The recent guilty verdict in the Weberman trial is raising a lot of interesting discussion with many interesting questions. I was talking to a friend of mine the evening after the verdict about how I felt the trial was not just about a single man, Nechemia Weberman, but about a community and their stance regarding sexual abuse. I feel that the entire community was on trial, that the verdict was not just against Weberman but against a community which allows Webermans to operate with impunity because they know that the community will always protect them and refuse to acknowledge the accusers. That opinion didn’t sit well with her. “Do you believe there are any good Satmar Jews?”
That’s a tough question. On the one hand you have Bikur Cholim, gemachs, hachnossas orchim, and all the other chessed organizations run by Satmar chassidim; how can such a community be called bad? On the other hand you have a community that turns a blind eye to abuse, protects abusers, stigmatizes and ostracizes survivors. That culture, created and maintained by the community and its institutions is responsible for countless destroyed lives; how can a community built upon such a structure be called good? Are they not collectively responsible for the lives of all the victims who have lost theirs?
I once asked my rav an interesting question. One of the Sheva Mitzvos B’nei Noach is a prohibition against idolatry. While not as strict as the Judaic commandment to believe in God and no other gods or forms of God, the prohibition effectively makes punishable by death the belief in any other deity other than our God. What if someone has never heard of our God? What if they live in a civilization that had never been reached by our religion, or by a religion which believes in our God as well? How can they be held responsible for violating a prohibition if they had never been presented with an alternative?
My rav answered that the pasuk “Hashamayim mesaprim k’vod kel umaaseh yadav magid harakia.” The heavens bespeak the glory of God and the work of His hands, does the firmament proclaim. There is no excuse for not believing in a Creator because the world itself tells you who created it. So I asked him, but how can you expect someone to reach the conclusion that there is one Creator who created the world, just by looking at your environment? He answered that it would have been a novel idea, if Avraham Avinu had not done it at the age of three. Once a person reached that conclusion, once the ability was introduced into the world, there was no longer an excuse to claim ignorance as a reason for not believing in God.
There are always leaders and always followers. There are those who produce the environment and those who are its products. But the people who propagate the stigma, the ones who are responsible for its enforcement and perpetuation are only given power by those who agree to comply with it. Those people are still culpable, because the information is there, the proof is all there, all they have to do is open their eyes and accept the truth and the powers that be will lose their dominance. Accepting that there is abuse in our community is not as large a leap as accepting that there is a God, and the proof for the former is so much stronger and more tangible than indications of the latter. Are the followers bad people? Not inherently, but that makes them no less culpable and responsible for the devastation their complacency causes.
This trial and everything it has brought to light is proof. The information has been there for years, we have presented it for them countless times through articles, discussion, and demonstrations right at their doorsteps. We have done and will continue to do our part to educate them about the dangers they face and the dire consequences of ignoring the truth. Now it is their responsibility to act on it and help save lives.