2016-06-30
Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a charismatic personality and influential youth leader within Orthodox Judaism, has been accused of sexually harassing girls and physically abusing boys entrusted to his care during the past 30 years. The accusations, made by a number of his victims, came to light last summer in an extensive article in Jewish Week by that newspaper's editor, Gary Rosenblatt.

Following publication of the story, an independent investigative commission was convened by the leadership of the organization for which Lanner worked, the National Commission of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth movement of the Orthodox Union (OU), the main denominational organization of Orthodox Judaism. Recently, an executive summary of the full report was issued, confirming and expanding upon Rosenblatt's findings and recommending major changes in the organization.

Lanner has denied the allegations, though he refused to speak with the OU's investigative commission. Following the end of the investigation and the publication of its findings, an OU press release said the organization believes Lanner had engaged in "abusive" behavior.

While any accused retains the presumption of innocence, the evidence against him--mostly in the form of detailed testimony of former NCSY members--compels me to side with his accusers. The final say, of course, is for a judge or jury.

So the picture looks like this: A respected rabbi accused of horrible misdeeds, and his employers accused of ignoring complaints about him for three decades. What's wrong with this picture?

First, there is Lanner's behavior, as it was documented by Rosenblatt and the OU's investigative commission. Sexual harassment has become a violation of standard norms of behavior in this country, often a prosecutable crime or cause for civil action. This change of attitude toward harassment represents a major symbol of the betterment of women's lives. Lanner's accusers describe a man who seems to have missed all of this.

The behavior described in the published reports also violates a second code of law, Jewish law. Biblical and rabbinic teachings are explicit about protecting values such as sexual modesty and marital fidelity.

Moreover, the law is very clear regarding prohibitions against exploiting the weak and vulnerable. These two themes are joined in the list of forbidden sexual relationships cited in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19). The unifying principle there seems to be that one may not sexually exploit those over whom one has power, those under the protection of one's household, those members of the family who are more vulnerable.

The deeper problem, though, extends beyond the misdeeds of one person, for every community has its flawed leaders. The most disturbing and problematic aspect of the Lanner case is that the allegations against him were known to many, including his immediate colleagues and supervisors--as well as three rabbis brought in to judge him in a religious court that failed to stop the alleged abuse. Over the years, many former NCSY members spoke out, but their cries fell on deaf ears.

Even when a no-nonsense newspaper editor decided to blow the whistle, the initial reaction of many in high places was something akin to killing the messenger: Some members of the Orthodox establishment tried to stifle Rosenblatt's article, and many letters to the editor following its publication took Rosenblatt to task for airing the community's dirty laundry in public, though he courageously stood up to the pressure.

The question prompted by all of these disappointing failures is, Why? The answers lie deeply within the collective culture of our generally upstanding community, Orthodox Judaism.

One is our relationship to modernity. Some would call us irredeemably pre-modern, but this is not the case. Rather, the losses we suffered with modernity--the number of Jews who left their religion behind and the deep losses of the Holocaust--continue to resonate painfully inside of us. Lanner was engaged in teen outreach work, reclaiming for the tradition unaffiliated Jewish youngsters.

This goal is all-important; in fact, sacred beyond measure. Each soul is precious. What went askew is that this work supplanted a more primary religious value, the dignity of the individual. For many of Lanner's colleagues and supervisors, the balance between ritual observance and moral behavior was lost. "He gets them to keep Shabbos (the Sabbath) and to keep kosher," became the rationale for looking the other way.

This matter of bifurcating ethics and ritual is part of a much larger problem in Orthodoxy, as it is in most fundamental religions. The seriousness of the matter is that it takes root in ways that affect other people's lives: Here in sexual trauma, there in business dealings, and so forth.

A second issue is the matter of deeply ingrained attitudes toward women and their bodies. Harassment of women is not the whole of this case, but it is a large part of it. I cannot explain why Lanner, according to the published reports, allegedly engaged in inappropriate horseplay--and why it went unchallenged--but I think I understand why he could have had such contempt and disdain for the bodies of the young women in his charge and why their complaints were rebuffed by other rabbis and lay leaders. There exist in the tradition ancient biases against women, a pattern of trivializing their class and objectifying their bodies. The history of possession of women is long behind us, but vestiges remain in other forms, and these play not only to a sick mind but to some respectable leaders as well.

Third, there is a new culture of hero worship of rabbis in Orthodoxy. To a large extent, protective cover was provided for Lanner because he was considered a talmid khakham, a Torah scholar. Indeed, Rosenblatt, the Jewish Week editor, was accused at the outset of violating the rules mandating respect for a talmid khakham; even the recently released summary of the investigation into the matter doesn't name names of those Orthodox Union officials who allegedly failed to stop Lanner's misdeeds. The summary cites "prurient interest" as its reason, but clearly the motivation again is to protect those who carry the title rabbi, as if they are entitled to special dispensation when it comes to violations of a social or sexual nature.

In truth, I am proud that throughout our long history, our heroes have always been our Torah scholars and religious personalities. But these came by virtue of spiritual and intellectual accomplishment, not merely title.

Opening the door on the Lanner case should be welcomed by every member of this religious community and of every other one, for it provides an opportunity to take a deep look at what went wrong and to begin the process of correction. There are many tasks to undertake, and they can all begin now.

As a community, we must start the process of reviewing our sacred texts--many of which cause terror for women--and our laws that disrespect women. Everything is related to everything else, sometimes in ways that might not at first be clear: Inequitable divorce law impacts on women's leadership roles; rules limiting women's role in public prayer impact their general spiritual rights; laws restricting women's voices impact on the treatment of their bodies.

Women must be granted access to positions of leadership and authority. It seems likely that the plug would have been pulled on Lanner much sooner had women been in on the supervisory process and the religious court of law convened to judge him.

Protecting our children is a top priority. The community must set community-wide standards to which every group or institution involved with children must adhere. This should include a system for periodic self-monitoring and independent monitoring.

The Lanner case reminds us that power tends to corrupt, in every area. A system of checks and balances is vital to the health of any social organism, including a religious community with all of its hierarchical structure. Laity and leadership should be able to work more in partnership and interdependence, rather than one having unchecked authority. Esteem for religious leadership will still be able to find expression in a more democratic structure than the one we now have.

The excesses in this case are a signal to religionists of all stripes that it is a most difficult task to keep the core message of a faith system front and center. But it is an effort worth making, for that is what is at the heart of the religious enterprise. Rabbis, teachers, leaders, parents, all of us have to keep asking the questions: What is the essence of my religion? What is the message underlying this ritual I observe? What is the vision that Judaism holds out to me? These are not small or easy questions, but they are integral to keeping a perspective on the thousand details that make up a religiously observant life.

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