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December 07, 2012

A Rabbinic Coverup? You Bet It Is

Rabbi Jay Kelman croppedA Modern Orthodox rabbi whitewashes the very Talmudic passage which provides the blueprint for every rabbinic coverup of child sexual abuse and other crimes on record.

Rabbi Jay Kelman cropped
Rabbi Jay Kelman

Rabbi Jay Kelman of Torah in Motion writes:

Rabbinic Cover-Up? Shabbat 56
 
Interpreting Scripture is no easy feat. One of the difficulties in understanding biblical literature is figuring out what parts are to be taken at face value and which are to be understood in a more symbolic fashion. While we take it for granted that physical descriptions of G-d are anthropomorphisms, such was not the case before the Rambam eradicated the notion of a physical G-d from our conception of the Divine. The wide-ranging nature of belief in a physical G-d is highlighted by the critique of the Rabad, who simply notes that "a number of greater and better [sages] than he went with this idea according to what they saw in the verses" (Laws of Repentance 3:7)

The above comes to mind as I think of a series of claims by Rav Shmuel bar (the sone of) Nachmani in the name of Rav Yonatan that "whoever says...sinned is only making an error" (55b). Beginning with the story of Reuven, of whom the Torah says "he slept with Bilha, his father's concubine" and continuing with the sons of Eli, the sons of Shmuel, King David, Solomon, and Yoshiyahu, Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani--in seeming contradiction to the verses of the Tanach--interprets the sins ascribed to them as much more minor errors. Heaven forbid that Reuven slept with his stepmother; rather, he only moved the bed of his father out of her tent into the tent of Leah.

While we are told the children of Eli "slept with women" that only means, Rav Shmuel asserts, that through their delay in attending to the Temple sacrifices, women had to wait an extra day before they were allowed to be intimate with their husbands. King Solomon did not really do "evil in the eyes of the Lord", but rather did not protest the sins of others. And on and on it goes.

While a cursory reading of the Talmud may lead one to the conclusion that Rav Shmuel is whitewashing the sins of our biblical heroes--engaging in apologetics--it is anything but. It is worth noting that these "reinterpretations" were all offered by Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rav Yonatan. While the Talmud does not offer dissenting opinions, it does not necessarily follow that his view was unanimous. The Talmud often records minority viewpoints, and when it comes to Aggadic (non-legal), as opposed to Halachic (legal) matters, there are no official binding rulings.

Regarding Aggadic sections of the Talmud, we are even entitled to disagree with Talmudic views (see, for example, Tosafot Yom Tov Nazir 5:5 who, in an amazing passage, notes that "permission is granted to interpret scripture as our eyes see").

More importantly, Rav Shmuel is actually being most harsh on our heroes. They did, in fact commit much lesser sins than the Bible ascribes to them. But the Bible chooses to claim they committed a great sin; minor sins of our leaders are greatly magnified. While for others we may overlook minor discretions, this is not the case when we are talking about biblical greats from whom much more is expected, and whose minor errors may lead to major consequences.

Reuven may have only moved the beds, but such audacity is considered as if he actually slept with Bilha, a far graver sin. Our sages, to quote Nechama Leibowitz, were no "respecter of persons". In fact, they had extremely high standards, and would often not tolerate even minor indiscretions. May we merit such leaders, who do not even "move the beds" of others.

No, Jay. You're wrong.

We have 1300 (at least) years of proof that this Talmudic passage was used to cover up all kinds of crimes committed by prominent men and rabbis and the expense of the weak, the poor, women, and children.

The Talmud does not say "Rabbi X could have done this particular heinous crime but he really didn't. He is only being treated as if he did because he's a great man, and his minor sin is equal to a major sin committed by anyone else."

What the Talmud does is use the following formula to excuse major Jewish leaders and rabbis of all sorts of heinous crimes: "whoever says...sinned is only making an error."

As your own Toronto community is facing two high profile (or is it three high profile) cases of child sexual abuse allegedly committed by prominent men in the local haredi community – crimes that were covered up by local haredi and Orthodox rabbinic and community leaders for decades – to make the claim you have made is offensive.

Are you blind? Are you deaf? Are you stupid?

