I write this article in the wake of the silencing of discourse over sexual abuse and assault so prevalent in Charedi society. To some degree, this discourse is now seeing the light of day in Tzarich Iyun, which recently published several articles on the subject. The conversation itself is a great blessing, and for this itself we should credit the platform. At the same time, I found some articles worthier than others; more on this below.
I do not and cannot write this article as a distant, uninvolved, academic analysis. I write it against a backdrop of years of abuse that I, myself, suffered, which were followed by years of therapy. Alongside the healing efforts, I tried long and hard to understand the essence of the injury I suffered and how to effectively treat it. Beyond personal experience, I have also helped others for many years, applying tools I acquired during six years of study under Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, as part of a series of classes he gave on dealing with emotional trauma and related issues. During that period I became very close to the mashgiach, and he even referred several cases to me, while accompanying the therapeutic process. My writing is thus based on deep, rich experience in the field.
The words below touch on the core experience of sexual abuse. Reading them can lead to feelings of pain and discomfort for victims, and perhaps even to open those wounds better left closed
Before I begin, I want to issue a warning: The words below touch on the core experience of sexual abuse. Reading them can lead to feelings of pain and discomfort for victims, and perhaps even to open those wounds better left closed. I recommended that those who are personally sensitive seriously consider whether or not to continue reading. Those who choose to do so nonetheless should read within the framework of supportive therapy.
I should also stress that my words are based on my own experience and the years I have spent in therapeutic work. It may well be that others experienced a different process or interpreted their emotions differently. It is impossible to be precise in this matter—human emotions are not an exact science—and I do not mean to define feelings or the interpretation thereof on behalf of others or minimize the legitimacy of their emotions and understanding. In the words below I wish to share my subjective angle on the nature of abuse and its consequences. I do not mean to make an objective and universal truth claim, nor to take a position concerning the experiences of others, and nor to state a strong opinion on different approaches to therapy.
At the same time, I deeply hope the words below will be beneficial to others. I have invested my soul in them. No less.
Living in a Movie
The emotions of those who experience sexual abuse or assault—those I will discuss presently—are not the lofty, elevated, even ethereal emotions that we might experience in prayer, in listening to spiritually uplifting music, or in the indignation we feel when encountering a gross injustice. Rather, I mean a set of visceral emotions that are close to actual bodily sensations, like feeling hot or cold, hunger, or physical weakness.
A person’s love for his children or excitement over their sweetness are examples of the “higher emotions” I noted above. At the other end is the same father’s fear that something terrible might have happened to his child. This concern touches an emotional level visceral and somatic and can include difficulty in breathing, a heavy weight on the heart, stomach convulsions, dizziness, and physical weakness. My discussion is firmly in the realm of the latter layer of painful and usually vague emotions, sometimes even unconscious ones. Sexual abuse hits this layer of our inner being with terrible force.
Someone, especially a child or a teenager—traumatic events of childhood are especially significant in shaping the child’s personality and forming his behavioral patterns—who gets beaten up knows how to emotionally separate the blow from himself, the victim. The victim feels that his body, which remains firmly in his own possession, suffered pain on account of the attacker, who remains entirely distinct from him. A punch in the face does not cause any bonding between assailant and victim.
Though it revolts and disgusts, though the pain is excruciating and the agony tormenting, the connection very much exists. It pulls the victim with irresistible force into a swamp filled with filth, ugliness, and pollution, where assailant and victim wallow. Together.
By contrast, the separation between bodies is blurred when it comes to sexual abuse. We all desire human connection—simple, physical connections that are also replete with deep emotional elements. In a normal world, we delight in such relationships; they are the pleasure and the satisfaction for which we live. Yet, such connections exist even when not all is well, even when pleasure and satisfaction are replaced by revulsion and a profound desire that connection had never been forged. Such is the case for sexual abuse victims. Though it revolts and disgusts, though the pain is excruciating and the agony tormenting, the connection very much exists. It pulls the victim with irresistible force into a swamp filled with filth, ugliness, and pollution, where assailant and victim wallow. Together.
