Our Sages taught: An incident occurred where there were two priests who were running and ascending the ramp. One of them reached the four cubits before his colleague, who then took a knife and stabbed him in the heart. […] The father of the boy came and found that he was still convulsing. He said: May my son’s death be an atonement for you. But my son is still convulsing and has not yet died, so that knife has not become ritually impure. [It should therefore be taken out before the moment of death, to prevent it from becoming impure.] This incident comes to teach you that the ritual purity of utensils was of more concern to them than the shedding of blood. And similarly, it says: “Furthermore, Menashe spilled innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (II Melachim 21:16).
Chazal hardly mince their words in censuring the religious elite of the Second Temple period. The Gemara explains later: “Bloodshed had become cheapened in their eyes.”
The tragic tale of Chaim Walder, a man who reached true Charedi stardom—a Charedi version of something between J. K. Rowling and Mister Rogers, bridging popular fiction and education, entertainment and religious ideology—but will be eternally vilified following his wretched end, has divided the Charedi public into two camps. Both agree that we are faced with a terrible problem, and both classify it in similar terms: the cheapening of bloodshed. Yet, as I will explain below, they are divided as to whose blood was shed, and who is doing the trivializing. In my opinion, a third dimension of cheapening bloodshed is also worthy of mention.
Sharpening the different sides of this debate is important to understanding the testing moral dilemmas that we must bravely face in the aftermath of the Walder tragedy
Sharpening the different aspects of the debate is important to understanding the moral dilemmas that we must bravely face in the aftermath of the Walder tragedy. After laying them out, I will add a brief note on how things could have been so different, and how it is now up to us to do better and to prevent, to whatever degree we can, future bloodshed.
A significant portion of the Charedi 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 hara at best or malbin penei chavero (public shaming) at worst, is what led to Walder’s tragic death.
At a eulogy given at the funeral, which was attended by thousands, one close friend of the deceased blasted the journalists whose newspaper report was the opening scene of the tragic play: “As far as I’m concerned, you simply murdered him.” Similar statements were published in the name of certain leading rabbinic figures (I have not verified their accuracy): “There is no permission or even the hint of permission to murder a Jew. It is obvious that what they did is considered murder, and it is obvious that the murderer has no place in the World to Come.”
Today, the shedding of blood has become permitted and even a duty; it has become the new method of committing murder. […] Causing another to die of shame has become a full Mitzvah
Rabbi Chaim Peretz Berman, among the heads of Ponevezh Yeshiva, went still further in an address he gave on the subject, bemoaning our wretched generation in which lashon hara has become the benchmark for good behavior: “How can we say our hands did not shed this blood?” he cried in pain. “Today, the shedding of blood has become permitted and even a duty; it has become the new method of committing murder. […] Causing another to die of shame has become a full Mitzvah. [It is proper conduct to] murder as much as possible, libel as much as possible, gossip as much as possible. […] Whoever succeeds in maximal exposure is a hero, and the entire world will rejoice in seeing the other writhe in his pain.”
These ways, Rabbi Berman argued before his audience, have penetrated our camp: “They mixed among the Goyim and learned from their ways. […] We will tolerate cruelty, endure abuses, contain bloodshed.” His conclusion is that we must flee such ways and their followers as from wildfires and ensure that we should not be influenced by the evil of our surroundings.
This, then, is one prism through which to view the concept of “bloodshed has become cheapened.” If we were more careful about bloodshed, Chaim Walder would not have committed the most terrible act of all. We need to ensure, to the degree we can, that such incidents should not recur, first and foremost by reinforcing the prohibition against lashon hara and avoiding the evils of its modern manifestations.
If we were more careful about bloodshed, Chaim Walder would not have committed the most terrible act of all
While I strongly identify with the need to sharpen and strengthen our instincts when it comes to avoiding lashon hara, especially in our times when destructive rumors can be spread with the click of a mouse and at the speed of light—I will briefly return to this later—I believe this is a deeply misguided emphasis when it comes to our present case.
The prohibition on lashon hara must not itself become a means of protecting evildoers and empowering evil, and diligence in halacha—mistaken diligence, in this case, though the question of the Torah approach to investigative reporting requires separate treatment—must not become a double-edged sword that enables predators to further harm victims. When it does, it is obvious that such diligence stops being halachic observance and turns into the exact opposite. As Sefer Charedim notes (explaining the juxtaposition of the Torah prohibition “You shall not stand upon your fellow’s blood” to the prohibition against lashon hara): “To teach that if you heard about somebody who wants to injure his fellow, it is forbidden to refrain from telling; rather, you should tell him, so that he should guard his soul.”
Could it be that the emphasis on lashon hara, which is not always underscored when it comes to internal Charedi issues (and there are many), is related to the fact that Walder represented an entire society, forced into defense against an assault by Haaretz and Rav Shmuel Eliyahu’s beis din? The question brings us to the second camp.
