This piece can be no more than a beginning.

Reading newspaper articles about the heart-breaking events in the Satmar community, it’s clear that the first priority is, of course, that child molestation in any form should never take place in this (or any other) community.

The person found guilty of doing the molestation was “counseling” (with community endorsement), despite having no training, certification or licensing to do so. One problem in doing “counseling” without a license is that the “counselor” has no training in, or commitment to, the professional ethics involved (e.g. the “NASW Code of Ethics” for Social Workers). One might think that much of this would be covered within halachah (Jewish law) itself, but “counseling” or “therapy” is a specialized relationship, requiring unique guidelines (however much they might overlap halachah). Perhaps there’s a need to develop halachot specific to the counseling relationship within an Orthodox or Hasidic community?

The first question a trained counselor should ask a “dissenting” teen is, “Why?”

We want to find out what might really be on that young person’s mind. Are there other issues, circumstances or feelings that might be upsetting him or her? (Of course, this isn’t limited to teens, but the present situation involves or previously involved a young girl.) If we find that the true object of the teen’s anger isn’t the norms of the community, but the behavior of an individual or individuals within it, only then can we begin addressing the teen’s choice of behaviors effectively.

Why this teen? Why this norm? Why now?

Asking “Why?” also allows the teen to talk about their own feelings and reasons, if they feel that they’re in a trustworthy, confidential and supportive setting. Getting them to feel that can take several meetings in itself. The value of allowing a teen — or anyone — to simply express their feelings can’t be overestimated. There are times when that in itself will help resolve the situation.

But then — what if the teen absolutely indentifies a certain community norm or norms as the object of their disagreement?

A professional counselor’s ethical responsibilities do not include making decisions for a client based on what the counselor thinks is “best.” The client has the right to “self-determination.” This can conflict with the rabbinic role, if that role means telling the teen what’s “right” and “wrong;” what the teen “must do.” Here again, it must be made clear whether the teen is receiving “counseling,” “guidance” or just  “disciplining.”

Barring serious pathology, I’d take the teen slowly and carefully through a consideration of the various options and their consequences. This could take multiple sessions, too, over time. The purpose wouldn’t be to convince the teen to take one course of action over another; rather, to help him or her realistically assess the outcomes of each option before making a final choice.

Perhaps I myself need to research whether any papers or articles have been written about special ways in which “counseling” or “psychotherapy” is — or should be — done within the Orthodox community, in keeping with the “evidence-based” approach that is increasingly in use.  Even then, though, I’m sure it’d vary between branches of Orthodoxy and Hasidut (e.g. an effective approach with a Modern Orthodox client might not work as well with a traditional Hasidic one).

And that’s just for beginning the process.

Those of us who aren’t Orthodox — especially not “Haredi” or “Hasidic” Jews — shouldn’t apply our own norms here, either. Most people reading this blog grant fundamental value to almost unlimited free choice. Such is not the case in a more traditional Jewish environment, nor do we have the right to call that milieu “wrong.” (This doesn’t justify molestation, under any circumstances, of course, but that’s a separate issue here.) The identity of that traditional community is very much tied up in the belief that “free choice” only exists within a certain, proscribed range that can vary somewhat from community to community, from rav to rav and from rebbe to rebbe. Reform Judaism was the first (in modern times) to allow for a widened degree of “free choice” as chosen by the individual; Conservative Judaism was and is an attempt to moderate between the two.  Yet, my experience has been that the various branches of Judaism (and these are only a few) have much to learn about understanding and respecting each other. Kal v’homer if we include secular and/or atheist viewpoints.

This whole reported sequence of events suggests the need for this community (and others) to look at how they handle dissent and disagreement. I don’t assert that they should change their own rules and cultural mores to those that the secular world finds more acceptable. But the problem isn’t the rules themselves. The problem is the place of the dissenter within the community, and the “ethical” or acceptable behaviors by the community towards the dissenter (not to mention the family, supporters, etc.).

Their challenge is how to modernize their response to dissent, without necessarily compromising their own beliefs or standards. For example, one who wishes to “non-conform” beyond the degree that a community can accept, might be asked to leave, but it can be done respectfully, even lovingly, with the door left open for subsequent communication and contact; perhaps even return. An “act” can be rejected, without a person’s heart being broken for it. It needn’t degenerate into a destructive “war of wills.”

Also, there’s a serious need to distinguish between more or less justifiable anger at dissent itself (“anger” might be expected if you’re violating community norms, depending on how you do it) vs. inappropriate, hostile, destructive behavior (e.g. throwing bleach at someone’s eyes), which is probably acting out feelings that have nothing to do with the victim or dissenter themselves.

Jewish life should be a warm, beautiful thing to behold and be part of.

Hasidic Judaism can be a profound source of inspiration and spiritual guidance to all people. I don’t know much at all about Satmar teachings specifically, but I believe that this is as true of them as of others.

Let’s hope that in the end, that we can all learn something from this that makes our communities and our world a better place.