Theft and incest, as the Sages write, are coveted objects. Some indulge in them, but many more are occupied in speaking, posting, thinking, writing, and contemplating them, especially when there are details to be shared and discussed.
Out of caution to avoid this common trap, I will not reflect on the specific affair that has captivated Charedi society over the past weeks, but rather on what is required of us in its wake. I will do this through the lens of three distinct perspectives: educational, therapeutic, and social. These, in fact, represent the three hats I wear daily in my work as an educational counselor, a private therapist, and a participant in numerous discussion groups in which I am an active member.
It is my hope that the words below can be part of a broader conversation to help us in dealing with issues of sexual assault that tragically plague our own communities. Of course, we are not alone in this struggle; yet, as individuals, families, and communities imbued by Torah and by a Torah lifestyle, it is our duty to do better and to even be an example to others.
Be Modest: An Educational Perspective
Sexual abuse and assault are phenomena that transcend sectors. The custodian of licentiousness – the Talmudic “apotropos le’arayos” – has long since submitted his wholesale resignation. Yet, each culture has a specific nature and character that make abuse more or less likely. In our case, some of the educational discourse our daughters absorb could contribute to the likelihood of their coming to tragic harm.
I would like to dwell on this educational discourse, which is replete with good intentions yet sometimes blind to the harsh reality that makes our daughters easy prey for the evil among us.
[E]ach culture has a specific nature and character that make abuse more or less likely. In our case, some of the educational discourse our daughters absorb could contribute to the likelihood of their coming to tragic harm
I refer to a discourse that combines two elements. First, it speaks the language of modesty in terms of sin and shame – shame in the body and in all things feminine. Second, it tends to place women beneath men in the social hierarchy, as creatures spiritually nourished and religiously dependent on their “better halves.”
If the messaging (in areas of tzenius) our girls receive revolves around seducing men, concomitant warnings of punishment, and the terror surrounding carnal desire; if mothers and educators treat sensual passion with silence and disregard at best or hostility at worst; and if school modesty regulations lay out the finest minutiae of form, color, and body lines as symbols of sin and ensnarement – then this cannot fail to have repercussions. Our girls grow up with a perception that they have something to be deeply ashamed of, that they must be wary of a connection with their own bodies. The range of body-mind feelings that arise towards the beginning of adolescence, and which ought to be part of a healthy development towards the maturity required to build a home, could be driven underground, painted in black colors of guilt, anxiety, and avoidance.
Adolescence is the age when urges and desires are awakened, accompanied by much confusion and doubt as to new experiences and feelings. This developmental stage is inevitably attended by shame and guilt. Indeed, there is a place for clothing to cover our shame. It is not right to entirely deny it, as is often the case for Western, secular culture. Natural shame directs our desire towards personal development, ensures a separation between the public and the private, and preserves the inner fountain of life that irrigates a lasting bond between man and woman. Yet, this shame must not be intensified beyond its proper dimensions; it must not turn it into a monster within that curtails spontaneity, youthful playfulness, life, and joy.
A girl who has internalized the false notion that her body is a locus of sin and her youthful vigor a danger zone will be unable to tear down the veil of silence that an assailant might drape over her. Moreover, attackers may use arguments of sin to uphold the mask of injury and the bond of silence. Sentences such as “You save me from sin,” or “You cause me to sin” are flammable liquids on a bonfire ignited by rebukes for violating school regulations and fiery speeches about prohibitions and punishments.
A girl who has internalized that her body is a locus of sin and her youthful vigor a danger zone will be unable to tear down the veil of silence that an assailant might drape over her
In many of the assault cases I was exposed to during my years of therapy work, victims tended to be overly modest, ashamed of their bodies to a far greater degree than their peers. It can be argued that this is a result of the injury rather than its cause – a plausible claim that is backed up by our knowledge of the mental aspects of sexual trauma. However, a discourse that predicates modesty education on (Christian) concepts of original sin, guilt, and Hell greatly increases the risk of our daughters falling prey to sinners who manipulate religious language to desecrate and trample their souls.