The second camp houses many who choose to emphasize 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 (I concede the case could have been handled better, but this is not the current discussion), their number is far from few. Anybody who is acquainted with sexual abuse in its multiple manifestations knows how terrible the injuries can be, including even fatalities. Not for nothing does the Pasuk suggest (though not the simple reading) that rape is akin to murder.
While writing this piece, I received the devastating news that a young abuse victim—a concrete connection with Walder remains unclear—took her own life after hearing of his suicide. Tragically, she is not the first to follow this path. No words can do justice to such horrors.
Anybody who has encountered sexual abuse knows how terrible the injuries can be, including not a few fatalities. Not for nothing does the Pasuk suggest that rape is akin to murder
The victims’ cries—Walder’s, alongside victims in general—are deafening. Is it right that an official eulogy published in Yated Neeman (the official organ of the Charedi-Litvish sector) should mention Walder’s exceptional educational works and refer to him as “Rabbi Chaim Walder zt”l,” while demonstrably ignoring all we know (and all we don’t yet know) about his actions? Is it appropriate to declare, as Rabbi Nosson Zochovsky said in his eulogy, that Walder “knew what duties between man and fellow were,” and glorify him as somebody possessing “the correct worldview and pure fear of Heaven”? Such words are not merely deeply inconsiderate. In the face of victims, future as well as present, who are in the most sensitive and vulnerable condition we can even imagine, then are dangerous—not to mention the profound Chillul Hashem they have caused.
We can only assume—I certainly want to assume—that the editor’s motives were pure of heart. He wished to respect the bereaved family, whose grief surely knows no bounds. He wanted to ensure the “cleanliness” of the Charedi public space, which should not be polluted by mentions of just horrific actions and their consequences. He felt it proper to honor a figure that had for many years published a weekly column at Yated Neeman and functioned as its ideological mouthpiece. But with respect, these considerations cannot justify the disregard for victims’ safety and dignity and the respect paid to their assaulter.
Let us just imagine a parallel situation, in which somebody of similar standing stands accused of mass (actual) murder, testimonies and all. Would the alleged serial killer be given the same respect, accolades, and all? Of course not. And having mentioned the example, let’s extend it: Would the prohibition of lashon hara apply to him? Yes, it seems that bloodshed—bloodshed of a very specific type—has been cheapened.
This guideline implies a cruel silencing of victims, who now have rabbinic support for the decree of silence that predators invariably place upon them.
The harsh sentiment is amplified in the face of an educational guideline sent to parents and schools—in the name of certain rabbinic figures, though it is hard to believe the accuracy of the source—according to which we must speak with children “only about bein adam le’chavero”—about the injustice done to Walder. There are details, too: “[We must] cry out over how dangerous it is to publicly shame somebody and tell them that he was slandered […] to the point that he killed himself.” This guideline implies a cruel silencing of victims, who now have rabbinic support for the gag order predators invariably place upon them. Sensitive souls might even hear a trace of “blaming the victim.” According to the secretary of the Beis Din that heard the testimonies, among the victims are women who have been silenced for twenty years. Now, they are being accused of murder.
[D]oes basic sensitivity to victims, those in the past and those (Heaven forbid) in the future, alongside the acute need to extirpate evil from our midst, not require that we condemn evil and console those who were harmed?
Sensitivity to victims cannot dictate everything we do in society. Certainly, there are other important values including tzeniyus and morality, a public square devoid of vulgarity, and the prohibition against lashon hara. Still, does basic sensitivity to victims, those in the past and those (Heaven forbid) in the future, alongside the acute need to extirpate evil from our midst, not require that we condemn evil and console those who were harmed? Does this messaging and its exclusive emphasis on those who “publicized the matter and violated a Torah prohibition” not also hold bloodshed cheap? Does it not ignore the crucial role of public disclosure in deterring the next predator from realizing his evil scheme?
This second camp, which is not at all small, has not received the same kind of public rabbinic support as the first camp. It is unfortunate that those rabbis who identify with the camp, some of them strongly, have generally refrained from speaking their mind and providing a moral compass that is deeply missing. Indeed, bloodshed has been cheapened.
The first camp thus bemoans the shedding of Walder’s blood by spreaders of lashon hara. The second camp, by contrast, bemoans the shedding of the victims’ blood by those who continue to praise and glorify Walder while trampling their souls. As I hope I have clarified, my place is with the second camp. Yet, both cases do not refer to bloodshed in its literal, simple sense.
