Virtual Talmud

Should the Internet be used to publicize the names and alleged improprieties of alleged sexual predators? Is such use justified to protect victims and potential victims from sexual predators even if it runs roughshod over the requirement to protect innocent individuals from potentially false charges that can ruin their reputations and their careers?

According to Jewish tradition, a sexual predator is a rodef, a pursuer intending to harm another. As Jews we are obligated to not stand idly by, but to intervene to protect the victim. While we are not free to ignore the threat, nevertheless we are to use the minimum degree of force necessary to neutralize the threat posed by a perpetrator.

That is why I am uncomfortable with posting charges of sexual misconduct on Internet sites.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we are to protect the reputation of others: we are not to spread unconfirmed rumors (lashon hara, literally meaning evil talk), nor are we even to spread a bad name about others (motzi shem ra), even if true, to anyone who does not have a direct need to know for his or her own protection. In these ways, Judaism seeks to protect someone’s reputation and ability to support oneself.

The biblical story of Joseph (who winds up in jail for having spurned the advances of his boss’ wife) (Gen. 39:7-20) reminds us that mentally fragile or vindictive individuals can use a charge of sexual misconduct to get back at someone who is otherwise innocent. And sometimes one person’s kind act (for example, giving a congregant a hug in public) is inappropriately labeled by another as an act of sexual impropriety.

While I don’t agree with the use of the Internet to publicize unproven charges of sexual misconduct, I certainly understand why such postings happen: All too often victims find no support or redress in the organized Jewish world.

That is why it is our responsibility on every level of our community to establish protocols and procedures for dealing expeditiously and confidentially with charges of sexual misconduct, whether about rabbis, teachers, or other professionals and leaders, and in a way that is sensitive and fair to both parties.

In my synagogue we have a Personnel Committee staffed by volunteers with Equal Opportunity and human resource experience who regularly run training programs for all of our teachers and staff about sexual harassment and misconduct. Each of the major rabbinical organizations should have a similar procedure that ensures a fair hearing not just to the rabbi in question, but to the self-identified victim as well. I would also suggest that some of the national initiatives to train rabbis on issues of domestic violence could also include training in sexual harassment and impropriety so this growing number of concerned rabbis will know how to respond appropriately if someone comes to them for help.

Perhaps such steps, once in place, would vitiate the need for blogs that ultimately do more for the spread of lashon hara than the effective protection of potential victims of sexual misconduct.

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