The Talmudic Sages articulated this idea by stating that “a woman only forms a covenant with the person who made her into a vessel” (Sanhedrin 22b). The man who made the woman into “a vessel” could be a wicked individual, cruel and abusive; to cite the Sages again, he might be “a lowlife who ravages like a lion”—but this is beside the point. The very physical act works on the soul to bind the vessel to he who fashioned it. Sexual abuse dominates the soul of the victim, as though forcing him or her into a coerced covenant. A covenant cuts the living flesh, which is followed by an act of bonding. The two become one flesh.
When fashioned in coercion or exploitation, this bonding tears away a victim’s experience of his or her own body. It feels as though it has been wrenched away. The body is defiled, despoiled, contaminated; it remains deep in the polluted swamp, tied to the infinite evil of the assailant, infected by his malice, sullied beyond all remedy. The victim can no longer exist within his own physical shell, and in extreme cases might reach breaking point and attempt to take his own life, to damage and destroy his own body. The most horrific cases of sexual abuse tragically bear this out.
Victims can often save themselves by calling on their intellect and “higher emotions,” which are less vulnerable to the effects mentioned above. When honed and developed, these can literally keep the victim alive, and even allow him or her to function, build a family, engage in productive work, and even laugh and experience some of life’s pleasures. Still, in many cases, the heart cannot be there. The intellect might keep a person alive, but life takes place behind a glass wall, like in a movie. It lacks the simple touch and sense of those experiences we call life. A victim might be able to hug his cherished child, to ensure he is loved and flooded with joy—yet to feel as though he is watching from afar. He is aware of the experience, but he does not sense it.
Study That Leads to Deed
Rav Chaim Vital explains in his Shaarei Kedushah that virtues—middos—are a human rather than religious matter; they precede the Torah, which is why the Torah hardly relates to them. The basic vitality of human life begins from the our base, natural, physical instincts. It is this life that the Torah seeks to develop and elevate, rendering it a life of spirit devoted to worship of God. Yet, this can only be a second floor, built on the foundation of the first; if the physical forces are dead, everything built on them will also die.
Men and women have a natural, simple love of life, which to some degree is shared even with animals—they, too, run around, play, and wag their tails. We all have natural and simple longings. Even the simplest human being wants to marry, love, and bring children into the world. It is the nature of each one of us to desire the taste of food, the warmth of the sun, the coolness of fresh air, the elegant motion of the body, swimming in the sea, being in nature—everything we call “life.”
From natural and simple longings, the Torah seeks to refine our desires and render them longings for the Creator of the World, elevating our simple happiness (such as the joy of the harvest) to joy in the worship of God (on the festival of Shavuos). This growth and development need to take place at the level of our simple humanity
From natural and simple longings, the Torah seeks to refine our desires and render them longings for the Creator of the World, elevating our simple happiness (such as the joy of the harvest) to joy in the worship of God (on the festival of Shavuos). This growth and development need to take place at the level of our simple humanity. The sapling—a natural, physical entity—must turn into a glorious tree. If the small sapling dies, any possibility of building an exalted spiritual layer inevitably dies with it.
If his eyes shine, his cheeks are rosy, his face radiates happiness, his body is healthy and strong, and he is generally joyful, then he has the capacity for learning—both the acquisition of wisdom and the procurement of virtue. Strangling the vitality of a child renders the very exercise of education futile
In this context, Rav Wolbe would repeat a saying of Rav Yerucham Leibowitz, the Mashgiach of Mir Yeshiva, in clarifying the words of the Sages that “the righteous own their hearts, and the wicked are owned by their hearts” (Bereishis Rabbah 34). The heart contains the full gamut of human forces that are gathered under the leadership of human intellect, yet they cannot be governed unless they exist fully in and of themselvse. In other words, the righteous also have a heart, but “the righteous own their heart” in that their natural forces are presided over by the intellect—a control that augments their vitality rather than repressing it.
