Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Statement and Sichas Mussar

The following is an edited version of Rabbi Willig's remarks delivered in the Beis HaMedrash of Yeshiva University on Wednesday, February 19, 2003. Although this was not a TorahWeb event, we are posting it because many of our subscribers have asked to see it.

Part I is a statement signed by Rabbi Yosef Blau, Rabbi Aaron Levine, and Rabbi Mordechai Willig. Part II is Rabbi Willig's own text, delivered as a Sichas Mussar.

This is also available as an MP3 audio file.

Part I

In 1989, we convened as an ad hoc bet din to adjudicate charges of inappropriate behavior that Elie Hiller lodged against Rabbi Baruch Lanner in a letter that Mr. Hiller disseminated throughout the Teaneck Jewish community. Our tribunal did not have an av bet din (chief judge), and none of the judges had ever heard before a case of this type. Our explicit mandate was to investigate the charges in the letter. Although we found three of the charges to be unsubstantiated, we concluded that Rabbi Lanner was guilty of three other offenses.

At that time, we decided, based on the accepted norms of rabbinical tribunals, to share our findings only on a need-to-know basis. This decision, as well as the pesak itself, was unanimous. Under this criterion, we read the pesak to the litigants; members of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the group that convened the din torah; a representative of the Orthodox Union, which employed Rabbi Lanner; and a representative of the Roemer shul, which had just appointed Rabbi Lanner as its rabbi.

The December 21, 2000 Public Summary of the Report of the NCSY Special Commission placed in the public domain the matters of which we found Rabbi Lanner guilty, namely: kneeing teens in the groin; using salty language; and employing crude talk having sexual overtones in his interaction with female students and female NCSYers.

In this public statement, we desire to go beyond our 1989 mandate as a bet din and state our opinion as three individuals. We state categorically that, in our opinion, Rabbi Lanner, based on the misdeeds of which we found him guilty and our understanding of abuse in 2003 (which was inadequate in 1989), is unfit for communal and youth work. The numerous affidavits that corroborate Mr. Hiller's charges of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse against Rabbi Lanner, stated in the 2000 Summary Report, cited earlier, reinforce our opinion. Although the compilers of the Report do not have the halakhic status of a bet din and, therefore, their Report does not constitute a pesak, we nevertheless feel that we may rely on it for our opinion.

During the last six weeks, we met twice with Mr. Hiller and a number of concerned individuals. In the intensive interactive dialogue with this group, encompassing 11 hours, we tried to reconstruct the 1989-bet din experience. We have learned new facts and gathered new insights from these encounters.

For the record, our hearing in 1989 spanned eighteen hours. We reached our conclusions based on the information we had and deemed credible at the time. We, however, realize now that at that hearing we made errors in judgment and procedure that caused unnecessary pain and aggravation. We accept responsibility for those mistakes. Furthermore, members of the bet din made mistakes in organizing the din torah.

More fundamentally, with the hindsight made possible by the deepened understanding of abuse that has emerged in the last decade, we now realize that the diverse charges appearing in Mr. Hiller's letter fall under the rubric of abuse of various sorts, including physical, psychological, and sexual. Although we had responded many times as a unit to the call of the RCBC to serve as a bet din in monetary matters, in retrospect we should have refused to hear the abuse case Mr. Hiller's letter precipitated. We did not realize that abusive behavior could inhibit potential witnesses and distort the testimony of those who do appear.

We take responsibility for our mistakes. We apologize to Mr. Hiller, his family, and anyone else who was hurt because of our mistakes, be they witnesses and other victims, or their families.

We express our heartfelt empathy with the young people who have suffered from sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Our empathy extends to the parents and families of the victims as well.

We wish Mr. Hiller and his family, and all victims and witnesses who testified to support Mr. Hiller's allegations, and their families, berakha ve-hatzlaha. We commend them for having the courage to come forward. Similarly, to those critics whose intentions were le-shem shamayim, we wish berakha ve-hatzlaha. And if there were any critics who did not act le-shem shamayim, nevertheless, we offer them a complete mehilla.

