The case of Nechemya Weberman, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man accused of sexually abusing a young woman, has not just spun a secretive community into international spotlight: It’s also prompted questions about how Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities handle sex offense accusations, since victim and witness intimidation and shaming are common.
Indeed, even Charles Hynes has come under intense scrutiny, after reports came to light indicating the Brooklyn District Attorney’s “apparent complicity in an effort by Brooklyn’s Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic leaders to cover up sex abuse in their communities.”
So you might wonder: Is this seeming cover-up culture part and parcel to Judaism?
The answer is quite complicated.
The Voice reached out to Michael Broyde, a rabbi and associate professor of law at Emory Law School and the academic director of the university’s Law and Religion Program.
He’s one of the leading authorities on this topic — the intersection of secular and Talmudic law, that is. In Jewish texts, the topic in question is called “informing” (merisa in Hebrew). Broyde authored a lengthy opinion on the issue.
Historically, there is a Talmudic prohibition against snitching on fellow Jews to non-Jewish law enforcement authorities, but only when it comes to non-violent crimes.
This policy stems from the Middle Ages, when non-Jewish authorities could not be expected to treat the community fairly:
“Jews have generally lived in situations where government was unjust (or unjust towards Jews) or bandits formed the basis for government, and telling the abusive government that a Jew had money or that a Jew had broken the law was a dangerous act. Indeed, this conduct clearly, readily and directly caused people to have their money taken, themselves beaten or tortured and sometimes simply murdered. The Talmudic Sages had no choice but to enact rabbinic decrees prohibiting such informing.”
The question, of course, is: What happens when Jews live in governments that generally do treat people fairly, like America?
Broyde had a bit to say on this. For starters, even in unfair governmental contexts, Talmudic law requires that they inform on each other to whomever necessary in the case of a violent crime — like a murder or sex offense — so that justice is served.
But even with non-violent crimes — such as smoking pot or tax fraud — most modern interpretations still require that Jews go to the authorities.
So we asked Broyde what the deal is, since unwillingness to do this seems to persist in Brooklyn’s Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox communities.
“The overwhelming consensus of Jewish law authorities require that one reports when secular law mandates that you report, or in situations when non-reporting produces a physical threat to the well being of another,” he said.
However, “implementing mandatory reporting remains very complicated not just in a Jewish society but in every society. People don’t like mandatory reporting…People don’t always do what the law requires of them.”
So yes. The Talmud says one thing. Modern interpretation says another. And though most Jews in the U.S. would readily inform, some apparently would not. We told you it was complicated.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 18, 2012