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What’s Next? The Complexities of Judgment Parshas Vayeira

About a year ago, I delivered a sermon on the topic of abuse. There were two points I was trying to convey: The first being to make yourself, as a parent and as a friend, the type of person who your child, family member or friend would be comfortable speaking to if they are G-d forbid targeted by an abusive person. If we could become that type of person who everyone knows will not pass judgment, who will accept, who will love, and who will comfort, no matter what, we can’t even imagine how much pain and hardship we can prevent.

That point has been reinforced in my mind over the past year, reading about all the people who are coming forward with allegations of abuse, and there is clearly nothing more tragic than abuse. But even more tragic is the fact that for so many of these people this was the first time they shared their experience with anyone. That’s a tragedy we can prevent. Be that person who can be turned to.

The second point I shared then was the importance of going to a professional when there is even the slightest indication of abuse. Call CHANA, and together with their guidance and support, they will help you navigate if and when to involve the police, CPS, or whatever may be most appropriate.

Yes, the police are far from perfect in that they are limited in their ability to ascertain the facts, and yes, the judicial system, is far from perfect in that they are only there to judge whether there has been a violation of a law, not if it’s right or wrong.  But it’s the best we have. They are the only ones who can even attempt to uncover the truth, the only ones who can even attempt to bring about justice. And so, we have a moral and religious duty to turn to the authorities in case of concern.

The identity or prestige of the perpetrator, the impact on his or her family, the effect on the community’s ‘good name’, none of that is relevant to our over-arching duty to report and to keep our children and adults safe.

I should warn you before I continue that this will be off-putting for some, and triggering for others, and I encourage you, if you need, to step outside at any point.

The question I want to deal with today is what happens next?

You see, even if a victim seeks professional help, and they decide to call the police, the police first have to decide if it’s a crime, and by the way, many abusive behaviors are not crimes. Then they have decide if it is true or false, and then they have to decide if they do or don’t press charges.

And there’s more to it – after you report something, there is often a lapse of time between the allegation and the charge, and during that time, the community must decide what to do in the interim. Additionally, CPS or the police, may ultimately decide not to pursue those charges for a whole host of reasons, and again, the community, recognizing the limitations of the judicial system, must decide once again what to do. Sometimes, a victim may choose not to press charges, for a wide variety of legitimate reasons. Or, what happens with someone who was punished or ‘rehabilitated’ by the system, and now that punishment is over. What happens next in all those cases? What happens after you tell the police? After time is served? Or when no one comes forward but there is still serious concern? What happens next?

I’d like to share this morning, two important lessons about justice from this week’s parsha. It’s relevant to the topic at hand, but it has ramifications well beyond this specific discussion.

In this week’s parsha, we find Avraham and G-d negotiating the future of the cities of Sedom. “Will you spare the cities for 50 righteous people?” “Yes, but there aren’t 50 righteous people.” “What about 45?” “40?” “Yes, but there aren’t.” “30?” “20?” “10?” And then Avraham stops. What about the 9 possible tzadikkim in those cities? It sounds like there may very well have been 9 righteous individuals in the city, but Avraham doesn’t pray for them. So what ends up happening to them?

Some suggest that G-d most certainly saved the individual tzadikim, just like G-d saved Lot. They argue that Avraham’s argument was not about the individuals but about saving the entire population for the sake of the few.

But the simple understanding of the text, is that those 9 righteous people, if they existed, would have been swept up in the punishment of the city. And Avraham understood this and accepted it as justice.

Writes Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Derech Hashem, 2), the justice system of G-d allows for people who are righteous to be punished with the group that they find themselves in. Not because they are guilty, they are not, but because there is at times a decree against a population, and everyone in that group will get punished even if there are a few who do not deserve it. Now of course, in the World to Come, this undeserved punishment will serve as a benefit to these people. But in this world, they will suffer even though they aren’t guilty.