Let us look to the future. We must do everything in our power to protect potential victims from abuse. This includes reporting accusations of abuse to Jewish and, at times, to secular authorities. When a potential victim of abuse faces imminent danger, there should be no doubt that the principle of lo ta'amod al dam rei'akha, "Do not stand idly by as the blood of your neighbor is shed" (Leviticus 19:6), overrides other halakhic concerns, and one should immediately report the allegations to the secular authorities. In this brief statement, it is impossible to summarize the intricate halakhot of when to report abuse to secular authorities. We hope, however, that soon one or more of us will address the public on this question.

If there is anyone who wants to discuss any aspect of the 1989-bet din and its aftermath, we encourage him or her to contact us.

Once again, we apologize for the mistakes that we made.

Yosef Blau (212-960-5480, yoblau@ymail.yu.edu)
Aaron Levine (alevine@ymail.yu.edu)
Mordechai Willig (mwillig@juno.com)

Part II

Every human being makes mistakes. I am no exception.

There are many things that I see now, which I did not see in 1989. Some are facts that I did not know or uncover then. Some are insights that even experts did not know then. After all, ein le-dayan ella mah she-einav ro'os: (1) a judge, or any expert, decides only on the basis of what his eyes see.

My field of vision also contained blind spots, which, while I did not see, I should have seen. These represent mistakes in judgment for which I bear responsibility. These mistakes continued after 1989 as well. I apologize for all of my mistakes, and regret any negative consequences that they may have caused.

The recent criticism of the beis din's actions, and my role in particular, enabled me to discover the biggest blind spot of all. A person is blind to his own faults. "Kol ha-nega'im adam ro'eh chutz mi-nig'ei atzmo," "All nega'im a person sees except for nega'im of his own," (2) which literally refers to tzara'as, extends, homiletically, to all blemishes. (3)

How does one not see his own mistakes? Let us go back to history's first mistake: the sin of eating the forbidden fruit. Adam, instead of admitting his own mistake, blamed Chava, who, in turn, blamed the serpent. (4) In the 1989 case, it is easy to blame others.

In history's second mistake, Cain, like Adam before him, initially was not confronted with his mistake. He was merely asked, "Where is Hevel your brother?" When he failed to acknowledge his sin, Hashem told him how terrible murder is. (5)

I thank Elie Hiller and his concerned friends and supporters for helping me during the last six weeks to understand my mistakes. I wish we had spoken earlier.

Let us look at mistakes of kings in Sefer Sh'muel. The Talmud contrasts Sha'ul and David. Sha'ul sinned once, and lost his kingdom and dynasty. David sinned twice but maintained his kingdom and dynasty. (6) Why?

Maharsha explains that David admitted his mistakes, whereas Sha'ul did not. (7) Why not?

First, Sha'ul's sin was unintentional, as his failure to destroy Amalek was based on his understanding of Talmudic logic, a kal va-chomer, which was, in fact, wrong. (8) Second, the people had mercy on Agag and the best of the sheep, and were not willing to destroy them. (9) When Sha'ul finally confessed, he still justified his behavior by saying, "I feared the people." (10)

By contrast, David confessed immediately and unconditionally. In one case, the sin of counting the people, he realized the mistake on his own. (11) In the other case, his taking Batsheva and his role in the death of Uriya, he confessed his sin as soon as Nasan Ha-Navi explained it to him with a parable of a rich man taking a poor man's only sheep. (12)

In the 1989 case, I believe my mistakes were unintentional.

Furthermore, I listened to the people who supported me. For example, my talmidim, whose loyalty I very much appreciate, reacted sharply to the ad hominem attacks, ascribing all sorts of motivations and hidden agendas to my critics. This led to self-denial of even the smallest mistake.

Let me be clear. I bear no grudge against any of my critics, be they victims, supporters, or journalists. I wish them b'racha ve-hatzlacha, and I beg, even command, that my talmidim do the same. After the primary goal of protecting our children, my next goal is to restore shalom in our Yeshiva and beyond. I hope that in four weeks, on Purim, we will all dance together to the music of Jordan Hirsch, and with all our neshama, in the spirit of shalom.

I thank my closest friends and colleagues, no more than a handful, who helped me in this painful process of recognizing the mistakes that I made. They were my Nasan Ha-Navi.

My first apology goes to Elie Hiller. In reconstructing the events of 1989, although I only said things that I thought were accurate, I now see that some of them were not.

