Virtual Talmud

Rabbi Stern points out the distinct irony of Israeli President Moshe Katzav refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform rabbis on the basis of Orthodox law as interpreted by Israel’s Religious Ministry while engaging in personal behavior that, if found to be true, is morally and religiously reprehensible.

I think there is a bigger problem here, however.

When Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion dreamed that Israel would someday be like the other nations of the world, I doubt he had in mind that a prominent Israeli leader would face a sex-abuse scandal at the same time as an American congressman. The analogy to Florida Republican Mark Foley is apt in too many ways.

If the rape and sexual misconduct charges against Katzav are true, I have to wonder how many people, by their silence or acquiesce, enabled Katzav in his offenses, just as the Republican leadership enabled Foley in his misdeeds. (A report in this week’s Newsweek magazine cover story traces evidence of such knowledge back to at least 2002.)

Of course, the good old boys club mentality that facilitates and protects such egregious misbehavior (whether the victims are women or teenaged boys) is particularly disgusting when the individuals and parties in question claim to represent religious morals, whether of Jewish Orthodoxy or Christian conservativism. Under Jewish law, at least, someone who knows of a danger and does nothing about removing it can also be held liable for it.

But the Katzav affair reminds me of how the Orthodox Jewish political establishment also fails vulnerable women and children in another way, as corrupt religious courts force women to remain in abusive relationships, lose custody of their children to abusive fathers, be blackmailed and, by denying them a get (a religious divorce), languish as agunot–grass widows–unable to remarry.

While there is a significant number of Orthodox rabbis who try to help agunot, the reality is that the problem only exists because of a lack of will within the Orthodox establishment to correct it. The Conservative movement years ago found a way to annul a marriage where the husband refuses to give his wife a get.

While some might say solving the agunah issue is more complex than or unrelated to either the Katzav or Foley sex-abuse scandal, these women and children share something in common with Katzav’s and Foley’s alleged victims: They are endangered every day because politically powerful men do nothing to help them.

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