Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Rabbis Are Trying to Rehabilitate Chaim Walder. Here's Why They Will Fail


Walder was accused of sexual assault, but upon his death he was upgraded by some Charedi leaders to the status of a martyr. The attempt to rehabilitate him will be another self-inflicted blow to the rabbis’ authority

by Anshel Pfeffer

 There’s a long list of issues that the ultra-Orthodox media is forbidden to report on. At the top of the list is anything to do with sex. For example, when U.S. President Bill Clinton faced impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky affair, Yated Ne’eman, the daily newspaper of the Haredi “Lithuanian” stream, reported that Clinton was in danger of losing his job for lying.

Consensual or coerced, sex is a completely taboo subject. Cases of rape will never be reported. At most, in very rare cases, there will be an oblique reference to “immoral behavior.”

 Another subject on the list of unmentionable topics is suicide 

The allegations of sexual assault against the renowned Haredi author and educator Chaim Walder, which were first reported seven weeks ago in Haaretz, created a unique dilemma for Yated Ne’eman. Among his many titles, Walder was also a veteran columnist for the paper.

A columnist at Yated Ne’eman is not just a mere pundit. The paper was founded in 1985 by the senior Lithuanian rabbis because the other main Haredi daily, Ha’modia, wasn’t ideologically pure enough – it covered the activities of the Chabad Hassidic sect, which some of the Lithuanians regarded as tainted messianic heresy. Yated writers are first and foremost mouthpieces of hashkafa – literally, the perspective, the ultra-Orthodox view of the world. Every word the paper publishes is vetted and often censored by the “spiritual committee,” a group of rabbis appointed by more senior rabbis who have a veto power over the editors.

When Ha’aretz’s investigation on Walder appeared the rabbis were divided between those who insisted they ignore the allegations printed in a secular newspaper against their favored son. Other rabbis who had been contacted by Walder’s victims pressed for his immediate dismissal. The latter group won that week, and Walder was forced to announce he was taking a leave of absence.

In the paper that had been his professional home for over two decades, though, there was no announcement. His regular column simply didn’t appear that Friday. Just as in George Orwell’s "1984," Walder, the man whose writing had been endorsed by the most senior rabbis, had become an “unperson" overnight.

And then six weeks later, as more and more victims had come forward, Walder suddenly become a person once again. On Monday morning, he shot himself in Segula Cemetery, next to the grave of his son who had died from cancer in 2019 at the age of 28. This was no longer an event that could be hidden from Yated’s readers, but neither could it be reported straightforwardly.

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From Yated’s pure pages the previous month was back on them on Tuesday morning, with a sanitized version of his life story spread over two columns. Suddenly the disappeared man was “the righteous departed of blessed memory… a man of education and good deeds.” The absence of his column on previous Fridays was now explained as “recently he requested to temporarily stop writing.” His suicide was described as being “suddenly taken away at his prime.”

In most cemeteries run by the ultra-Orthodox Hevra Kadisha (burial society), suicides are usually buried in obscure corners “beyond the fence,” but Walder’s body was buried inside. In death, he had been readmitted as an honorable member of the community.

Thousands attended his nighttime funeral, and some of the most prominent residents of Bnei Brak eulogized at the graveside, including Mayor Abraham Rubinstein and Rabbi Natan Zuchovsky, chairman of Yated’s spiritual committee.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who along with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is regarded the most senior of the Lithuanian stream's leaders, signed off on Walder’s rehabilitation. He also issued guidance for the teachers in ultra-Orthodox schools to speak with their young students the next morning about Walder’s death, stressing the prohibition of Halbanat Panim – public shaming.

Walder may have been accused of dozens of cases of sexual assault, but upon his death he was upgraded to the status of a martyr – the only victim in his case. There was no other way to shape the narrative, since sexual assault is not a matter than can be talked about in Haredi schools and therefore doesn’t exist on the ultra-Orthodox ethical spectrum. On the other hand, the Talmudic injunction that “It is preferable for an individual to throw himself into a burning furnace rather than publicly mortify his companion” is widely taught, and that was to be the prism through which Walder’s life, and now death, was to be taught.

The criminals are now the Ha’aretz journalists who reported on Walder’s deeds, and the few rabbis and Haredi activists who were willing to listen to his victims. Those victims, vulnerable women and children, are now the unpersons who must disappear.

Rabbi Yehoshua Eichenstein, a Yeshiva dean in Bnei Brak, wrote in the guidance to Haredi teachers that “those who libeled [Walder] and published the libels everywhere, until he was ashamed to show his face outside, made him sick to his soul so much that he killed himself. Explain to the children in a clear way that this is called murder.”

Rabbi Edelstein wrote that “The message is clear. Those who published are murderers.” At the funeral, Haredi lawyer Dubi Weinroth accused Ha’aretz journalist Aaron Rabinowitz (without mentioning his name) of being “a little vicious reporter. You sucked his blood. You murdered him as far as I’m concerned. You and your group.”

Not all the Haredi media has been on Walder’s side this week. A handful of independent ultra-Orthodox websites, mainly English-language ones based in the United States (Walder’s children books were translated into English, and he was a household name in the American Haredi community as well) stood up for his victims. And then of course there’s social media, where many young Haredi men and women have been openly discussing the case – and ignoring the rabbinical constraints – since the revelations first appeared in Ha’aretz.

This is one of the most striking features of the Walder case which will have far-reaching implications for the future of ultra-Orthodox society. An entire generation of young Haredi men and women are online, despite their rabbis’ injunctions against using the internet or owning smartphones. The guidance of what can and cannot be said may be enforceable when it comes to the pages of Yated Ne’eman, but only nonagenarians like Edelstein can still delude themselves that they can control the flow of information within their community.

The concept of infallible da’at Torah, the Rabbis’ knowledge of Torah, which has been central to the insularity and cohesiveness of Haredi ideology that evolved in the past two centuries, has already dramatically eroded in the digital age. The attempt to posthumously rehabilitate Walder and ignore his victims is already failing, and will almost certainly be yet another self-inflicted blow to the rabbis’ authority.

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