Aside from the passage of time, I repressed certain facts. This is the blind spot of which I spoke. I now understand how people who were totally committed to truth and honesty could make an objectively false statement. In their minds, it was true.

When confronted, my first response was, "It could not be true. How could I have done that? It must be false." It took corroborated, objective facts to open my eyes.

Some people go through life in such denial. I do not fault them. I did the same. But now I learned more about human nature. In life, I have committed countless errors, and have tried to admit to them when I realize them. But, until very recently, I did not realize that what I insisted and believed to be true was definitively not true.

One day all of us will have to give a reckoning, in the Court that I fear the most, for all of our words and actions. The records there are complete and eternal: ayin ro'ah ve-ozen shoma'as ve-chol ma'asecha be-sefer nichtavim. (13) Thanks to Elie Hiller, I have a chance to beg forgiveness in this world.

My second apology is not limited to Elie. It relates not to a sin of the mind but to a sin of the soul.

Al tadin es chavercha ad she-tagi'a li-mkomo, do not judge your fellow until you have reached his makom, his place. (14) My Nasan Ha-Navi told me this. Indeed, he acknowledges that it is likely that in 1989 he would not have ruled any differently in my situation. Moreover, my defenders said that those who had the benefit of hindsight were unfair for ignoring this rule. Indeed, all of this may be true.

Yet, I am guilty of a similar mistake. Until last month, I could not understand why the victims and their concerned supporters were complaining so harshly about me. Had I spoken to them earlier, however, I believe that I would have understood their complaints. To his credit, Rabbi Blau has spent the last few years speaking to and empathizing with the victims and, therefore, he reached their makom much earlier. In contrast, I did not speak with them until last month, and, therefore, I am only trying to reach their makom now.

On my journey to their makom, I am beginning to realize the terrible pain that my deeds or words inflicted on Elie Hiller; the witnesses whose testimony supported his claims; the victims; and the families of all of the above. Moreover, my aggressive questioning of witnesses, who may have been abused, was not an appropriate style for this case, although it may be proper in cases involving commercial transactions. Even last month, in our first meeting, I did not understand the special sensitivities of such victims. I am still learning. I apologize to all victims to whom I was insensitive. I regret any pain my action or inaction caused.

It tortures me that my deeds or words caused Elie such terrible pain, and that he suffered stoically for years, while I was completely oblivious to it. I am devastated by the fact that I caused another person such searing pain and that, for so long, I did not even realize it.

This is a sin of the soul, and Elie is its primary victim. My soul, my neshama, my heart, is broken. I pray that he finds a place in his heart and soul to forgive me.

However he responds I owe him a b'racha. As Rabbi Levine said to him last week, may the verse, "Samcheinu ki-mos inisanu," "Gladden us according to the days You afflicted us," (15) be fulfilled for him and his family. B'racha ve-hatzlacha be-chol ma'asei yedeichem.

I now understand that although our p'sak contains findings of sorely inappropriate behavior referred to in our joint statement, there were many other complicating elements. After rereading the p'sak in 2003, I now realize that it should have placed greater emphasis on the inappropriateness of this behavior. In 1989, an honest person hearing the p'sak might have readily concluded that the sorely inappropriate behavior, in the broader context of the p'sak, was insufficient to disqualify a person from communal or youth-oriented work. Again, to his credit, Rabbi Blau recognized this before I did.

Some general statements about beis din procedures are in order. So that there is no misunderstanding, the organizers of the beis din should inform the litigants, in advance and in writing, when the session(s) will take place. Furthermore, notwithstanding the ultimate p'sak, the dayanim should treat the litigants and witnesses with respect and appropriate sensitivity. Moreover, the dayanim should make every effort to ensure that all material witnesses be given the ability to testify. Last, it is improper to order a litigant to issue a formal written apology before completing the beis din proceedings.

This Shabbos, we will read about the cheit ha-egel, the sin of golden calf, a sin for which Am Yisrael suffers to this day. (16) The Talmud links this sin with that of David and Batsheva. (17)

Both David and Am Yisrael were on a high spiritual level. They had overcome the yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination), and, as such, should not have been overcome by it. Logically, they should not have sinned.

