LONDON — A local religious authority announced plans Tuesday to establish a special court to investigate one of its leading rabbis for alleged sexual misconduct.
According to a statement issued by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, the organization is “in the process of setting up an independent beis din consisting of prominent and renowned dayanim,” or religious judges, to “thoroughly investigate” allegations against London rabbi Chaim Halpern. The court will “hear testimony and look at evidence, and its final psak [ruling] will be adhered to by our Rabbinate.”
The leader of the Union, Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, “expresses the wish that no further action nor declaration be made until that psak is issued,” it added.
Halpern was himself one of the organization’s religious judges until he resigned last month under pressure, mainly from rabbis in his neighborhood of Golders Green, after about 30 women came forward with allegations of sexual impropriety. Although specific details of the accusations have not been released, there have been continued calls for more action to be taken, as Halpern has remained in his post at his own Haredi synagogue, Beis Hamedrash Divrei Chaim.
Until now, however, Rabbi Padwa has refused to endorse further sanctions, and last week allegedly barred members of the Union from signing a public statement calling on Halpern to resign from his synagogue. The statement has yet to be issued — and, according to a rabbi who wants to see it go ahead, some of his colleagues are beginning to backtrack.
“One rabbi has cold feet; another’s wife is worried,” he said.
A public condemnation has yet to be issued, and some rabbis appear to be getting cold feet
He claimed that many of the rabbis who said they would sign have also reneged on an agreement to speak about the scandal from the pulpit, and that one rabbi at the forefront of the resignation campaign “this week delivered a message, after shul, that urged more compassion — there were shidduchim [arranged marriages] to be made” by Halpern, “and everyone knows [about the accusations] anyway.”
Meanwhile, the timeline for the Union’s court remains unclear because it will be difficult to find local judges prepared to handle such a sensitive case, said one rabbi. The intention is for the judges to come from abroad.
He urged the public to give the court a chance. The Union’s “credibility is on the line,” he said. “If they set up a beth din [to perform] a whitewash, they would be better off not setting up a beth din at all.”
However, plans for a whitewash were the exact allegation made by Yisroel Lichtenstein of the Federation of Synagogues, who so far is the only religious judge or rabbi to comment on the case on the record. He suggested that the purpose of the new court would be to overturn the ruling made at a previous hearing by six London rabbis, who heard testimony last month from one of Halpern’s alleged victims. Halpern subsequently withdrew from all of his public positions, except at his synagogue.
“It seems like a whitewash,” Lichtenstein said of the proposed new court. “What was wrong with the first [hearing]?”
Another rabbi involved in efforts to eject Halpern said he, too, was “very skeptical,” asking whether the Union is trying to create a forum to clear Halpern or ensure “justice will be done.”
“We’ll have to wait,” he said.