What about Rabbi Chaim Halpern in London? Rabbi Nechemya Weberman in Brooklyn? Rabbi Mordechai Elon in Israel?

What about Kolko and his nephew and Weingarten and Yegutkin and so many, many others?

How about the financial crimes, the Ponzi schemes, the extortion of agunot?

Are you blind? Are you deaf? Are you?

The constant factor that runs through all these cases is the idea posited by rabbis and community leaders that "whoever says Halpern, Weberman, Elon, Kolko, Kolko, Weingarten, Yegutkin, etc., sinned is only making an error" – or lying, or whore, or a bum.

This very Talmudic passage has been used in all of these cases to kasher the criminal.

Admit the truth.

Shmuel bar Nachmani was wrong and the sages who edited the Babylonian Talmud were wrong for including his error without sufficient clarification, and their errors have caused untold pain and suffering for victims ever since.

Rabbinic coverups?

You bet there are. Lots of them.

And Jay Kelman just added another to that long and shameful list.

Jay should be ashamed of himself, and he should apologize immediately to all the victims – current and in the future – that he has hurt.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

Comments

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I'm curious to see a reference where Rav Yonatan's whitewash of biblical heroes' sins was used *historcally* to cover up crimes of Rabbis.

I'm curious to see a reference where Rav Yonatan's whitewash of biblical heroes' sins was used *historcally* to cover up crimes of Rabbis.

Posted by: Avi Rosenthal | December 07, 2012 at 02:45 AM

If you look at halakhic discussions of shaming talmidei chachamim, you'll see that it is almost always forbidden to publicize their crimes. This Talmudic passage is often cited as a support for that ruling.

You'll also note that if a normal observant Jew commits a sexual crime, he can be outed and punished, while a talmud chacham is, in many cases, protected from that.

Shmarya, I don't understand what your problem with this is. Here you have a attempt by a rabbi to re-interpret a Gemara about cover-ups so that it is doing the opposite, and urging to stop with the contemporary cover-ups, and urging for more moral behavior than is currently existing - and you're accusing him of engaging in an immoral cover-up!

Posted by: Richie | December 07, 2012 at 04:54 AM

Please.

Try re-reading the post slowly. Concentrate.

If you do that, you should notice that what Kelman does is offer apologetics for the Talmud.

He isn't "reinterpreting" anything (if you were familiar with that gemara you'd know that), and he isn't telling the historical or halakhic truth.

You know, Shmarya, I don't think you're "right" about the literal meaning of the Talmud "whoever says...sinned is only making an error," because there are alternate opinions that do say that the sins were as literal as they seem. Also, contextually, as someone familiar with these texts, whether or not they were meant to be taken literallly... But you make an awsome drasha (homily) here that should be taught the world over. I can't add to the words of your original post, but they constitute divrei torah par excellence.

[Are you sure you weren't born in Mea Shearim? Because just translate your post and you have one hell of a finely worded pashkevil, the kind that end up everywhere and stays up for quite a while!]

Shmarya, the average Shloimie on Lee Avenue may own one or two shtreimels, but he probably isn't able to quote Talmudic passages off the cuff. What prompts these coverups is not the passage quoted, but a culture of unyielding devotion to religious authority, deep contempt for and mistrust of the outside world and of secular authority in particular, and a gross misapplication of the anachronistic Mesira rules.

Shmuel bar Nachmani was wrong and the sages who edited the Babylonian Talmud were wrong for including his error without sufficient clarification, and their errors have caused untold pain and suffering for victims ever since.

Sorry Shmarya. I have respect for your efforts to clean up the contemporary Jewish community. But my respect totally diminishes when you attack the Talmud, and accuse the Amoraim of coverups. Jay is totally on target here.

There is a concept called 'Emunas Chachamim', based on Devarim 17:10. This pasuk is the Biblical basis for our having respect and faith in the words of the Talmud, including Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani.

Lots of modern people mistakenly use this pasuk as an excuse for Daas Torah. The Chovas Halevovos points out in his his introduction that this 'Daas Torah' concept is incorrect. Don't confuse your distaste for Daas Torah, where rabbis try to control your personal decisions, with Emunas Chachamim, which is incumbent on any Torah observant Jew.

