In November of last year, Israeli journalists reported on multiple credible accusations that Chaim Walder—a popular ḥaredi therapist and author, whom Yehoshua Pfeffer describes as “something between J. K. Rowling and Mister Rogers”—had committed sexual assault. Subsequently, a rabbinic court convicted Walder of sexually abusing children and adults, some of whom were his patients, over the course of 25 years, and booksellers removed his works from their shelves. Walder committed suicide last week. His funeral brought hundreds of mourners to the streets, and influential rabbis and periodicals eulogized him.
While revelations that beloved figures abused their fame and charisma in pursuit of sexual gratification have caused plenty of controversy in broader society, in ḥaredi circles there is an added moral complication in the form of the prohibition of lashon ha-ra (wicked speech or gossip), which extends, in many situations, to reporting damaging information even if it is true. Pfeffer analyzes the reactions of the ḥaredi society, and what lessons can be learned from the episode:
A significant portion of the ḥaredi public, alongside several prominent rabbinic figures, has protested (and continues to protest) the frightening ease with which information and rumors about Walder’s alleged deeds were spread. Moreover, many have claimed that this malicious gossipmongering, which has been classified as lashon ha-ra at best or malbin p’ney ḥavero (public shaming) at worst, is what led to Walder’s tragic death.
The second camp encompasses many who have emphasized the terrible suffering and distress of abuse victims. Based on the many testimonies that have accumulated, whose credibility we do not have reason to doubt, the number of victims is far from few. Anybody who is acquainted with sexual abuse in its multiple manifestations knows how terrible the injuries can be. . . . Not for nothing does [Scripture] suggest (though this is not the simple reading) that rape is akin to murder.
According to the secretary of the rabbinic court that heard the testimonies, among the victims are women who have been silenced for twenty years. Now, they are being accused of murder, [in the sense that they supposedly drove Walder to take his own life]. Sensitivity to victims cannot dictate everything we do in society. Certainly, there are other important values including modesty and morality, a public square devoid of vulgarity, and the prohibition against lashon ha-ra.
The prohibition on lashon ha-ra, [however], must not itself become a means of protecting evildoers and empowering evil. [Halakhah] must not become a double-edged sword that enables predators to harm victims further. When it does, it is obvious that such diligence stops being halakhic observance and turns into the exact opposite.