What happens when our spiritual leaders betray us? Rabbi Daniel Korobkin on the issues surrounding Chaim Walder

Flyers reading "We believe the victims" were distributed across Israel in response to allegations that author Chaim Walder was a serial sexual abuser of children.

Chaim Walder was an Israeli haredi rabbi and best-selling author of books for children. In November 2021, an investigative piece by Haaretz reported that several women alleged that Walder sexually assaulted them while they were under his care as a therapist. The Safed Rabbinical Court found that over a period of 25 years, Walder had sexually abused women, girls, and boys that had come to him for treatment. Walder died by suicide Dec. 27, 2021.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin spoke about the Walder case at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation in Thornhill, Ont. This is an edited version of that sermon:

The world is facing a lot of cognitive dissonance right now. The term as used today refers to a psychological tension that exists when a person’s beliefs are one way, but the facts on the ground contradict those beliefs. The pandemic has proven to us that contrary to what we previously believed—that we control our destinies and can reliably plan our futures—in reality, we aren’t in control of our destinies at all.

Cognitive dissonance has also repeatedly stricken those of us who are deeply committed Jews. We have been raised our entire lives with the conviction that one who lives a committed religious life will live a life of honour, virtue, and integrity. The Torah is meant to have a transformative effect upon the Jew who embraces its precepts. Alas, we’ve seen too many times over the years that devoutly observant Jews have been in the headlines for committing serious crimes, which indicates that the Torah has not had the effect that we would have expected.

Whether it’s white-collar crimes or exploitation and abuse of others, the fact is that even the most Orthodox-looking Jews are subject to failure. And, a devoutly Orthodox Jew exposed as an abuser is shocking and provocative in the same way that a “man bites dog” story is, and is sure to garner headlines.

I clearly remember one of my earliest experiences of cognitive dissonance. I was a yeshivah bochur, not more than 19 years old, in a Baltimore yeshivah. A number of my friends had studied in a very popular and “cool” yeshivah in Israel before coming back to learn in the States. One day we learned that the head of that yeshivah had been sexually abusing some of the students. I was shocked, because this rosh yeshivah was a “rock star” in our world: a charismatic figure who was known to draw in even the most toughened and Yiddishkeit-averse young men, and he would ignite their souls.

I had trouble processing this: How does a man who stands for Torah commit the most loathsome acts? How could he exploit the very students whose souls had been entrusted to him? My only solace was noting that one of the alumni of that yeshivah chose to react to the betrayal by doubling down on his hasmadah, his incessant Torah study in the beit midrash (study hall). If that worked for him, how could it not work for me, who was not directly betrayed by this rabbi?

Over the years, I’ve learned how to reconcile the conflict, and at least have coping mechanisms to deal with the tension.

When looking at how Pharaoh and the Egyptians reacted to the plagues, they were faced with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. Their strongly held convictions were that (Ezek. 29:3) “The Nile is mine and I am self-made.”

The Egyptians believed in their own autonomy and that they controlled the world around them. The plagues were a harsh splash of cold water. How could Pharaoh resolve this cognitive dissonance? He could have freed the Jews, resolving his cognitive dissonance by admitting that he really wasn’t the great controller he had originally thought himself to be. Due to his hubris, though, that wasn’t an option.

 Instead, Scripture notes that he vacillated between “hardening” his heart and making his heart “heavy.” “Hardening” his heart meant convincing himself that the plagues weren’t really from God but were instead a trick or coincidence. Making his heart “heavy” meant minimizing the impact of the plagues and blocking it out of his conscious thoughts. Both were methods that we’re all familiar with when we wish to be in denial about the severity of a situation that we’d rather avoid.

How did I resolve my own cognitive dissonance? No, it was not through denial or simply giving up. Rather, I had to let go of long-held belief: The belief that all Jews are automatically transformed by the Torah. I eventually came to the reconciliation that while this was a goal, it was far from easy for any person to accomplish it fully. In fact, many times people come across as very religious, specifically because they recognize that they have demons within that have not been fully excised, and they seek to compensate for that by “talking the talk,” even when they can’t fully “walk the walk.”

This is a lesson that a 19-year-old yeshivah bochur was capable of processing. Can a 7- or 8-year-old boy or girl, learning about the horrific crimes of Chaim Walder—their hero and favorite author who has been implicated in the media as a child molester and rapist, and who then died by suicide—process their cognitive dissonance in the same way? I really don’t know. I cannot tell you how disturbing this whole mess is for so many of us, myself included.

My children grew up with Walder’s books. There is no question that he was a gifted writer, and had tremendous sensitivity and the ability to connect with children, with deep empathy and understanding. But sometimes, those are precisely the people who can become child predators. Because of their greater understanding of children, they know exactly how to appeal to them and manipulate them.

Despite my concerns and misgivings about how to communicate this with our younger children, I feel we have no choice. If your child was a reader of Walder’s books, I think it’s important to sit down with them, and have an open conversation about the difference between frumkeit (religious observance) and fully embracing the Torah. Let them know that just because a person may look very religious, and even if that person is a religious leader within the Torah world, this does not mean that they are infallible.

 People rise to greatness not because they’re tzadikim (righteous), for after all, only Hashem knows who is truly a tzadik and who is not. Rather, people rise to leadership positions because of their charisma, their popularity, and their ability to communicate effectively a message that is beneficial for the Torah community.

Most of the time, leaders of the Torah world turn out to be tzadikim in retrospect, but not always. Because we don’t know what people are thinking or doing behind closed doors, we can’t assume that everyone is a tzadik. We need to exercise the Talmudic maxim of “Kabdehu v’Chashdehu”, respect him but suspect him.

 Remind your children that even a very respected teacher or rabbi is assumed to be a good person, but everyone is still a human being. Most importantly, make sure they know how to take the proper precautions about being alone with an adult.

This means that we have to actively dismantle some of our children’s innocence. As much as it pains us to remove some of the aura from our children’s religious heroes, it’s an unfortunate necessity in today’s tragically turbulent world.

Finally, despite the great benefit that these books may have had in the past, I’m personally disposing of my Chaim Walder books and encourage you to do the same. This is for two reasons. Firstly, our Sages tell us (TB Gittin 45b) that if a heretic or idolater writes a sefer Torah, that text must be burned. Why is that? Isn’t it the same holy text as a regular sefer Torah?

Rashi explains that we must assume that the person wrote the sefer Torah with apostasy or idolatry in mind. That is, there is a remnant of impurity in the words themselves, even though the words are completely disconnected from the author and are not even the author’s original words. I feel that the same applies to literature that was written by a criminal who is responsible for so many shattered lives.

But perhaps more importantly, I’m concerned about the welfare of Walder’s victims. As I’m writing this, the media have just reported that one of his victims took her own life. Having these books on the bookshelves of our homes and our libraries is a glaring “seal of approval” of his books and, by extension, him as a person. The pain that a victim must have just by seeing his work being propagated is not something that I feel that any of us should be a party to.

There’s more to say, but sometimes silence is best. I pray for comfort and healing to Walder’s victims and to the innocent members of his family, all of whom must be suffering greatly. May Hashem heal our cognitive dissonance and wipe the tears off all our faces.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is the senior rabbi at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation in Thornhill, Ont.