Hashem decreed that the yetzer ha-ra should rule over them and cause them to sin. Why? So that no one should say, "I will not be accepted." Neither an individual such as David, nor a community, such as Am Yisrael, should feel that t'shuva is impossible. According to this interpretation, based on Rashi, these two sins were specifically chosen because of their gravity.

May I suggest a somewhat different interpretation? These sins were selected because of their subtlety. Many explain that the Golden Calf was not meant to substitute for Hashem, chas ve-shalom, but merely to be an intermediary, not unlike the k'ruvim in the Mishkan. (18) The Talmud teaches that whoever says that David was technically guilty of adultery is mistaken. (19)

In this light, we are taught a crucial lesson. Hashem ordained these sins so that every individual and every community should be able to recognize misdeeds rather than rationalize them. This, after all, is the first step in the t'shuva process.

For me, this is the most important lesson to be drawn from this entire ordeal. Perhaps my experience will assist you, my talmidim, especially those of you who will become rabbanim, to try to eliminate the blind spots of self-denial. And, when you become aware of a mistake on your own or through your Nasan Ha-Navi, admit and take responsibility for it immediately and unconditionally. Even if the mistake was unintentional, and even if you share the blame with others, if you contributed to it, say chatasi.

Yesterday, after reading a draft of this sichas mussar, I suddenly remembered something.

On motza'ei Shabbos, January 25th, I led a kumsitz here on campus. Many of you were there, and we sang together, "David melech Yisrael chai ve-kayam," "David king of Israel is alive and enduring." I asked: "Why?" I answered: because he accepted responsibility for his actions. This distinguished David from Sha'ul, and enabled David's kingdom and dynasty to endure.

I said this just a few days before a new round of criticisms of me became public, but it was not until yesterday, after I finished preparing and writing a draft of this sicha, which refers to the same idea, that I remembered having said it. Why? Because when I said it, I did not see that it relates to me!

At that time, I asked: "From where did David receive the strength of character to make an embarrassing confession?" I answered: "From his progenitor, Yehuda."

Yehuda was confronted-- not by Hashem, as were Adam and Cain, not even by a navi, as were Sha'ul and David. Nor was he confronted directly. He was simply presented with objective proof of the facts. (20)

His response was, "tzadka mimeni," she is more righteous than I. (21) As the Rambam explains, Yehuda had done nothing against halacha, and correctly sacrificed valuable personal items to avoid public discussion of sexual matters. (22)

Tamar, the potential victim, was ostensibly guilty of deception. (23) Nonetheless, since her intention was le-shem shamayim, Yehuda said: she is more righteous than I. (24)

Targum Yerushalmi adds to Yehuda's admission: better for me to be ashamed in this world than in the future world. Better for me to burn in the weaker fire of embarrassment in this world than in the all-consuming fire of the World to Come. (25)

Yehuda's statement was so powerful that it enabled his brother Re'uven to confess his own sin publicly for the first time. (26) And, if my p'shat is correct, it enabled Yehuda and his descendant David to merit an enduring dynasty. Let us all learn the enduring lesson for life of this live and enduring king, to accept responsibility for our actions.


1. Sanhedrin 6b.
2. Nega'im 2:5.
3. Midrash Sh'muel Avos 1:7.
4. B'reishis 3:11-13.
5. Ibid. 4:9-10, Rashi 4:9 and 3:9.
6. Yoma 22b, Rashi, s.v. "Kama."
7. Op. cit.
8. Yoma 22b, Tosafos Yeshanim ad loc., s.v. "U-le-Divrei."
9. I Sh'muel 15:9,15,21,24.
10. Ibid. 15:24.
11. II Sh'muel 24:10.
12. Ibid. 12:1-13.
13. Avos 2:1.
14. Avos 2:5.
15. Tehillim 90:15.
16. Sh'mos, Chap. 32; see Rashi 32:34.
17. Avoda Zara 4b-5a; see Rashi. See also Michtav Mei-Eliyahu I, pp. 165-66.
18. Ramban Sh'mos 32:1, Beis Ha-Levi Parshas Ki Sisa.
19. Shabbos 56a.
20. B'reishis 38:25.
21. Ibid. 38:26.
22. Moreh Nevuchim III:49.
23. B'reishis 38:14-16.
24. S'forno 38:26.
25. B'reishis 38:26.
26. Sotah 7b, Rashi s.v. "Yehuda."