Rabbi Mordechai Willig, speaking for himself and on behalf of a 1989 bet din critics felt was too lenient toward Rabbi Baruch Lanner, has acknowledged the religious court “made errors in judgment and procedure that caused unnecessary pain” and said it accepted “responsibilities for those mistakes.”
Rabbi Willig, the highly respected rosh yeshiva, or dean, at Yeshiva University, offered a lengthy and at times personal apology before hundreds of students and others at the bet midrash (study hall) of the school last Wednesday night.
He had come under heavy criticism in recent weeks from a group of victims of Rabbi Lanner. The group mobilized after Rabbi Willig began making public presentations about parenting without addressing his role in a 1989 bet din that appeared to absolve Rabbi Lanner of serious wrongdoing while censuring Elie Hiller, a former NCSY employee who sought communal action against Rabbi Lanner.
First speaking for the bet din, Rabbi Willig said its members now believe Rabbi Lanner to be “unfit for communal and youth work,” and endorsed the findings of the Orthodox Union special commission report of December 2000 that found Rabbi Lanner guilty of widespread and long-term sexual, physical and psychological abuse of teens while helping to lead the OU’s youth arm, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.
Rabbi Willig’s critics faulted him for not speaking out over the years against Rabbi Lanner’s behavior, adding to the impression that the youth leader was innocent of serious wrongdoing.
In his personal comments, Rabbi Willig acknowledged that he had “blind spots” over the years that “represent mistakes in judgment for which I bear responsibility. These mistakes continued after 1989 as well,” he said, apologizing to Hiller and his family and all victims of Rabbi Lanner.
Rabbi Willig said he “bear[s] no grudge against any of my critics, be they victims, supporters or journalists, and I wish them bracha v’hatzlacha [blessings and success], and I beg, even command, that my talmidim [students] do the same.”
The rabbi said it was only very recently that he realized that “what I insisted and believed was true was objectively untrue.”
Further, Rabbi Willig faulted himself for not speaking to Rabbi Lanner’s victims and their supporters until last month. He credited his colleague, Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual adviser to students at YU and one of the three members of the bet din, for speaking to and empathizing with the victims for many years.
Now, Rabbi Willig said, “I realize the terrible pain that my deeds, or words, inflicted on Elie Hiller and other victims as well.
“My soul is broken,” he continued, “and I pray that he [Hiller] finds a place in his heart and soul and forgives me.”
Hiller, who was not at the talk, told The Jewish Week the next day he would like to “thank Rabbi Willig, on behalf of my family and me, and I accept his apology and hope it was meant for the other 14 witnesses as well” who testified against Rabbi Lanner at the bet din.
At the time, Hiller was castigated by Rabbi Willig, and later by Orthodox rabbis in Bergen County, N.J., for going public with his complaints about Rabbi Lanner’s behavior.
Rabbi Willig’s apology came about after he and the other members of the bet din — Rabbi Blau and Rabbi Aaron Levine — held two lengthy meetings in the past few weeks with representatives of a group of victims of Rabbi Lanner and their supporters.
The group, which included Hiller, had been pressing Rabbi Willig to speak publicly for the first time on the actions of the bet din, for which they held him chiefly responsible. They argued that in maintaining silence over the years, Rabbi Willig was responsible, at least indirectly, for preventing parents from protecting their children from Rabbi Lanner in recent years.
Rabbi Blau has long acknowledged that various witnesses deceived the bet din, and he counseled a number of victims over the years while seeking to have Rabbi Lanner dismissed.
Rabbi Levine was considered the least involved in the particulars of the case, but in recent weeks he came to see the errors of the bet din, sources say. In addition, it is believed that Rabbi Willig was under heavy pressure from YU officials to put an end to the public criticism focusing on him in recent weeks.
Several members of the group said that while they were not fully satisfied with Rabbi Willig’s apology and hoped for more details and motives for the 1989 actions, overall they were extremely gratified the rabbi spoke out as he did.
“It was a huge step in the right direction,” noted Murray Sragow, a member of the group.
Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, said the episode underscored that American democratic impulses trump religious autonomy.
“With the exception of the haredi world,” where an apology by a rabbinic authority remains virtually unheard of, “American culture doesn’t support clergy having an elite and separate status” that makes it unaccountable. This showed that people have a power greater than the rabbis.”
Heilman, an expert on the haredi world, said the apology by Rabbi Willig was an example of why the haredi concept of Da’at Torah, giving full authority to Torah scholars on all issues, “is problematic” because it bore out that “rabbis are not immune from making mistakes.”
For a full text of Rabbi Willig’s remarks, see www.thejewishweek.com and scroll to Web Exclusive at the bottom of the home page.