Rabbi Raffi Bilek
The Right Message
Chaim Walder shot himself today.
It is, of course, a sad ending to a sad story. This whole episode has been chilling for the chareidi world. (If you haven’t been following, Walder was accused of sexually abusing numerous girls and women. The accounts were found to be convincing by those who reviewed the evidence, including the chief rabbi of Tzfat and the beis din over which he presided.)
Walder was an extremely popular author of children's books, which were best sellers through the Orthodox community. He was also apparently a sought-after therapist, who it seems had been taking advantage of his patients in the worst ways.
It is saddening to discover what has been happening, and our hearts should go first and foremost to the many victims he harmed. Unfortunately, we cannot say that it is also shocking. This is not the first time a beloved, and apparently religious, community leader has been found to be transgressing in this way. Indeed, people with this particular taivah often deliberately set themselves up to be in close and private contact with women and girls in order to be able to do what they do.
I am sad for the victims. I am also sad for the Walder family, who I assume (lacking any evidence to the contrary) knew nothing about their husband/father’s misdeeds and who must now grapple with the miserable legacy he has left them.
At the same time, I see a sliver of light here. In contrast to past episodes like this, where the offender was immediately offered the full support of the community and the victims excoriated, here the establishment has stood up to the truth and sided with the victims – and quite explicitly: “We send strength to the many victims in these difficult times. Their lives precede his life,” declared the head of the beis din.
Was Walder mentally ill? Was he a rasha? Those are questions to which only Hakadosh Baruch Hu knows the answer. But it’s important to note that sexual abusers are not inherently, not frequently, mentally ill. In fact, they are usually highly functional and devious. Taiva is not a mental illness; it’s part of the human condition. It is unlikely that Walder was mentally ill to the point where he bears no responsibility for his deeds.
Conversely, I don’t know that we can say he was a rasha. As bad and damaging as his actions were, there is only one court that can know what was in this man’s heart, and that court doesn’t convene in This World. We used to believe that alcoholics were evil; we now acknowledge that they face a struggle that is far more complex than a question of good choice/bad choice. Perhaps Walder did struggle at great length with his yetzer hara and yet was ultimately defeated.
I truly don’t mean to minimize the enormity of his transgressions or the of the pain of his victims. But I also want to avoid casting him as an irredeemably evil wretch – not only because such a standpoint places us in a position of judgment we cannot assume, but also because it then allows us to avoid looking at ourselves and learning from what has happened.
It is likely you have never done anything as callous and harmful as what Walder did. But you probably have done things in your life that are callous and harmful. Who hasn’t?
Hopefully you don’t have an overpowering urge to coerce others to sexually submit to you. But you certainly do have other urges that may not be so kosher. (Lashon hara, anyone?) I am not comparing them in terms of severity of consequences, and again, I am not minimizing the harm done to these young women. But let us learn from this incident, as we are called upon to do.
We are all responsible for handling our taivahs in appropriate ways. We are responsible to recognize them rather than downplay or ignore them, to grapple with them continuously, and to never let our guard down when it comes to our yetzer hara. At the very least, Chaim Walder failed in these responsibilities.
Let us take note and remind ourselves that, whatever our particular yetzer hara is, it is incumbent upon us to keep a trained eye on it and to keep up the fight, always. Don’t relegate this man and this incident to the category of the incorrigibly evil such that you can avoid introspection in its wake. We all have our work to do in this world. With Hashem’s help, success is never out of reach.