(JTA) — Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi called for victims of sexual abuse to bring complaints to the “relevant authorities,” saying “there is an obligation to complain to the authorities in charge of these issues, and not hide it,” according to the site Israel National News.
The comments from Rabbi David Lau Wednesday came after Lau was criticized for visiting the family of Chaim Walder, the Israeli haredi Orthodox author of children’s books who was recently accused by dozens of young women of sexual abuse, as they sat shiva for Walder following his death by suicide earlier this week.
“These acts must be uprooted and eradicated completely. In any case when there is a hint of an indecent act or harassment, there is an obligation to complain to the authorities in charge of these issues, and not hide it,” Lau said in a statement released by his office.
The reaction to the allegations against Walder has been watched closely for signs of a shift in the Orthodox community’s approach to revelations of sexual abuse at the hands of respected rabbis and community members. While the Orthodox community has long tended to sweep such allegations under the rug, that trend appeared to be shifting in the days following the allegations against Walder, which were first published in an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
After a New York Jewish bookstore, Eichler’s, announced it would no longer sell Walder’s books, which had been a staple in many Orthodox homes, Walder’s publisher, Feldheim Publishers of Nanuet, New York, tweeted that it would remove Walder’s books from shelves while the allegations against him were being investigated. Yated Neeman and Radio Kol Hai, two Israeli news organizations, suspended Walder from his positions at the companies in the wake of the allegations, according to Israeli news site Arutz Sheva. Several prominent rabbinic leaders urged parents to remove his books from their homes.
On Sunday, a rabbinical court in Safed heard testimony from 22 young women about alleged abuse at Walder’s hands. But after Walder was found dead Monday morning, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot, some of the backlash against Walder appeared to be redirected against his accusers, with some blaming “lashon hara,” which in Hebrew can refer to speaking ill of others or gossip, for Walder’s death.
In a conversation with Orthodox educators, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the foremost leaders of the non-Hasidic haredi Orthodox community in Israel, implied that those who accused Walder were guilty of murder. “It is clear that the great pressure he was under led him to lose his sanity and kill himself. This is called murder,” he said, according to a report in Vos Iz Neias.
Edelstein added: “Even if the melamed [teacher] feels that he has a view on the matter, it is critical to transmit to children only the viewpoint of the Torah and to cry out about how dangerous it is to publicly embarrass other people. They should be told that evil people slandered him and publicized the slander everywhere until he was embarrassed to show his face outside and became mentally deranged to the point that he killed himself.”
In sharing the news of Walder’s death, one haredi Orthodox website declined to mention the allegations against him and ended the article with the phrase: “May his memory be a blessing.”
Critics said Lau’s public visit to Walder’s family added to the whitewashing of Walder’s alleged crimes. Rabbi Natan Slifkin, author and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh who also writes the blog “Rationalist Judaism,” addressed the issue in a blog post.
“By honoring the family with a visit while not making any statement about Walder, this lends support to the ‘persecuted tzaddik’ narrative,” Slifkin wrote in a post following Lau’s comments, using the Hebrew word for “righteous one.”
“In addition, by not making any statement of support for the victims, it is a further slap in the face to them,” he wrote.
“Wonder if respected rabbis will attend her funeral,” he wrote.