What this speaks to is a crucial distinction that we need to make between being guilty and being punished. Sometimes, for the sake of public policy, people who are completely innocent still suffer, and that’s tragic, but sometimes that’s the way the world works. I’ll give you a silly example:

Let’s say I am driving home at 3 in the morning. I live on a pretty quiet block. The speed limit is 35 – I think. So it’s 3 AM, I am driving 50 miles an hour, no one’s around, everyone’s asleep, what’s the big deal? But let’s say there is a police officer who happens to be standing there with his radar gun, and he pulls me over. Now I would turn to the officer and politely argue that the 35 miles an hour speed limit is for regular hours, it’s really not unsafe for me to be driving 50 at this hour. And he would probably agree in theory. But he would have every right to give me a ticket because the law is made for the majority of situations. I am not a bad person, I am not unsafe, but what I did still broke the law.

I once heard this idea, attributed to a great medieval commentator, and applied to Mitzvos in general. Are there Mitzvos that hurt individuals? Sure. Is it fair to the child born out of an incestuous or adulterous relationship, that he or she is a mamzer, and is virtually incapable of marrying anyone? It’s not fair. But the greater good is that there is an incredible deterrent against incest. Is the Torah’s model of marriage, a heterosexual couple fair to every individual? I don’t think so. But I understand that it promotes the perpetuation of the Jewish People, and it promotes family, the bedrock of Judaism.

When Avraham acknowledged that 9 righteous people may get killed for the sins of the masses, he was in essence teaching us that not every time someone is punished is it because they’re guilty. The Mishna has a beautiful choice of words used when describing someone who is to receive a punishment. It does not say he or she is guilty. The Mishna writes chayav misah, or chayav malkus. The individual is obligated to received death or obligated to receive punishment. But we are not passing judgment on the moral character of the individual, we are following the rules meant for society at large.

The legal system, like the Torah, has rules, rules that are set up to try its best to create a functional society.

The Maharal of Prague (Nesivos) writes that although we have an obligation to emulate G-d, mah hu rachum, just like G-d is compassionate, af ata rachum, we too must be compassionate. But this obligation is limited, he points out, to acts of love. When it comes to justice, we have an obligation to judge. But we acknowledge that only G-d is the true judge, ki hamishpat leilokim hu, and we? We just follow the rules.

Now imagine if we, as a society and community would really accept this distinction between guilt and punishment. Imagine if we would accept the fact that sometimes there are policies that preclude a person from enjoying certain rights or positions not because they are guilty but because it’s against a policy. For example, Brett Kavanaugh had only two choices open to him – fight the allegations against him and claim innocence or resign and accept guilt. Nowhere in the public discourse (not nowhere, but not loud enough) was a serious discussion about the possibility of being innocent and yet, not being fit for the job because of a policy that would preclude a judge with allegations to sit on the Supreme Court. Now of course there is no such policy so he had no choice but to fight. But we can’t even discuss the creation of a policy when we’re stuck thinking in this binary fashion of innocence or guilt. Is there room, somewhere between believing every allegation on the one hand and saying someone is completely innocent on the other? Is there room in the middle to say, I don’t know, but… these are nonetheless the steps we have to take.

It’s a not about Kavanaugh, this happens all the time. A local shul just voted on whether they should keep their rabbi and the question was mistakenly limited to innocence or guilt, instead of being one of public policy that would preclude such a person from a position despite the fact that they may be entirely innocent. And this is not limited to rabbis or teachers, that’s just the stuff that makes the news – the same questions have to be dealt with for congregants, for members, for any and every position. Is there a middle ground where we say, I don’t know, but…? And what does that place look like?

It’s important to mention that exceptional and therefore newsworthy stories notwithstanding, the majority of allegations are true. Not all, but most. In light of that, I believe there is room between the craziness of believing every allegation on the one hand, and the hubris of dismissing every allegation on the other. Can we learn to say, I don’t know whether this man or woman is guilty, but precautions must be taken.

