The recent revelations concerning allegations of deeply disturbing acts at Penn State University focus attention on the difference between technical legal requirements and moral obligations. The laws in Pennsylvania are less rigorous than those of most states concerning mandated reporting. Some of those aware of the allegations may have fulfilled their narrow technical legal obligations. Others did not.
There were strong motivations not to make waves. Penn State grosses $70 million annually in revenue from its football program. All of those in authority allegedly fell short in terms of doing what is right to protect the vulnerable, as opposed to what is dictated by expediency.
The Torah lens on this issue is unequivocal. The dictum from Vayikra, “You shall not stand idly by as your fellow’s blood is shed,” dictates that everyone be a mandated reporter. One is not permitted to know of someone being hurt and not act. There is an imperative to intervene.
I am proud that during my tenure as president of the Rabbinical Council of America we were able to address the issue of child abuse in a serious way. After lengthy discussions and careful weighing of the issues, we unanimously passed a strongly worded resolution that states in part: “The Rabbinical Council of America reaffirms its halakhic position that the prohibitions of mesirah and arka’ot do not apply in cases of abuse.”
Let me explain the implications.
Throughout the centuries, mesirah, the informing of one Jew on the other to governmental authorities to be tried before arka’ot, a non-Jewish court, has been an anathema, a serious violation warranting isolation from the community.
There are those who point to this issue as an excuse as to why they don’t report a Jew implicated in abuse. Our resolution states that it is the position of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world, that this prohibition is not applicable in cases of abuse. The victim must be protected.
This is what the Torah demands of a Jew. Are there expectations of a non-Jew? The Torah portions from Bereshit we have been reading these past weeks on Shabbat give us important insights into these issues. Concerning the inhabitants of the city of Sodom, who were of course not Jews, God declares that if “they act in accordance with its outcry which has come to Me — then destruction” (Bereshit 18:21).
Our sages in the Talmud explain that this refers to the outcry of a young woman tormented by those in power. No one heeded her cry for help. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains the outcry is “the cry of the oppressed, crying out and begging for help from the arm of wickedness.” God cannot abide when those who are vulnerable are oppressed by the powerful and when others fail to intervene.
It is not always easy to make the right choice. We humans sometimes vacillate when faced with complicated scenarios. There is a rare cantillation, a musical note for Torah reading called a “shalshelet,” that appears only three times in the book of Bereshit. The voice of the Torah reader rises and drops three times. It indicates inner conflict and hesitation.
The first time is when Lot “lingers.” The angels tell him he must leave Sodom and he hesitates, reluctant to leave his wealth behind. He is paralyzed into inaction. The angels intervene to whisk him away.
In the second instance, Eliezer, the faithful servant of Abraham, is sent on a mission to bring a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s family. The shalshelet teaches us that Eliezer hesitates; he is conflicted because he wants Isaac to marry his own daughter. He overcomes this and finds Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife and then the matriarch of our people.
In the third instance, Joseph, while just a teen, has been sold into slavery in Egypt. He becomes the manager of his master’s household. His master’s wife tempts him and threatens him with great harm if he does not submit to her seduction. Expediency dictates that he should comply. “Vayemaen,” — “and he refuses,” is chanted to the note shalshelet. Joseph is torn. He hesitates and he is conflicted. But he has the strength to refuse. He does what is morally correct despite the fact that as a result of this, he is condemned to spend years in a dungeon.
The Torah explores how people make decisions. When Abraham and Sarah come to the land of Plishtim, they claim that Sarah is Abraham’s sister. They fear that due to Sarah’s extraordinary beauty, if it is known that Abraham is her husband, he will be killed. Avimelech, the king, seizes Sarah and releases her only after Divine intervention. Avimelech challenges Abraham, “What have you seen that you did such a thing?” (Bereshit 20:10).
Malbim, in his commentary, explains that Avimelech argues that the land of Plishtim is a civilized society with laws and mores. How can Abraham think they would kill him to take his wife? Abraham responds, “Only the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me because of my wife” (Bereshit 20:11).
Abraham’s response was that Avimelech was correct — his was a civilized society with a legal system. Yet, when confronted with a moral dilemma, this alone cannot be relied upon. People tend to rationalize and do what is easy or what they desire. Fear of God can help one prevail and make the right choice, although it may be difficult. This too is no guarantee that one will do what is right.
While it is clear what the Torah expects of us should we find ourselves in circumstances such as those faced by the officials at Penn State, it is not at all certain that we will make the right decision when we face complex dilemmas. So often in life we confront situations that are punctuated by a shalshelet. We are challenged by choices. We are conflicted between doing what is appropriate — albeit difficult — and what is easier. We have the benefit of being guided by Torah, the eternal and immutable word of God that illuminates the way and inspires us to meet the challenges that arise throughout the vicissitudes of life. Let us hope that when tested we will have the wisdom and strength of character to make the right choice.