Abomination: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

July 20, 2022 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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This book begins in 1999 and is set in Melbourne.

The setting is a male Ultra-Orthodox school where there is a case of sexual abuse, and the offender is whisked out of town to Israel. Nearly twenty years later, the process has begun to return him to “face the music”. This obviously reminds the reader of another case going through the Victorian courts right now- the only difference is the sex of both the perpetrator and the victims.

The two protagonists remind the reader of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen in that one is part of the Haredi (the preferred term rather than Ultra-Orthodox) community whose father is a major player in that community. The other young man attends the school although he is far less observant (in later life, he would be considered a secularist). The two split company when the pedophilia became known in the community with the Haredi young man staying in the school while the less observant one goes to the local public High School. As an aside, neither young man is a victim of the perpetrator.

It is at a rally in front of Parliament House that the two meet again after almost twenty years. This sets off a series of situations in both their lives.

This novel raises many questions especially for those unfamiliar with the Haredi world. There is the question already alluded to in The Chosen of the power and control of the community leader- the power to excommunicate anyone whom they deem of the derekh (the path). It is a closed community, and many would consider it a sect.

Ezra, the secularist, is in a relationship initially with a non-Jewish woman. As time went on, he is unsure of his feelings for her. Eventually, they split! If this were the Academy Awards, Ezra would be in the supporting role category.

The star of this book is Jonathan, who has become a senior teacher in the Haredi school. He has been married for nearly seven years and until recently, the marriage is childless. After six years, he is about to become a father, although he discovers that he is impotent. The method of conception breaks all the rules and anyone knowledgeable of Halakha/Jewish Law would know that this could have been achieved through artificial insemination, and most authorities encourage the donor to be non-Jewish to reduce the possibility of incest.

Goldberg raises a question about consistency in observances. What happens when some rules are less observed than others and yet members of the community are judgemental of others? One issue Goldberg alludes to is the behaviour of some of those who make the annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman in the Ukraine.

Jonathan has a confrontation with the sect’s leader and then a skirmish with his wife, which leads him to abandon all he has held dear for so long. He abandons keeping kosher and Shabbat. It raises the question about what happens to those who leave that world and struggle to become part of the wider non-Haredi world. In some cities, there are organisations who work with such individuals.

Unlike the current case in the Victorian courts, this case is resolved. It does raise the question of what is an appropriate punishment. Jonathan is present at the birth of the baby and does hold her- he seems reconciled to her although that is left unsaid.

It was easy to find some points which could be questioned, like the Haredi community serving a meal which contained both meat and fish [fish is served before meat with something like a fluid or bread in between].

Goldberg’s writing style makes the book an easy read.

Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia, as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He also served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years and as Senior Consultant to Museum Planning Services.

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