Virtual Talmud

Recently, there has been a spate of sexual abuse cases surfacing within the Orthodox community. These cases have come to the fore primarily through the constant pressure of blogs. Blogs are an important check for religious democracy. Traditional communities by their nature can be incredibly insular, preventing the type of healthy critique that keeps all structures of power honest and modest.

Before I go on I just want to say this is a very complicated issue and in the near future I hope to write more on the complexity of this matter.

Back when I was a student at Yeshiva University, Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the Jewish Week, reported on Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a longtime establishment rabbinic figure in the Modern Orthodox world. For years, Lanner had been abusing children in camps and schools. Most suprising, however, wasn’t Lanner but the crony system that allowed and tolerated his behavior. Those such as YU Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Mordechai Willig defended him, and Willig was appointed head of an official Jewish court that was responsible for looking into the matter.

As the head of the court Willig, mocked and reprimanded those who questioned his judgment on the matter or brought charges against his buddy. What was so disturbing was not that Willig made an honest mistake and was trying to defend his friend, but that long after the proof was on the table and obvious to all, he continued to defame the media and those who challenged his rulings.

A few months after the story broke, I wrote an article in the YU student newspaper, the Commentator, applauding the work of Rosenblatt and others who had the guts to finally break the story. Most important, I argued that the Lanner case teaches us that the secular media can have the spiritual potential to save the sacred from itself.

When my article appeared, I was lambasted and denounced by those such as Willig. Willig threatened to get funding cut for the student newspaper. Ultimately, the editor of the student newspaper sheepishly ran for cover, distancing himself from my article. The editor was so scared that he could not even muster the courage to critique or challenge Willig or Lanner. That year my piece was the only piece the Commentator wrote on the issue.

It was as if there was no outlet to let people know what was happening. There was a tautology of evil with no way to question anything that as taking place. For more than a year the rabbis and Rosh Yeshiva continued to defend Lanner and mock Rosenblatt as a heretic and hater of Torah values. They claimed the criminal investigation was a conspiracy against Orthodox Jews. The whole situation was so sick and disturbing, yet all we could do was wait until Rosenblatt got around to looking into the matter further. Finally, after mounting public pressure and Rosenblatt’s courageous op-eds, Willig was forced to get up in front of a packed beit midrash (house of study) and beg forgiveness for his actions.

As a student, what was most frustrating for me was that I felt as though I was living in the twighlight zone, with no way in or out. Not only was there no way of letting the community know what was really going on, but even within the walls of the university, students were too scared to say a word. There is little doubt in my mind that had students been blogging in those days, the situation would have been radically different.

It was only after the Lanner affair that those such as Steven I. Weiss started blogging on the politics and day to-day happenings in Jewish life. Recently, others in Brooklyn and other Orthodox enclaves have followed his lead, creating a new power dynamic within the community.

To be sure, blogs are not a panacea, and sometimes, like all good societal medicines, they can have dangerous side-effects. Lies, rumors, and fiction are rampant on blogs, and real people’s lives can be destroyed because of the lack of standards endemic to the medium.

While bloggers like Weiss make a mistake or two here and there and are often too quick to condemn or praise, they are essential for creating a culture of critique. To be continued…..

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