Rabbi Chaim Druckman, one of the most prominent Rabbis within the national religious movement, has responded to Rabbi Mordechai Elon’s conviction on charges of sexually assaulting minors, by employing him as a teacher in the Or Etzion Yeshiva where he serves as the Rosh Yeshiva. This has sent shockwaves through the religious Zionist community. It also poses a serious challenge to the Bayit Yehudi political party.
Naftali Bennet, the head of Bayit Yehudi, ran on a platform which highlighted religious reform. A charismatic personality, he communicates well with secular Israelis and has even succeeded in projecting himself as a trendy liberal. But until now, either from inability or unwillingness, he has failed to confront the tough issues of religious reform.
Bayit Yehudi cannot remain on the sidelines in relation to such a fundamental issue as sexual misconduct within the rabbinic community. If it does not respond appropriately to this latest imbroglio, it will contribute to its own demise.
It is not my intention to provide a detailed analysis of the tragic Rabbi Mordechai Elon issue. Rabbi Elon was one of the leading and most charismatic rabbis within the religious Zionist movement. His weekly Torah television presentations were widely popular. He was at one time head of the renowned Yeshivat Hakotel, headed the Horev School and was considered a possible Chief Rabbi. To this day he retains numerous followers who insist on his innocence.
The Elon case was drawn to the attention of Takana, a forum of prominent rabbis and respected religious laymen established to deal with issues of sexual abuse from within the national religious sector.
Shocked by the evidence presented to them, Takana confronted Rabbi Elon who allegedly confessed to a number of incidents which occurred in schools and hotels. Takana sources claim he expressed contrition and undertook to move to Migdal in northern Israel and to cease all public engagements.
However, Rabbi Elon subsequently reneged on his commitment and resumed contact with young people. As a result, Takana reported him to the authorities and he was arrested. The court was only presented with two cases of many other cases because most parents declined to press charges in order to protect their children from public exposure.
Rabbi Elon was convicted on two counts of sexual assault of a minor for which he received a suspended 15 month prison sentence and probation for three years. He was also required to perform six months community service and pay a NIS 10,000 fine.
Following the verdict, Rabbi Elon claimed that the allegations against him were false and displayed no remorse. His fervent supporters went so far as to accuse Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Dov Lior, rabbis from opposite ends of the national religious spectrum, of conspiring with other rabbis to destroy Rabbi Elon out of envy of his high public standing.
Rabbi Druckman also came to his defense. An Israel Prize winner, former MK and cabinet minister, the spiritual leader of the Bnei Akiva youth movement and head of its network of yeshivot, he is one of the doyens of the religious Zionist movement
But Rabbi Druckman did not merely disagree with the findings of the court. He defiantly proclaimed that Rabbi Elon would continue teaching at his yeshiva, Or Etzion.
It is noteworthy that he had previously been questioned by the Attorney General for having defended the convicted pedophile Zeev Kopolevitch, former head of Jerusalem’s Netiv Meir Yeshiva High School who was convicted of indecent acts against his students.
For Rabbi Druckman to defy the findings of the courts and his own colleagues – even if he is personally convinced of Rabbi Elon’s innocence – repudiates respect for the rule of law and is unconscionable.
Indeed there are many who question as to whether a person convicted of sexually abusing minors or enabling others to do so, should retain the title “rabbi”. If the same rabbis were found to be transgressing Shabbat or Kashrut, surely their titles would be removed. Is sexual abuse of innocent children considered a lesser affront to Judaism?
Rabbi Druckman’s behavior demonstrates that a rabbi who is deeply respected for his learning and piety is not necessarily qualified to deal with broad communal issues – especially so if he lacks an understanding of worldly affairs.
Many have condemned Rabbi Druckman’s decision to invite Rabbi Elon to continue teaching at his state funded hesder yeshiva, describing the act as a Chillul Hashem – a desecration of God’s name and urging him to reverse his decision. A number of distressed parents who claim that their children were abused have created a Facebook group “Supporters of the Victims of Rabbi Elon” that states that “those who deny sexual violence, commit sexual violence.” World Bnei Akiva Co-Chairman Daniel Goldmann has publicly supported efforts to pressure Druckman to sever his relationship with Elon. So far there has been no movement in this direction.
Sexual abuse in Jewish religious institutions has emerged as one of the most tragic issues of our generation. Fearing scandal, rabbis in the past were often inclined not to report such cases to the authorities, thus enabling pedophiles to continue preying on children as they moved on to other religious educational institutions.
The question must also be asked whether Takana itself did not err by failing to immediately report the case to the authorities. Making an informal agreement with a man they consider to be a sexual predator may have resulted in other children being molested
As the political party claiming to represent the religious-Zionist community, Bayit Yehudi cannot simply bury its head in the sand and ignore this issue. It is obliged to demand that Rabbi Druckman, who is considered the spiritual leader of their youth movement, Bnei Akiva, distance himself from a convicted sexual predator.
Yet, when pressed to comment in a radio interview, Minister Naftali Bennett merely responded: “I think a man convicted of this should not be teaching. Certainly not for a period of time”. Really? Does Bennett believe that a person convicted of sexually abusing minors should ever again be permitted access to them?
Only Bayit Yehudi MK Uri Orbach responded appropriately, saying that convicted sex offenders “must not be permitted to teach young people… And that first and foremost we have to stand behind the victims.”
For many religious Zionists, the Rabbi Druckman/Rabbi Elon issue is a litmus test of Bayit Yehudi’s willingness to stand up and be counted. They are understandably asking “How can a religious Zionist party seeking to promote Jewish values remain silent when one of its leading rabbis adopts such an outrageous stand and openly defies the rule of law?”
If Naftali Bennett cannot get his act in order and display leadership on such an issue, there is little hope that his party will fulfill its mandate to bring about the religious reformation that he promised and Israel so desperately needs.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.