This is much like the growth of a child, maturing under the watchful eye of his parents who provide him with education, boundaries, and wisdom. But beyond all of these essentials, parents must ensure that the development of a child’s inner strength, his “vital forces,” are not hindered. If his eyes shine, his cheeks are rosy, his face radiates happiness, his body is healthy and strong, and he is generally joyful, then he has the capacity for learning—both the acquisition of wisdom and the procurement of virtue. Strangling the vitality of a child renders the very exercise of education futile.
The Sages thus taught that “great is study for it leads to deeds.” The Talmud is the intellect, which is like a parent. Its purpose, however, is to brings about deeds, which inhere in the body, the child, the emotional center, the work of prayer. The Talmud knows how to elevate all human emotions, even the basest of them—but were it not for those emotions, it would remain “study” alone and lose sight of its basic purpose of yielding deeds.
A Lethal Blow to the Heart
Sexual abuse is a blow to the heart, to the child in me, to the body. It causes an experience of bodily detachment, rendering it—the body—virtually dead. Having been afflicted by an unbearable defilement, the victim cannot accept it as his own body, his own identity. He cannot be united with it. The victim ostensibly continues to live, but experiences death within. There is nothing more terrible.
Hence the well-documented phenomenon among sexual abuse victims of cutting—not cutting veins as an act of attempted suicide, but rather superficial cuts to the flesh. The common explanation that (self-aware) victims give is “I didn’t feel like I was alive; I didn’t feel a thing; I cut my flesh to feel something.” Any feeling is better than none at all. The pain creates an experience of being alive, which is infinitely preferable to an experience of death, of existential emptiness.
To emphasize again: A victim can hug his child, tell him how much he loves him, and seem full of deep emotion. Emotions he has, indeed, yet he does not feel them. He is detached from his own emotions, as though anesthetized. A father wishes desperately to experience his love for his child. The love is there, it drives him, stretches his muscles to embrace his child, and much besides; yet he feels nothing. This is unique to sexual abuse. Someone who was beaten up continues to feel a burning sense of pain and rage. Someone who was sexually abused often feels nothing at all. He feels that his internal organs have been somehow removed and only emptiness remains. Like a stuffed animal filled with cotton wool.
Some victims attempt to go on as usual, as though nothing happened; but later they stumble. The lack of feeling is incomprehensible. The victim lacks the tools to viscerally experience the enormity of the horror—but it is very much there. The act of assault itself is so repulsive, so monstrous, that the infected victim feels has no right to exist in this beautiful living world made by the Creator. Not only has this terrible foulness clung to him, but deeper still—something within him has clung to the foulness. He is repulsed by himself. He just wants to die.
When victims are asked what exactly happened to them or what they feel, a common answer is “my soul was murdered,” or “I was defiled, desecrated.” These words sound too general, too amorphous, but there are none better to describe what happened. The person asking the questions sometimes continues to wonder: “But you look alive, you remain pure, you did nothing wrong, and you bear no guilt.” This question, innocent and honest as it may be, is one of the reasons for the victim’s unspeakable distress. Outsiders cannot understand it. The victim is rendered dumb, incapable of expressing his own pain—not to others and not even to himself.
Rape victims are sometimes forced to undergo the additional trauma of testimony and interrogation at trial, which can become a repeat experience of the rape itself. The cool, emotionally detached deliberation, the excruciating hardship of telling the story, and the feeling that nobody understands what she suffered, can combine to raise the specter of self-doubt. Maybe nothing really happened to her, and she’s just making a big fuss? If she manages to remain steadfast in her self-belief, while others do not share it, she will feel an enormous sense of loneliness. Many cases of victim suicide occur in the wake of a trial or investigation; the hardship of articulating, demonstrating, or proving murder of the soul is just too much. The lack of trust, even when it derives from misunderstanding or from good intentions, is sometimes what pushes victims off the edge.
