Leiby Kletzky and Religious “Otherness”

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

by Judith Weisenfeld

Recently in New York, a court-appointed psychiatrist found 35-year-old Levi Aron competent to stand trial for the murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky. Aron has confessed to kidnapping, killing and dismembering the boy, who had become lost while walking home alone for the first time from day camp. The initial press coverage understandably focused on the parents’ anguish and the community’s outrage that the boy had been murdered by someone he had trusted as “one of his own.” But the horrific case of child abduction and murder has also turned attention to the tight-knit community of Orthodox Jews in Boro Park, Brooklyn where the Kletzkys lived, which has given journalists a chance to examine religious issues beneath the headlines about the “Butcher of Brooklyn.”

Both the mainstream and Jewish press have explored the challenges of balancing a religious community’s autonomy with the local government’s interest in public safety. The news that Leiby’s family first called the Boro Park Shomrim, an Orthodox Jewish security patrol, to report him missing before informing the NYPD two hours later has brought scrutiny to the volunteer force. A New York Post editorial decried the allocation of City Council funds to the patrols as a case of politicians seeking influence with a powerful religious group, which prompted a press conference by Council members in response.

The case has also reignited debate about how some Orthodox Jewish communities handle instances of sexual abuse, with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporting a statement from a leading Orthodox rabbi that sexual abuse should be reported to the police only after consultation with and approval by a rabbi. Paul Berger has closely monitored the controversy in the Jewish Daily Forward, as has influential blogger Shmarya Rosenberg. There has also been good coverage of how the murder has occasioned discussions about broader issues related to the protection of children in Orthodox Jewish communities. Naomi Zeveloff’s piece in the Forward focuses on Orthodox private schools in New York State, which are not required to conduct criminal background checks on teachers, and on proposed legislation to remove that exemption.

The strong possibility that attorneys for Aron, who has been found competent to stand trail, will nonetheless assert that he suffers from a psychiatric disorder has generated some discussion in the blogosphere about how religious communities should respond to members who may be mentally ill and commit heinous acts. Shmuley Boteach, who dubs himself “America’s rabbi,” has written a number of blog posts arguing that Aron should not be considered a Jew and “not part of the human family.” Rabbi Jon Sommer responded in J Weekly, calling Boteach to task for insensitivity and failure to bring “the Jewish legal sensibility concerning due process and regard for mental condition” into consideration.

Cynthia Magnus‘ and Sam Vaknin’s articles each explore the difficulties of defining mental illness in legal contexts and raise questions from different perspectives about the applicability of an insanity defense in Aron’s case. Neither brings religious issues fully into play, however, leaving room for reporters to pursue this line of inquiry.

The murder of Leiby Kletzky remains a devastating event, to none more so than the members of his family and community. News media coverage has served mainly to provide the public with a window into the insular Orthodox Jewish community where the Kletzkys live. With the exception of the debates in the press and blogosphere about whether young children should be allowed to walk the streets unaccompanied, there have been few attempts to draw out the broader implications of the case and to consider what insight it provides into similar issues in other religious communities. Religion’s role in our culture and politics is as important as ever–unfortunately, it takes a story that combines brutality, innocence and a measure of the sensational to pique our interest in something that, in one way or another, shapes each of our daily lives.