Beyond the Letter of the Law

If you want to know one of the many reasons why the fastest growing religious identification in America is “None” and why millions of Americans are suspicious of organized religion, look at the recent events surrounding Yeshiva University – a 116 year-old institution that is perhaps the pre-eminent institution of Modern Orthodox Judaism. In December 2012, accusations became public that Rabbis at Yeshiva University High School for Boys sexually abused students over a period of two decades and that the Yeshiva University administration knowingly tolerated the exploitation of teenage boys, neither threatening repercussion or informing the police.

On July 1, 2013, the Yeshiva University Chancellor (a figure head position), Rabbi Norman Lamm released a letter acknowledging he knew of the abuse and apologizing for his failure to go to police with reports of sexual abuse when he was President of YU.? The 85 year-old Lamm said in the letter that he was unable to write the letter on his own, and that family members helped him. A few days later on July 8th, 19 former students of the high school (eventually to become 34 students) filed a $380 million federal lawsuit claiming hundreds of acts of abuse were perpetrated in the 1970’s and 1980’s and accusing Lamm and various other Yeshiva officials, trustees, board members and faculty of a “massive cover-up of the sexual abuse of students” at the university-run high school.

In August 2013, the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, hired by Yeshiva University to do an “independent investigation” into allegations, concluded its eight-month investigation after more than 6,300 hours of work and more than 145 interviews. On August 26, in the doldrums of the summer, the week before Labor Day, Yeshiva University released a four-paragraph summary of the hundreds of pages of findings, admitting many people were indeed abused at many YU institutions but saying they could not give any details because of “pending litigation.” And last week, as expected, the complaint was dismissed by Manhattan federal court Judge John Koeltl who issued a 52-page opinion effectively saying the statute of limitations had expired decades ago. YU then released a statement saying how “gratified” they were that the court dismissed the case and as “North America’s Torah-informed university” recognized their responsibility to assume a leadership role in combating abuse within the community.

I was one of those abused in the early 70’s, though I chose not to be part of the lawsuit, and I have written about this earlier. But now that “we are moving forward”, as the YU press release declared, I suggest it is important that the leadership of the self proclaimed “North America’s Torah-informed institution” (“Torah-informed” for those who may not know is Jewish insider language for most authentically religious and ethical), should know, just as leadership of many religious institutions these days guilty of such crimes should know, that from God’s perspective, there is no statute of limitations.

Decades-long tolerance of abuse of teenage boys is never merely a legal issue. In the court of the ethical, psychological, and spiritual, YU, like myriad religious institutions plagued by this behavior, is more than guilty. The lack of transparency in the YU case, neither releasing the full report to the public nor making public the names of the board committee members specially appointed to deal with this issue, makes them perpetrators of exactly what allows sexual abuse to continue for years – secrecy and the privileging and protecting of institutional reputation over people victimized by its “religious” leadership. (It should be clear that there was no legal reason to keep the full report secret as it had no bearing on whether or not the statute of limitations had expired and if the ruling had been that the statute of limitations had not expired, YU would have had to disclose the report in discovery anyway.)

YU could have been a model for how traditional religious institutions deal with young people being sexually molested by self-styled holy men while other self-styled holy men shield the abusers from judicial consequences. All religious institutions, especially those with traditional systems of hierarchy and strong male authority, need to go beyond the letter of the law and engage in institutional repentance and in serious ethical and spiritual reflection befitting theological schools. It is time religious institutions seriously ask about the relationship between sexual abuse of teenage boys and:

  • Their patriarchal worldview,
  • Sexual repression,
  • The belief leadership holds that “God is with me”,
  • The belief that forgiveness is but a confession or a prayer away,
  • Access to young people, who accept authority,
  • The dynamics of faith, which, to a child, perhaps makes sexual requests no more bizarre than any number of other extreme rituals,
  • The unquestioning trust of people in its clergy,
  • Religious people’s aversion to learning distasteful truth about a religious leader,
  • The reluctance to go to the police and start a scandal since religious institutions also do so much good.

By not asking these questions and making these nasty crimes merely American legal issues and carefully crafted public relations challenges, religious institutions like YU show that their wisdom and ways (their Torah) can’t actually function in the contemporary world. Rather than being sacred, life-affirming, wisdom-based institutions, they are models of shame and defamation of the spiritual and ethical?- of the very God they imagine knowing.

They simply ensure that Americans will increasingly disconnect from and be suspicious of organized religion.

But then for decades now we have known that those who claim with most certainty and fierceness to know God’s will and who see themselves most clearly as God’s chosen actually most embarrass the God they claim to know and are so much less worthy than those whom they imagine to be so superior to.

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