Experience teaches that among the most important and difficult parts of working with sexual abuse victims is convincing them that they are not guilty of what happened. It often doesn’t work. No matter how much the victim agrees on an intellectual level, she will not internalize the simple fact that she’s not guilty of anything. The connection is made against her will, and with it the sense of guilt. This internal horror does not allow a person rest or respite, causing incessant anxiety, deep depression, and a sense of self-loathing. Nights are sleepless at best, and at worst replete with tortuous nightmares. Life is lived on life support, while internally the only wish is to die. And this death touches everything, every experience. Even the greatest happiness, moments of laughter and embracing and dance. A person can dance at his own child’s wedding, even at his own wedding, but his heart is elsewhere. Something deep within urges him to run away, to jump out the window. It’s constant, without respite.
And nobody can see it.
Between Man and His Fellow
Several articles have been published on Tzarich Iyun, some recently, reflecting on the subject of sexual abuse in a variety contexts: the MeToo movement, feminism, or the place of authenticity and sexuality in culture and society. The last of these articles, penned by Rabbi Tzvi Winter, emphasized the differences between Charedi and general western society regarding sexuality. The author claims that in turn, these lead to differences in the intensity and depth of the injury of sexual abuse.
I emphatically reject this approach. It is wrong, damaging, and even abhorrent. The issue of sexual abuse and assault is unrelated to any of the above. As I have tried to describe, the pain of sexual abuse, which often knows no solace, is relevant to all in equal measure, regardless of background or social norms. We need to treat it based on the pain and suffering it entails, and according to the guiding principle of “What is hated by you, do not do to your fellow” (Shabbos 31a).
Charedi society, led by our great forefathers, has always espoused the supreme principle of duties “between man and his fellow.” Care to avoid public embarrassment, causing suffering, or harming another at any level was a core principle. Rather, love and respect for others were key—living with a heart open to all, listening, understanding, and showing compassion. This may sound simplistic, but that does not make it untrue. The outtake is very simple: those who know the power of sexual abuse, and have absorbed the great principle of “man and his fellow,” cannot tolerate sophistry on this issue.
In the past, I had the opportunity to treat a family whose son was sexually abused in his cheder. When the abuse was disclosed, the relevant rabbinic authority declared that nobody should know of the case. The teacher was duly transferred to another cheder, and that was that. I asked the parents the most obvious question in the world: “How could you be silent about what happened to your son? How could you agree to terms that allow such atrocities to happen to other children?” Yet, they preferred to hush up the affair so that the family name should not be tarnished and the siblings’ Shidduch prospects not damaged. As to my question of the fate of the boy himself, they responded simply: “He doesn’t understand, he’ll forget. Nothing happened to him.”
Understanding what happens to those who were sexually abused is, indeed, far from simple. But is the grievous internal injury caused to a four-year-old child by a pleasure-seeking adult not shocking enough? Can we just go about our day as though this were not a severe act of violence with the capacity to ruin lives? Does one need to be a psychological genius or radical feminist to be shocked? Would our forefathers not be shocked?
Alas, sometimes the question of a person’s social identity and his concern for his status—a central matter in Charedi society, as Rabbi Winter rightly points out—can make the warm and open Jewish heart close. The fear of social status, of “what will others say,” covers up the shock, the indignation, and the simple Jewish principle of “between man and his fellow.”
Walk Modestly—With Your God
A common argument concerning the handling of sexual abuse in the Charedi space is the value of modesty and the importance of the “sterile public square.” In my view, this issue involves complexities that we are not always aware of.
As explained above, victims have a difficult time understanding their own scars, and in many cases do their utmost to go on as usual and ignore what happened. This would be a useful strategy if it worked. The collapse, however, is usually just around the corner, and with it grave emotional distress. Even after understanding the magnitude of the injury, victims can barely transmit the matter to others, let alone complain and demand justice (which is often part of the healing process). Victims are insecure, unstable, and profoundly vulnerable.