To some degree, one can glimpse a Torah hint at a comparison between rape and murder: “For when a man shall rise upon his fellow and murder him, so it is concerning this matter” (Devarim 22:26). Read in context, however, this is far from a precise analogy. On the other hand, the Pasuk states that “death and life are in the hands of the tongue” (Mishlei. 18:21)—but once again, the contemporary adage is a departure from the scriptural meaning taken in context. By contrast with these, the Walder tragedy includes a case of actual bloodshed in its most simple sense: Walder’s shedding of his own blood. Amid all the mayhem, including much bickering between the two camps, this point seems to have been somewhat overlooked.
Walder’s suicide is different from most of the terrible cases we hear about (may we hear no more such). In many suicide cases, those who take their own lives suffer from a mental illness, whether clinical depression or other conditions. Sometimes, they have even been hospitalized in psychiatric wards. This is not the case here. This is a man who took his own life, certainly out of great distress, but not out of sickness. He had other options, but he chose the worst of them all.
I recall the case, some four years ago, of a renowned Dayan in England who was found to have acted in a manner inappropriate to his position (though the acts in question were less heinous than Walder’s). As a result, he submitted his immediate resignation from all public offices—as Rabbi, Dayan, member of various rabbinic forums, noted public lecturer, and so on. Instead, he focused on rebuilding his family. I assume he also invested in repenting before Hashem. To be fair, he was not faced by a ruthless media and by massive publicity—more on this below. Yet, Chaim Walder also had this option. Tragically, he chose to deny himself the right to repent and to participate in rehabilitating the victims. His suicide twisted the knife in their wounds and opened a gaping one in our society.
Like the Perushim then, we also have a rich, varied system of values. But at its head, we must place the value of life itself. Lest we arrive, even out of concern for other important values, at a state where the shedding of blood has been trivialized
When Yated Neeman wrote of Walder’s death that he was “taken suddenly to his eternal home,” while nobody in the community is unaware of his tragic choice, this is tantamount to normalizing suicide. When we are told that he was “murdered,” as though he had no choice in the matter, this is tantamount to legitimizing suicide. Perhaps others, in moments of acute stress and anxiety, will Heaven forbid follow his example—not in taking their own lives, but in orchestrating their “murder” by those whom they blame. As a society, we cannot contain this. Suicide, when executed publicly, unapologetically, and unremorsefully—aside from there being no apology, the suicide note was presumptuous ad absurdum, as though killing oneself is a ticket to Heaven—must be severely condemned.
The background story of the Gemara mentioned at the outset—the father who was more concerned about the impurity of the knife than his murdered son—accentuates the moral deficiency of the Second Temple generation. So distorted was the Kohanim’s value system, that the question of impurity of vessels, which was the major issue separating the Perushim from the amei ha’aretz (commoners) of the time, overcame even the natural love of a father. Like the Perushim then, we also have a rich, varied system of values. At its head, we must crown the value of life itself—lest we arrive, even out of concern for other important values, at a state where bloodshed is cheapened.
At the end of the day, we find ourselves in a terrible bind. There are victims on all sides—first and foremost Walder’s actual victims, but also his family, and on some level perhaps even Walder himself. But in the numerical sense, the greatest victim is of course us. Frum society. We bleed and bemoan the loss of trust, the loss of innocence, the educational fallout, and the knowledge that when our kids speak about themselves, they will likely do so in a different language than ours.
The solution to the problem is not to adopt the norms of liberal society; this would amount to declaring bankruptcy and to re-modeling Charedi society on a new set of axioms and principles. On the other hand, we certainly need to see to the creation of a mechanism […] sparing us the next explosion
It didn’t have to be like this. After the sudden resignation of the aforementioned Dayan, an opinion piece was published in the Jewish Chronicle, a newspaper not known for its glowing support of the Orthodox establishment, which begged the question: “How can such a thing pass without a public scandal?” The question is appropriate from a secular perspective, which assumes that such matters must be debated with full exposure to the public eye. Yet, notwithstanding the explosive material, there was no public nuclear blast. The Dayan was replaced, everyone understood why, and we moved on. In our case, things of course are tragically different.
The solution to the problem is not to adopt the norms of liberal society; this would amount to declaring bankruptcy and to re-modeling Charedi society on a new set of axioms and principles. It would worsen, rather than better our lot. On the other hand, we certainly need to see to the creation of a mechanism, which can include community rabbis, city rabbis, batei din, therapists, legal experts, and whatever else is required to handle such cases and nip them in the bud, sparing us the next explosion. Such mechanisms already exist, both in the US and in Israel, and they are especially common in the religious-Zionist sector. They can certainly be made more robust and functional; there is no time like the present.
Our duty is to learn from the terrible affair. There is much to be done, but perhaps the first and primary lesson is education, which is needed on so many levels. One of them, on which this short piece has focused, is bloodshed in its variant forms. As Chazal teach us, we must be supremely cautious lest we cheapen bloodshed.
 Yoma 23a.