By Yosef Blau
Until the past twenty-five years, the world did not recognize the dangerous impact and the frequency of sexual abuse. There is little discussion in earlier halakhic sources about sexual abuse. Rape is mentioned in the Torah, and, as with other prohibited sexual behaviors, the precise criteria to define an act as rape can be found. The degree of damage, the trauma associated with an adult interacting sexually with a child, was not understood, however, and therefore it was not discussed. Abuse of religious authority is prohibited, but using that authority to take advantage of trusting women was inconceivable.
The absence of sources acknowledging the seriousness of the different types of sexual abuse has led to the inadequate rabbinic response to the epidemic of accounts of abuse within the Orthodox community. Even with the growing awareness of the prevalence of abuse in society and the severity of the damage caused to victims, the Orthodox world has been in denial, refusing to accept that Jews who appear to be observant could be guilty of such behavior.
The Definition of Mesirah
Defense mechanisms clothed in religious terms have been employed to keep the problem “under the rug.” Reporting abusers to the authorities has been classified as mesirah (handing over), a term traditionally used for traitors who informed against fellow Jews to non-Jewish governments. Even though authorities such as the Arukh Hashulhan and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik have ruled that there is no issue of mesirah in a democratic, non–anti-Semitic country, the argument against going to the secular law enforcement agencies is still often made. However, the issue is moot once one realizes that the abuser poses an ongoing danger and that no internal mechanisms exist to stop his actions. Regrettably, I can testify to the inability of batei din, religious courts, to deal with accusations of abuse. My experiences following batei din for more than a quarter of a century have reinforced my conviction that the use of batei din is a method that does not effectively prevent and deal with cases of sexual abuse.
Because the scandal from allegations of abuse by religious figures—rabbis, teachers, and heads of yeshivot—is embarrassing, those who speak out about abuse, particularly to the media, are accused of creating a desecration of God’s name. The argument is that if the public had been unaware of the abuse, there would have been no desecration of God’s name. To accept this logic would be to be complicit in the continuation of the abuse. In today’s world of social media, the notion that sexual abuse can be successfully covered up is not only not viable, but the coverup itself exacerbates the desecration.
The prohibition of saying lashon hara, slander, is generally applied here, ignoring the second half of the verse, lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, not acting to prevent hurt to others. Allowing the abuse to be covered up only leads to the child being further abused or more children being abused. However, describing the victims and their siblings as “damaged goods” clearly should come under this prohibition of slander. The misunderstood statistic that many abusers have been abused as children is transformed into “Don’t marry a victim because he or she is likely to become an abuser.”
Furthermore, a suspicion of psychology and psychiatry prevents victims from getting proper therapy that would enable them to live healthy lives.
The Notion of Teshuvah
An important religious concept often introduced into the discussion is teshuvah, repentance. It is assumed that the abuser—if he is a religious person, and certainly if he is a rabbi—must have repented. Abuse is not only a sin against God, but also a crime against another person. The occasions when abusers have actually approached their victims and sincerely asked them for forgiveness are extremely rare. The majority of abusers, if they acknowledge their abuse at all, blame the victims.
I once met with a group of clergymen from other faiths who were trying to deal with clergy abuse. They used different religious categories, but the phenomenon of excusing the abusers and blaming the victims was the same. Clearly, sexual abuse is a serious problem in all societies. The percentage of young women and men who have been abused does not vary significantly in different ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic groupings. It is not exclusively an Orthodox Jewish issue—but, as in other societies, ours has its particular defense mechanisms that hinder confronting the problem: If headlines about abuse by a charismatic rabbi in Israel or a leader of a boys’ choir mention the Orthodox background of the abuser, they produce the defensive reaction that opponents of Orthodox Jewry are attacking us.
There are real halakhic issues to be explored here. Is a victim of abuse entitled to damages for the pain, medical bills, embarrassment, and employment losses caused by the abuse? When a rabbi, claiming mystical powers, seduces a married woman while asserting that these acts are appropriate, is she considered to have been coerced? What are the halakhic responsibilities of those who knew and didn’t report, and even covered up, the abuser’s behavior?
In many respects, the true desecration of God’s name is the misuse of halakhah to protect the perpetrators and not the victims. The many verses in the Torah and Prophets about God’s concern for widows and orphans extend to all types of vulnerable people in society. A religious community that ignores the cries of children in pain and questions their credibility is terribly lacking.
Rabbis have a moral responsibility to speak out forcefully, but this does not free the rest of the community from acting. It is difficult to believe that an individual we know and who seems perfectly normal can be an abuser, but the stereotype of the dangerous stranger applies to a small percentage of cases of abuse.
When we change the environment, progress will be made in reducing instances of abuse and enabling victims to become survivors.
Rabbi Yosef Blau has served as mashgiah ruhani, senior spiritual advisor, at Yeshiva University since 1977. He has been an active advocate for victims of abuse for more than a quarter of a century.