This vulnerability is further intensified by the silence maintained by the Charedi public space in matters of abuse. This might be done for good reasons, primarily concern for maintaining Charedi modesty standards, yet it can cause tremendous harm by causing victims to feel a profound sense of loneliness. The victim senses that nobody sees her or understands her, while she cannot complain for fear of inevitable accusations of smearing, exaggerating, and lying. Exposure is unbearably hard, and the sense of lonesomeness is almost impossible to bear. It is imperative that victims become aware of other cases of sexual abuse, especially those that evoked a social response in support of the victim.
Beyond this, it seems to me that honor, rather than modesty, is at stake here. Ostensibly, it isn’t “proper conduct” to discuss sexual abuse in the public sphere—it isn’t “respectable and honorable.” But why is that? Why is it “dishonorable”? The social sterility that maintains artificial respectability and a superficial external etiquette, and the pegging of social status and human value to such matters, is the way of non-Jewish, European culture—primarily German or English Victorian culture of the beginning of the last century.
This is not the way of our forefathers. They were warm and stormy and emotional, crying when it hurt, hugging and expressing love with warmth and passion. At university, they spoke with respect and politeness, as befits Germanic intellectual culture and its various incarnations, while in Talmudic study hall insults and (occasionally) even shtenders were hurled at each other in the heat of defending the Torah. Rav Wolbe, I recall, would note with some pain that Torah scholars nowadays are not raised as Yeshiva students so much as doctors of Talmud.
The same is true for the matter at hand. We are obligated to “walk modestly with your God”—not modesty that shatters the natural ebbs and flow of life, but modesty “with your God”, a “living God” whose virtue is to care for the weak, father orphans, and judge widows. Yes, we need to maintain a clean and respectable language, and ensure that the public square is upright and modest. Yet, we must also ensure that this concern does not render our public space alienated and sterile. Albeit without malicious intent, such an environment can cause victims the most grievous harm.
Against the backdrop of sexual abuse, I call on us to return to being warm, simple Jews. Let us not hesitate to give each other a hand, to be deeply shocked at that which should be shocking, to be warm and embrace one other. We all have feelings, not just victims of sexual assault. We need to be sensitive to our feelings and to those of others, rather than being alienated towards feelings that are “unacceptable” and taboo. Bnei Torah do not live on some buttoned-up Olympus of pure intellect and spotless honor; in other words, they are not arrogant. They are warm people who know that we derive from dust and will return to dust, that we have failures and sins and stumbles. They feel angry and hurt and they also know to forgive and accept, to love and feel compassion.
I remember the famous clip in which Rav Steinman zt”l was asked about the acceptance of students to a cheder with an overly high level of screening. His simple response was to relate how he and the Brisker Rav learned in cheder with the “simple folk,” without the trappings of a holier-than-thou society that classifies who belongs to the elite, and who does not. He soon lost his cool and cried out time and again: “Arrogance! Arrogance! Arrogance!”
I still remember how Rav Shach zt”l would deliver sermons from the depth of his heart, to the point that his voice choked up with sadness and he broke into tears. He once spoke of how he was accused of seeking honor, talking with explicit emotion about how he feels that he already has one foot is already in the grave. When he cried, I cried with him. This is what made me into such a devoted student. I even remember Rav Chaim Shmuelewitz zt”l crying bitterly when reading the parashah of the sons of Aharon, who died in their efforts to draw close to Hashem. He became so emotional that he cried bitterly and unashamedly like a young child.
There are those among us who stand poker-faced at funerals; it “isn’t respectable” to burst into tears before others. This shame does not draw from the tradition of our fathers and beis midrash. Many wear sunglasses at funerals. But what is shameful about having a heart, about crying for those we have lost?
The issue of “between man and his fellow” is not a matter of theoretical study. The moment we recognize the depth of sexual abuse and understand the need to treat it honestly and truthfully, our society will be more sensitive and compassionate. More Jewish. It will then truly observe the commandment of the verse: “You shall walk modestly – with your God.”