To echo BK, if you are trying to get Orthodox rabbis to disown or criticize certain parts of the Talmud, you are asking for something impossible. What, do you think you're going to shame Rabbi Kelman into criticizing Amoraim? Come on, dude. Take on something that makes sense. Orthodox rabbis are still going to be Orthodox rabbis, and if you want allies/fellow-travelers among them, find ways that make some sense.

Shmarya, you couldn't be a bigger moron. Are you going to refer to Jay Kelman as an "apologist for molesters" in every headline from now on? Do your muscles ache from writing this unbelievable stretch?

To echo BK, if you are trying to get Orthodox rabbis to disown or criticize certain parts of the Talmud, you are asking for something impossible. What, do you think you're going to shame Rabbi Kelman into criticizing Amoraim? Come on, dude. Take on something that makes sense. Orthodox rabbis are still going to be Orthodox rabbis, and if you want allies/fellow-travelers among them, find ways that make some sense.

Posted by: S. | December 07, 2012 at 09:16 AM

All he had to do is call it "troubling" or "problematic" and/or noted some of the horrible abuses done using this gemara and said the gemara was being misused – but he did none of that.

And, yes, he should be very ashamed of himself – and of all the sages and rabbis for 13 centuries (if not longer) who used this gemara to abuse victims.

So childish to blame the Talmud for the cover-up culture. What's the for the Catholic Church cover-up? The Talmud as well?
The cover up is due to the fact we are one big loyal family, therefore sometimes we will (wrongfully) cover up and blindly defend crimes.
Having said that, we had never covered up hanis crimes like murder, rapist or “repeated” molesters.

Having said that, we had never covered up hanis crimes like murder, rapist or “repeated” molesters.

Posted by: Mike Kats | December 07, 2012 at 09:54 AM

Please.

Rabbi Yehuda Kolko sexually abused kids for almost 40 years. Repeated complaints were made to 'gedolim' about him.

What did these 'gedolim' do?

They covered for him.

This is not an isolated case.

Lots of hit and run yidiots in here. I smell socks, dirty socks.


Sorry Shmarya. I have respect for your efforts to clean up the contemporary Jewish community. But my respect totally diminishes when you attack the Talmud,

Kids being raped and killed? "shrug*

Words, written to codify the superstitions of long dead men, being denounced?


HASHEM YERACHEM, WE NEED MOSHIACH NOW! What a shanda, who does Shmarya think he is? What next, denying Toyreh m'Sinai? Claiming Moshe and Dovid HaMelech did not wear shtreimels? Such a shaigetz, nebech, NEBECH that a yid should stoop to this.

No the Talmud is not "covering" for dovid etc.
Tanach documents wrongdoing by these people explicitly and the talmud doesn't deny that. Rather, it has the theological problem that the Tanach, which was god and/or prophets, stating that tzadikkim did things that were terrible,and therefore hardly very righteous. It is to a certain extent whitewashing the narrative of tanach, but he is stating an answer to the problem, about a 1000 years after the fact -- hardly covering up the facts.

"All he had to do is call it "troubling" or "problematic" and/or noted some of the horrible abuses done using this gemara and said the gemara was being misused – but he did none of that."

Why does he need to call the gemara "troubling", if he doesn't think it is? Why should your alleged "abuses done using this gemara" require him to fault the talmud. According to the gemarah, Reuven, for example, did not sleep with his father's wife, but understandably was insulted about his mother being slighted, yet the Torah publicizes this great talmud chachum's error. How does some alleged twisted application to protect "tc"'s obligate the author to call the Talmud problematic.

"And, yes, he should be very ashamed of himself ... who used this gemara to abuse victims."

How did he use this gemara to abuse victims?

For those who are engaging in apologetics. Are you saying the position in the Talmud on Reuven is expressing the historical truth?
Take a look on Sefer Yovelim (Book of Jubilees) chapter 33. Though it was not cannonized, it is the oldest source on the matter...

Shmarya,
Your attack is very foolish. Learn Torah properly, and you will see why you can't interpet some things at face value.

