Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mesirah & reporting abuse / Why is it a problem?

Guest Post: Raffi wrote:

Do you happen to have an article - or simply some marei mekomos or something - on the topic of mesirah?  I'm working on a domestic violence unit this year, and it's come up.  I  can't imagine that perpetrators of physical or sexual abuse are to be protected under this halacha, but I'd like to have some  actual mekoros to back me up.

...  I'm just getting my feet wet in the sugya since having started to work on a domestic violence unit.  Actually, I'm still confused by the whole principle.  I read through סימן שפח and it seems like we're talking about handing over someone's money (or body) to be confiscated (or beaten) by goyim (or nasty Jewish people).  How does that get carried over to not reporting someone who is physically beating his wife, sexually abusing his children, etc.? I would /never /have assumed that these people are covered by such a law.  And even though it says "אפילו רשע" - we're not talking about some generally bad guy whom you might want to hand over to the local goyim because he's a jerk - we're talking about someone who is not only in violation of laws that are nearly universal, we're talking about someone who is posing a serious threat to other people, including children, whether or not there is a danger of death.  A man who chains his child to his bed (perhaps for years) or rapes his kids regularly or terrorizes his wife may not have any intent of killing them, but he destroys them mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.  Can we really say that that's not a good enough reason to stop the abuse because you'd have to give this guy up to the authorities (who, while not a bunch of saints, are not thugs and warlords either)?

Sorry, that got a little out of hand there.  It's a touchy topic. The basic question I'm asking is, how do we get from the laws of mesirah to not reporting dangerous criminal activity?  Maybe I just haven't seen it inside, or maybe I'm just not getting it.

However, none of this justifies the attitude that it's best to just keep these things quiet, for garbage reasons like shidduchim, family reputation, shonda, etc.  According to what you said so far, there's no reason not to approach the local rebbeim and let them know that there's an abusive situation somewhere. And there's no reason for rebbeim to shy away or to assert (as I just heard last week) that "I can't dirty my hands with this."  Where does this come from?  And how did it get blamed on halacha???

Thanks very much,


  1. Let me just toss out some brief and incomplete answers to your query.

    1) Mesira is handing of a Jew - either phsyically or his money to a non-Jew. It is also understood to mean to ignore the Jewish court system and utilize the secular.

    2) There is a lot of discussion of the underlying problem with mesira. Everyone would agree that it is disgusting and there is a loss of Olam Habah for violating the prohibition.

    3) There are definitely situations where there is no prohibition of informing the government. Everyone would agree that it is permitted to save life.

    4) Regarding the issue of abuse. If it is categorized as pikuach nefesh then there should be no problem. However it is not obvious that it is in fact pikuach nefesh.

    5) Even if it involves pikuach nefesh - what if there is an alternative to calling the police. In other words what if the community can protect against further abuse?

    6) Assuming that abuse is pikuach nefesh and that there is no halachic problem of calling the police - why isn't it always done? Why don't people report molesters even when their rabbis say they should? The simple answer is what is more beneficial to the molested person 1) having to testify against the molester and relive the horror in public. 2) the loss of shidduchim not only for the molested person but for his family - after all he becomes officially "damaged goods".3) Great public embarrassment for the family and friends of the victim 4) great disgrace for the molester and his family --or silence where the only additional consequence is that there will be additional victims?

    In additional there is also the hope that the problem can be contained by the community or that the molestor will respond to some form of therapy and/or will do teshuva. The hope - usually mistaken - is that the irreversible and inevitable additional damage which occurs when the police are called can be avoided.

    There are always people in the community who do not accept the fact that such a distinguished, well liked rabbi, teacher, parent etc would do such terrible things. This often creates tremendous social and psychological pressure on the family - which after all is also suffering from the abuse of a family member.

    Bottom line - It is not enough to show that it is permitted to call the police [often there are legitimate halachic problems with that course of action]. Even when it is 100% permitted to call the police - there are major social and psycholgical consequences of involving authorities outside of the community. The crime of abuse is not magically taken care of by involving the police and the secular courts systems. Many families and community leaders or schools feel that they are better off by keeping the whole affair quiet - even though this means many others will be abused by the molester.

  2. 1) Mesira is handing of a Jew - either phsyically or his money to a non-Jew. It is also understood to mean to ignore the Jewish court system and utilize the secular.

    How exactly is this understood?

    4) Regarding the issue of abuse. If it is categorized as pikuach nefesh then there should be no problem. However it is not obvious that it is in fact pikuach nefesh.

    I can’t say I know much about the halachic definition of pikuach nefesh. But I can think of many cases where loss of life is not in question and yet I cannot imagine that the proper halachic course of action is to do nothing. How much non-lethal torture does a person have to undergo before we would treat it as pikuach nefesh? Does a sex captive have to be under threat of death to be worth superseding the law for? Is merely being chained in a room for the whims of her captor insufficient?

    As for the rest of your post – I concede that victims may find it in their own best interest to remain silent; but what about the neighbors of the perpetrator? The parents of other children in his class? Are they willing to sacrifice their own children and those of their fellow men?

    You are sadly too right. There are rabbis who don’t believe this happens in our communities. The community at large stigmatizes victims while allowing perpetrators to live normally on. The community penalizes family members of the victim. Is there any rationale to this? Or is this just inexplicably the biggest blot on the record of the community which is supposed to be shining G-d’s light on the world?

    Education is badly needed. There are abusers in our community. It is laughable to think that such a person will do teshuva simply because he is confronted (no matter hwo big the rabbi). And it is virtually guaranteed that keeping the matter silent will result in the destruction of yet more lives – to speak of “irreversible and inevitable additional damage.”

    G-d save us from ourselves.


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