me. I had some personal experience with him and some input from my Rebbe about him. And to show how I came to admire him so much. My feelings about him have not changed. He was an inspirational figure for me then… and he remains one now.
Which is why I am perplexed by his recent remarks about reporting sex abuse and use of the word Shvartze – a Yiddish pejorative for a black person. I will deal with the latter issue first.
First let me say that the word for black in Yiddish is Shvartz. People named Schwartz (…the European pronunciation of the letter W is as a V) are really named “Black” in translation.
This is often used as an explanation show that those who use that word did not have any insulting or racist intent. But that does not pass the smell test. Words have the meaning that society infuses in them via the way they are used. Just like the word gay now means homosexual where it once only meant happy and cheerful, so too – with rare exception the word Shvartze has come to be used as a pejorative against black people.
That Rav Schechter used that word is therefore wrong – even as I’m sure he does not have a racist bone in his body.
Why did he use it, then? I can’t speak for him. But there are two things that may explain it if not excuse it. One is that he actually meant it pejoratively in the context in which he used it. He would probably never use that word as a pejorative for the general black population. But here he was clearly speaking about those among the black population who are adherents of anti-Semitic movements. Like the Black Muslims of Louis Farrakhan. The violent criminals among them who are in prison would pose a mortal threat to any Jew who was jailed for any reason and put in the same cell with them.
The second reason is that the word is so commonly used among many of our own (unfortunately) that it just ‘fell of his tongue’ when referring to a violent anti Semitic Black Muslim.
But there is still no excuse for using that pejorative. I would be willing to bet if Rav Shachter had it to do over again, he would not have used that word. Not only is it wrong to do so, it perpetuates use of such language among his students and admirers. And they will probably use it a lot more liberally that Rav Shachter did.
Yeshiva University has already quickly and forcefully disavowed those words as not reflecting the values of the school. My hope is that Rav Shachter will express his regret and do the same.
Rav Shachter’s remarks about reporting sex abusers to the authorities seem to be a bit perplexing, too. At least on the surface. Until now he was used a source to show that the Halacha of Mesirah (informing on a Jew to secular authorities) does not apply today for several reasons. One is that a sex abuser is in a category of Rodef (chasing after a Jew to do him harm) and one is required to stop him – overriding any issue of Mesirah. Another reason is that in a just society such as ours, Mesirah wouldn’t apply anyway. This is the opinion of Rav Y. M. Epstein, early 20thcentury author of the monumental work on Jewish law – the Arcuch HaShulchan.
But Rav Shachter now said that in order to assure that suspicions of abuse are credible enough to report to police – they need to be vetted by rabbis. His fear is that innocent Jews who are falsely accused will end up being put in mortal danger when forced to share a cell with a violent anti Semitic Black Muslim. That fear is not that misplaced. And yet – on the surface this sounds unacceptable. Rabbis are not experts in evidence of abuse.
Rav Shachter did not however just say rabbis. He said rabbis who are trained psychologists. I can only assume he meant psychologists that are trained and experienced in dealing with issues of sex abuse and can recognize when evidence is credible or not. I see no problem with such vetting. The fact that incidents of false accusation are rare means that it does happen – if rarely.
Sex abuse has become such a hot button issue that it is not too difficult to foresee an increase in innocent people being accused by their well intentioned neighbors that have heard ‘rumors’. Rumors do not equal credible evidence. If one is unsure about a rumor they heard, they should not ignore it. But neither should they err on the side of caution and report it if there is a better way to deal with it, by first vetting it through professionals. That these professionals are also rabbis does not hurt the process.
How do we know such a vetting process works? Well because it already exists in Israel and worked quite well in the case of Rabbi Moti Elon. The Takana Forum was organized by many prominent rabbis, in Israel – and consists of rabbis, legal experts and psychologists. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is a member of that forum. If it can work in there it can work here.
Rav Shachter is on the right side of the issue here. He does not support going to some sort of rabbinic panel that has no professional expertise. He supports only the idea that evidence be credible to be determined by experts. If psychologists experienced in sex abuse comprise such a panel – then suspicions of abuse will be properly vetted and justice will be served.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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