When Chazal explain that Moshe Rabbenu caused a chillul Hashem by hitting the rock, because at his level of greatness should have had more self-control, and the Torah treats the minor sins of the great as major ones, do you also call this being "opologist" for Moshe?

Regarding Reuven, the Torah says right after he sinned that he was still part of the Shevatim, which if he would not be if he actually sinned. Chazal teach us that the Torah doesn't cover up for anyone, and that's why it mentions even the slightest sins, to show us that it was their only sin, so we can learn from it.
If Reuven wanted to sin with Bilha, why would he wait for Rachel to die? Why would Yaacov not banish him? That's why Chazal explain that he moved the bed, which for his level should have not been so quick to intervene in his father's tent, was cosidered as actually sinning with Bilha.
Furthemore why did Yaacov only rebuke him for his "Pachaz Kamayim" which is not the rebuke one would expect for commiting adultry.
If the Torah wanted to cover-up for Yosef, why bring the story in the first place.
Nobody in the world would ever hear about it. We learn Yosef's amazing self-control and fear of Hashem. Chazal also teach that he almost sinned with her but in the end sinned a much smaller one since he spilled his seed.

If Chazal were opologists they wouldn't tell us all these things. They teach us these things to learn from them, and from their slightest mistake not to do that.

Torah is TRUE-yOU HEARD THE WORDS ITS ALL MAKE BELEIVE OUR WHOLE EXISTANCE IS MAKE BELEIVE.

Posted by: MHL | December 08, 2012 at 03:59 PM

Although I never heard of sefer yovelim until now, it seems it was written by Pharisees which was before the Talmud. However, it doesn't make it a more reliable historical source; it is still much later then the Torah.
It is plausible that it read the Torah literally, which the Talmud didn't.
Furthermore, the historical truth is irrelevant to this topic -- Shmarya doesn't necessarily believe that Reuven even existed.A Rabbi asks if the Amora is whitewashing history, and says his opinion is that its not. Shmarya alleges that people use the talmud to cover-up tc's wrongdoings, further implies that it is the basis of protecting molesters, and accuses said Rabbi of abusing victims by not mentioning this.

Jancsibacsi:
And so is your abuse that you keep bringing up. Shmuck!

I know Rabbi Kelman. He's a decent man who spends his days leading an exemplary life within halachic limits while trying to provide Torah education to people regardless of their backgrounds. He's also a good family man and physically active.
In other words, he's pretty much the opposite of you.
The section of the Gemara he's writing about might have been used by other menuvalim to hide crimes over the last 1300 years but
1) that's not the point of Rabbi Kelman's article. Are you so hateful that anyone who mentions that gemara and doesn't condemn rabbonim for covering up crimes is an accomplice to their sins?
2) Rabbi Kelman would be one of the first to stand up to such a person who used that gemara as a defense and say "Well maybe David HaMelech didn't really sin but you, sir, you did!"
So shame on you Shemarya for attacking a genuinely good man.

Idiot.

He's the one who titled his piece "Rabbinic Cover-Up?"

His answer was no.

And he was blatantly, clearly and unequivocally wrong.

Add to the the current child sexual abuse cases in his hometown and the decades of rabbinic coverups of them and you have an appalling insult to victims.

He should be ashamed.

And you should be, as well.

"And he was blatantly, clearly and unequivocally wrong."

You still haven't explained how an opinion not interpreting the torah literally posed 1000 (s) of years after the fact is a cover-up.

Exactly what crime has R. Kelman tried to cover up?

I went to Yeshiva with Jay.

He's one of the good guys. He's created a movement for intellectual thought and giving a platform to teachers orthodoxy does not welcome.

To blame Jay for sexual abuse in Toronto is like blaming the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Yes, they live in the same city.

No, he's never advocated on behalf of an abuser or tried to cover it up.

This is by far one of the dumbest posts Shmarya has ever done.

Now I'm waiting for one of his two responses:

Idiot

or

Please.

Posted by: FM Fan | December 09, 2012 at 07:39 PM

I think he has given up on this one.

"[F]or 13 centuries (if not longer) who used this gemara to abuse victims"

Please offer one example of anyone applying this passage to anyone except the biblical figures it discusses.

