COLUMNIST Geoffrey Alderman writes a personal letter to the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, about the ethics of a case in which a Sefer Torah was provided for a synagogue by a rabbi who had been convicted of — and served time for — a sexual assault
MY dear Rabbi Mirvis. I am taking the liberty of writing to you following your recent surprising intervention in the case of Rabbi Mendy Levy.
I say “surprising” because Rabbi Levy does not and never has (as far as I can make out) held any position in any religious congregation over which you or your predecessors have or have had any authority whatsoever.
Of course I accept that you are fully entitled to indulge in public utterances on matters essentially outside your contractual remit.
But in this case I do wonder whether, before making the intervention in question, you and those who advise you had really thought through what you intended to say.
Let’s first of all remind ourselves of the essentials of the case in which you have taken it upon yourself to intervene.
Some weeks ago, there was a public celebration in north London of the dedication of a Sefer Torah.
According to press reports, well over a thousand men, women and children indulged in “joyous dancing and celebration” as the newly-completed Sefer was carried to the Hechal Menachem Synagogue, Golders Green.
Now, as you know, Sifrei Torah don’t come cheap. This particular Sefer had been paid for by the aforementioned Rabbi Levy, and so it seemed entirely appropriate that after the ceremony, at the rabbi’s home, fulsome tributes should have been paid to him for his generosity.
But these celebrations did not last long. On her Facebook page, a lady, Yehudis Goldsobel, commented that “a Sefer Torah dedication is a lovely thing, but how can a community of people ignore the fact that the person donating it is a convicted sex offender? Does this not somehow tarnish this mitzva? I would think so.”
And then you intervened, didn’t you? You declared, through a spokesman, that “the very idea that a man convicted of sexual abuse should seek public acclaim in this way is extremely disturbing . . . what is essential is that a clear message goes out to all concerned that these kind of antics will never find support within our community.”
The synagogue concerned had, meanwhile, rejected the Sefer that Rabbi Levy had paid for and donated. And this led one Marie van der Zyl, of the Board of Deputies, to endorse this rejection.
She opined that “sexual offences are extremely serious and, while we should give people the opportunity to express remorse and change their behaviour, care should be taken not to honour people who have committed these sorts of terrible crimes.
“I am therefore reassured to note that [the synagogue] has decided not to accept the scroll. No one in the Jewish community must ever give the impression that sexual abuse perpetrators are to be accepted until it is clear they have genuinely repented.”
Marie van der Zyl is — as you know — a vice-president of the Board of Deputies, of which you are an ecclesiastical authority.
Now I want you to know that, like you, I view sexual abuse as a particularly heinous and despicable crime. In 2013, Rabbi Levy had indeed been convicted on two counts of sexual assault against Yehudis Goldsobel, and had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment — a sentence that he has now served.
I would go further and say that Levy may consider himself fortunate that the sentence wasn’t longer, particularly since at the time the offences were committed, Ms Goldsobel was a minor.
But what has any of that to do with the rejection of a Sefer Torah simply because Levy — admittedly a convicted sexual offender — paid for it?
I can find no halachic grounds for such a rejection. And I should point out that at his trial a character reference was offered by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, who referred to him as “the embodiment of repentance”.
This is the same Rabbi Rapoport who until 2012 held the medical ethics portfolio in the so-called “cabinet” of your predecessor, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks of Aldgate.
As for Anglo-Jewish criminals seeking to rehabilitate themselves through “public acclaim”, there are other examples, aren’t there? White-collar crime for instance.
But surely the principle’s the same, isn’t it?
If it isn’t, do please tell me why.
Professor Geoffrey Alderman.