I believe it’s incumbent upon us, as a community to create such policies for every institution, and even more importantly, to train ourselves to think this way. One of the mots ridiculous parts of the Kavanaugh hearings was the fact that every person seemed to think they knew, by watching a few hours of interviews, whether he or she was lying. That’s ludicrous! We just don’t have the tools to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, and that’s okay, because that’s not our job. Our job is to create systems, policies, procedures, for the safety of the masses, and for us to acknowledge loud and clear, that we don’t have a clue as to whether someone is innocent or guilty.  Nine righteous people died in Sedom and yet, justice was served.

Which brings me back to Sedom and to my next point. Who was Avraham praying for after all? Who were these people of Sedom?

You know, the word sodomize comes from this Biblical story because the men of Sedom wanted to forcefully sodomize Lot’s visitors. This is who we’re talking about. And yet, Avraham prays, “Save these people. Don’t destroy them.”


I know it’s uncomfortable to hear those words. It’s uncomfortable for me to say them. Yes, of course, our primary concern is how we are ensuring that everyone, and specifically, our children are safe. But we need to balance that with a few factors:

  • We also have a responsibility to the accused, and even to the guilty. A very different responsibility but a responsibility nonetheless.
  • As I have heard numerous times from many leading mental health professionals, it’s far safer for someone who is dangerous to have a support system than to not have one. The further we push a person away, the more dangerous such a person becomes.
  • And I say this final point with trepidation, because I am sure I will be misunderstood but it must be said. As Jews we believe in teshuva, in change. We believe in new beginnings.

I know, I know, there is a well-established fact that recidivism rates with sexual offenders is through the roof. Once a sex offender, always a sex offender. This notion was popularized by Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court, who quoted a study in an opinion piece, stating that recidivism rates with sex offenders are as high as 80%.

The only problem is that the study wasn’t a study. It was an article in a magazine, called, Psychology Today, not a scientific journal.  The author of the article presented no evidence or data to prove his point, it was a theory and he has since gone on the record to decry the misuse of his article. (source)

To be clear, the recidivism rate, even in the most conservative studies, is still a reason to create every precaution possible to ensure that nothing happens again. I am not suggesting that teshuva means that we believe a person who says, I’ll never do it again. Not a chance.

What I am suggesting, is that when someone acknowledges that they did something wrong and regrets it, when they take concrete steps to change, and when [competent] professionals are involved, then that deserves to be taken into consideration. And we must find a way forward; a way that is safe, a way that is sensitive to the victims, and a way that is sensitive to all victims.

I share these thoughts not as solutions, but as questions. I grapple with the question that I began with all too often, sometimes theoretically, and sometimes practically, and I invite you to grapple with me. Because I think we need, as a community to answer the question of, What’s next? What do we do, descendants of Avraham, believers in the capacity for human change, champions of love and kindness, what do we do with someone who acknowledged wrongdoing, who is seeking treatment, whose therapist feel they’re safe, and wants to take part in the gift of community, do we eternally ban them from all of our institutions? And how do we balance that with victims, not their victims per se, but victims of other abuses who are triggered by the presence of such a perpetrator in their midst?

We have come a long way as a community in responding to abuse. And we still have a long way to go. But that change will only happen if we’re all on board, each and every one of us, on doing this right, to thinking about this thoughtfully and cautiously. We need to be vigilant in ensuring that people go to the professionals and to the authorities, whether the alleged abuser is a stranger or a family member – covering things up helps no one. We need to educate our children and ourselves on how to best respond if abuse is encountered. We need to be less judgmental, more accepting, so that if something does happen, our friends and family have us to turn to. And we need to recognize our limitations. Ki hamishpat leilokim hu, G-d is the only true judge. We must do what we can to protect our communities without passing judgment when we are unable, and yes, that means that innocent people will at times suffer. And lastly, we must believe in the capacity for change; change in ourselves and change in others.

May G-d see our efforts at being impartial, in being balanced, in being protective and in being loving, and in that merit, may we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, tziyon b’mishpat tipodeh, that through our efforts to judge fairly, we will merit a time of true justice.



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