Adapted from remarks originally delivered in Hebrew last Friday night in Kehillat Ha’Ela, Ramat Beit Shemesh, and translated by Yehuda Poch.
In light of the shocking and terrible events of the past few days I feel the need to address the issue in place of our regular shiur in Hilchot Shabbat. I am very sorry to have to speak about such a topic at a time when everyone is happy and “welcoming” the Shabbat, but I simply cannot not talk about it. “I do not speak because I have the power to speak, I speak because I do not have the power to remain silent.” (Rav Kook)
Everything I am saying will be in abbreviated “bullet point” form, even though each of the points could—and must—be discussed in greater detail and depth. If someone wishes to speak with me—for your own benefit or for your children’s sake—please feel free to be in touch and I will gladly help in any way that I can.
One: Last month, when the initial story about Chaim Walder broke, I gave two shiurim to the community—one for men and one for women—on the halachic question of learning from a person, including reading the books of such a person, who has been accused of terrible things—in the words of the Gemara (Moed Katan 17a, Chagigah 15b), a person who is not “similar to an angel of Hashem.” We cannot review all of the details of those shiurim—during which we examined the Gemara, Rishonim, Achronim, and Poskim—at this time, but I will note that a month ago I did not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the books.
In light of the news that has more recently come out and everything that has taken place this week, I would like to make clear that in my opinion Chaim Walder’s books have no place in a Jewish home. There are halachic reasons for this, but I feel very strongly that in addition to the halachic issues involved, from an educational and parental point of view, we cannot use his books despite all of the good that they contain.
Two: In my shiurim last month I said that there were good reasons to be worried (“le’meichash mi-ba’iy”) and that even if we didn’t know for certain, there was sufficient cause for concern. I also expressed my hope—a “prayer” of sorts—and I also asked everyone to join me in that hope and “prayer,” that halevai, the rumors, were inaccurate and that nothing problematic had taken place.
It is now clear that those “prayers” were not answered and that we are dealing with a virtual certainty—if not more. We all must give thanks and support to everyone who worked to uncover the truth and to protect the entire community, in particular Rav Shmuel Eliyahu and his beit din, as well as Rav Yehuda Silman.
Three: The 22 accusations mentioned by the beit din were all acts of evil, both in terms of Bein Adam Le’Makom—very serious (chamur) prohibitions—and from the perspective of Bein Adam Le’Chavero. Walder ruined and destroyed couples and families; and in many cases, particularly with those who came to him for treatment, what he did to them and the emotional damage he caused is genuine pikuach nefesh—no less.
This is not the time to go into details, but I have some experience in this area, and I have seen firsthand the damage that can be caused by sexual abuse. It destroys lives in many different ways and sometimes can actually lead to death.
Four: Walder’s suicide, its location and his suicide note were all acts of evil. It was cynical and manipulative. To his last moment there wasn’t a sliver of remorse or teshuva; just more evil and more ways to hurt people.
Five: Perhaps most upsetting was the reaction of part of the community to his death. Article after article in the media describing his life and his achievements, as if nothing had happened in the past month and as if he had died naturally from a heart attack or something like that. His public funeral with a large crowd, public shiva visits by prominent rabbis—all of these actions, whether intentional or not, were a chilul Hashem, a sin which we are warned against violating in all circumstances, whether intentional or accidental (Avot 4:4).
All of these actions send one of two possible messages to the community: Either Walder was innocent and we don’t believe that he did anything wrong, or even worse, that even if the accusations are true and he did something wrong, it isn’t that important. Each of these messages, and particularly both together, are a chilul Hashem.
Six: It is important to note that it is appropriate to feel compassion for Walder’s family, who are also victims in this tragedy. But we need to know how to express that compassion so that we do not unintentionally hurt other people in the process, and do not do so in a way that in itself creates a chilul Hashem.
Seven: The statements that were made at the funeral and were quoted in articles in the name of specific rabbis—whether the rabbis really said those things or not—that the big lesson from this story is the damage of lashon hara, were at best misplaced, and at worst yet another example of wicked manipulation. Even more problematic, this message has a direct impact on victims of abuse, who in the future will not come forward and report their abusers. This reality will not only hurt those victims, but it will also put all of us in danger—your children and mine—because the best friend of an abuser is silence.
Eight: The news yesterday that apparently one of his victims committed suicide, not because of what Walder did to her, but primarily because of the community’s reaction to his death and their concern for his reputation—which was simply too much for her to bear—is tragic beyond words. If it wasn’t completely expected, it also was not too surprising after what happened in the past few days. Our rabbis (Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel Alef) teach us that “kol she-hu rachman al ha-achzarim le’sof na’aseh achzar al ha-rachmanim,” someone who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to those who deserve mercy. This week we saw the tragic fulfillment of this declaration.
Finally: There is a lot more to say on the topic, and I know that certain issues have not been addressed and that even the points I did mention can be discussed in greater detail. But for now I would like to sum up by saying, “eini eini yordah mayim,” my eye, my eye sheds tears (Eicha 1:16).
We must cry twice. We must cry and feel the pain of Walder’s victims. And we must also cry and feel the pain of the Ribbono Shel Olam from this terrible chilul Hashem.
“Oy lanu mi’yom ha-din, oy lanu mi’yom ha-tochechah,” woe is to us from the Day of Judgement, woe is to us from the Day of Rebuke (Bereishit Rabbah 93:10).
With Hashem’s help we must do all that we can to make sure that something like this never happens again. And if it does happen, the compassion of our community must be focused in the right direction.
Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb is the rabbi of Kehillat HaEla, a growing community located in the suburbs of Ramat Beit Shemesh. He also serves as the director of Tzalash, an organization dedicated towards helping religious soldiers maintain their religious commitment and emotional well-being throughout the duration of their service in the IDF. Additionally, Rabbi Gottlieb is a Ra”m at Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush).
Prior to his aliyah to Israel in August, 2010, Rabbi Gottlieb served as rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, in Baltimore, MD.
Rabbi Gottlieb received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, where he was also a member of their prestigious Wexner Kollel Elyon. In addition to co-editing two rabbinic journals, Rabbi Gottlieb is the author of Ateret Yaakov, a book of in-depth essays about a wide range of halachic topics.