The educational discourse noted above is often joined by a pattern of thought that places women on a lower level than men. Many good people, scholarly and otherwise, have voiced their opinion on the roots of the hierarchial relationship between man and woman, as articulated by some of our own sources, and this is not the place to delve into the this idea or to explore other models that emerge from Jewish sources. Rather, I wish only to point out the damage caused by the cultivation of power relations between the sexes in the context of sexual assault.
“It cannot be that this book was written by a woman. Such talent is reserved only for men. I have no doubt that her husband is behind the script.” The esteemed female educator who told me these sentences is convinced that women always stand in the shadow of men. How does she position herself in the classroom? What is the message she conveys to her students about women’s potential and power (except, of course, for the power to remain silent in any situation and at any time)?
While this is only one example, it represents a common zeitgeist in the educational field, especially in Charedi girls’ schools. Man is always smarter, more knowledgeable, more righteous, more understanding. I do not mean to entirely negate this approach. In my opinion, it reflects a youthful charm that casts exemplary qualities on members of the opposite sex and facilitates a healthy reliance on a strong and stable spouse. Yet the glorification of men at the expense of women also facilitates the evil wiles of wrongdoers. An extreme education to surrender, silence, and passive bearing of unchecked burdens of figures of authority, serves as an opening through which the devil of the abuse readily steps in.
The following sentences were said to me by deeply wounded women trying to explain how they hit rock bottom:
- He showed me that the Rambam writes it is permitted. When I tried to argue, he reproached me: “Since when do girls understand the Rambam?”
- He said there are matters that only men can explain.
- He is truly a righteous man, he said he is the conduit for my blessing and abundance. My teacher also told us that a man is a gateway to a woman’s blessing.
These malicious words were sown in grooves plowed by statements diminishing women’s stature and rendering girls compliant, submissive, and eminently vulnerable. It is right that girls be educated to become “helpmates.” However, when taken to an extreme, the role can be tragically played out even as the mate – the ezer – turns against them.
Modesty education? Certainly! But together with motifs of innerness, of standing before Hashem; of truth, awareness, self-worth, and self-image; of respect for the Divine image, moderation, and restraint
These are delicate educational issues that touch the deepest infrastructure on which our system rests. It should not be dismantled. It is highly positive that we educate our daughters in good virtues (middos) and flexibility in relationships, in leaning on broad shoulders and accepting a yoke. But this must be accompanied by education for listening to one’s inner self, sharpening the commitment to act against injustices, developing tools for real discourse, and knowing how to achieve our basic needs and existential comforts as women.
Modesty education? Certainly! But together with motifs of innerness, of standing before Hashem; of truth, awareness, self-worth, and self-image; of respect for the Divine image, moderation, and restraint. It is highly advisable to minimize the employment of the words hailing from a world of negativity: sin, iniquity, ensnarement (of men), body, lewdness, eternal damnation. Education to honor rabbis and sages, one’s husband and his Torah? Definitely! But in no way at the expense of basic self-esteem, erasure of the self, or silencing of physical, mental, and spiritual needs.
It sometimes seems that masculine figures, smart and important as they may be, fail to comprehend what magical influence they have on young girls, confused by age, excitement, and aura
As an aside, I will comment on a closely related phenomenon that can also prepare the ground for exploitation: lectures by rabbis and male educators about women and their ways. It is simply inappropriate for rabbis to sit in front of young girls and instruct them in the laws of makeup and curling hair. Likewise, it is unwise and injudicious for men to become a “wall of tears” for confused girls in search of a father figure.
It sometimes seems that masculine figures, smart and important as they may be, fail to comprehend what magical influence they have on young girls, confused by age, excitement, and aura. I was twice in the room of a famous halachic figure who received phone calls from women asking about modesty issues. He abruptly passed the conversation, once to his wife and once to me, telling the questioner: “You should find a woman to talk to about this matter. I am a man and therefore unsuitable for things of this kind.” Sage advice, indeed.