I went to Yeshiva with Jay.

He's one of the good guys. He's created a movement for intellectual thought and giving a platform to teachers orthodoxy does not welcome.

To blame Jay for sexual abuse in Toronto is like blaming the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Yes, they live in the same city.

No, he's never advocated on behalf of an abuser or tried to cover it up.

This is by far one of the dumbest posts Shmarya has ever done.

Now I'm waiting for one of his two responses:

Idiot

or

Please.

Posted by: FM Fan | December 09, 2012 at 07:39 PM

I realize having a working brain is way above your pay grade, but do try to process.

I don't care whether Jay is a saint or an asshole – it makes no difference.

All that matters here is that his d'var hatorah is both factually wrong and deeply offensive and hurtful to victims of abuse.

What also matters is that Jay made these gaffes during the middle of three major child sexual abuse scandals in Toronto's Orthodox and haredi community.

That you're not caring enough or honest enough or smart enough to understand this is no surprise to anyone who has followed your comments history here.

But your very evident faults don't excuse Jay's.

"[F]or 13 centuries (if not longer) who used this gemara to abuse victims"

Please offer one example of anyone applying this passage to anyone except the biblical figures it discusses.

Posted by: C. | December 09, 2012 at 09:45 PM

Go back and read the comments and you'll see that your question was asked and answered already.

I agree that Kelman's reading of this passage is plain wrong. But I don't see where it leads one to believe he is covering up for anyone.

I never said that he was personally covering up for child molesters or other criminals.

oy Avi with all due respect,,,, you speak like well.. to be frank... an idiot.

I want to add my voice to those who know Jay Kelman and what a good person he is.

You say that for 1300 years people have used the Talmudic teaching in question to act inappropriately. You need to show us that this is so. And then you need to show us that Kelman knew this and ignored it.

Now to the issue at hand:
There is a very old argument among the rabbis about how to explain biblical characters acting inappropriately. One of my teachers, a professor (emeritus) of bible at Bar Ilan, used to call it the 'realistic school vs. the idealistic school'. The idealists seek to paint out ancestors are basically saintly, as a way of motivating us to aspire to that kind of life. The realists present our ancestors as they were, as a way of saying that anybody can make a mistake and that is not reason to give up, since even our holy ancestors made mistakes, and some of those mistakes were severe ones.

This is an argument, going back to the Tannaim. And the argument is about pedagogy, that is, at the interpretive/midrashic level what is the best way to present our ancestors for educational purposes. And this is the background for Kelman's article.

You can certainly disagree with Kelman's approach, and you can point out issues with it. What I think it out of bounds is impugning him and his motives. Sexual inappropriateness is wrong, and so is lashon hara.

Shmarya, you perform an important service to our community. There are real offenders to go after, and you do us a service by exposing them. But Kelman is not one of them. He is owed an apology.

…There are real offenders to go after, and you do us a service by exposing them. But Kelman is not one of them. He is owed an apology.

Posted by: Uzi Weingarten | December 14, 2012 at 12:38 AM

Oh, please.

The only people owed apologies here are the victims of rabbinic child sexual abuse and other crimes.

But just like you, Jay is too screwed up or too uncaring to apologize for what he did.

What Jay is offering there is a standard approach to study of Tanach. R' Avigdor Miller used this approach often to explain how people like Jacob's sons or Shlomo could be described as righteous in one posuk and condemned in the next. Answer is, the condemnation was hyperbole that serves as a microscope.

If you don't like this approach to Tanach study then you can debate it or even condemn it. But to post a picture of Jay Keleman next to a headline about rabbinic coverup is despicable. Jay is a good guy, a humble guy, the kind of guy that doesn't hurt anyone. This is worse than National Enquirer type journalism because they probably wouldn't even pull this. I can see from this that you really don't give a crap who you hurt or whether you tell the truth. You just like to rant and rave and get your rage out.

This undermines your credibility completely. Now I wonder about the truth of everything else posted here as well.

27th February 2013. R Chaim Halpern in London has been bailed to return in March. He has NOT been charged, nor have the three others. Please don't get ahead of the police! I cannot comment further while the investigation is ongoing.

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