Be a Chooser: A Therapeutic Perspective
Today’s “abuse discourse,” under the direct influence of the MeToo campaign, calls on women everywhere to expose the evil deeds of abusers. Exposure, the theory goes, will wash away the stains of humiliation and deter potential predators from abuse and assault. Yet, adopting a victimhood approach – the battle is won, ultimately, by the victims – can be damaging. It tends to smallen and weaken, and the long-term implications can be harsh.
In my therapy work with victims, I find that an over-internalization of injury and hurt engenders an experience of weakness and inferiority and encourages aggression and mistrust. Even if these feelings produce temporary relief, they ultimately weaken the mental immune system and distance the capacity for true rehabilitation.
Allow me to illustrate. Two days after the recent affair exploded, a woman who had long ago completed a course of treatment stumbled into my clinic. She suffered a one-time childhood assault by a relative and was able to self-heal quite effectively. Yet, from time to time she wondered: Perhaps there is some hidden layer that she does not know of or symptoms that remain concealed? Has she truly recovered? When I tried to examine, in one of these moments of weakness, the source of her self-doubt, she hesitantly told me: “Everyone around me writes about, shares details of, and seeks comfort while on an endless and twisted journey of abuse survival. I had a hard time, too. But overall I’m okay, aren’t I?” We laughed then at how great the power of the media is and how much it can raise self-doubts. But now she’s back again, crying and filled with agony.
After about a quarter of an hour of a selection of quotes from articles, talkbacks, statuses and WhatsApps, I gently asked her how long it would take her to cry over the injustices of the world before she could share some thoughts that are not of the same ilk. She semi-smiled and said, “Three more tissues.”
“The world is cruel, men are exploitative, caregivers are corrupt, there is no one to trust. What will happen next and where are we going?” After about a quarter of an hour of a selection of quotes from articles, talkbacks, statuses, and WhatsApps, I gently asked her how long it would take her to cry over the injustices of the world before she could share some thoughts that are not of the same ilk. From within a half-smile, she murmured “Three more tissues.” I gave her three and another two as a bonus, and then we dived into the question of how she wanted to develop. At the end of the session, she muttered, “The world has gone crazy. I’m pretty fine all in all, but all this talk has made me think I’m not.”
A couple of days later I received a message from a patient who was also lost in the never-ending discourse about the wickedness of villains and the misery of victims. Staccato style and without too much empathy, I asked her what she thinks, how does she see her own experiences. Can she write anything about it, or is it only the actions of the wicked that direct her steps? She was offended at first. The next day she wrote to me: “You pulled me out of the swamp of self-pity and deprivation and allowed me to define my own course for trying to move ahead.”
It seems to me that the abuse discourse that seeks to purge victims of all shame and guilt is also laden with elements of servility and victimhood. These give tremendous power to the perpetrators while weakening the victims and rendering them helpless to deal with their own injuries. At the beginning of the journey victims certainly require much empathy and patience. However, down the road, and especially for at more advanced stages of treatment, it is important to transcend the victimhood discourse and hold a more developed and mature conversation.
I do not seek to diminish even a hair’s breadth from the terrible force of abuse and its injuries, yet driving this as a constant discourse, morning and evening, in every possible forum, has a weakening effect. It causes victims to see every man as exploitative and cunning and to espouse thought patterns of being exploited, of being unempowered, injured by the world, and incapable of making any kind of significant choice. Therapeutic discourse needs to supply balance, to separate guilt and shame from the ability to take responsibility for life.
When a patient raises feelings of guilt in my room, I do not hurry to silence that voice and cast the blame solely on the offender. I ask: “Where do you think you went wrong?” The answers are surprising: “I thought someone would solve my problems.” “I was addicted to attention.” “I wanted to please and placate.” “If I’m not guilty of anything,” a patient once told me, “then I truly have no power and no choice. Everything is in his hands. But if I, too, have some responsibility in the story, then I have the capacity to change my own life.”
Deep down, a discourse that separates guilt from responsibility actually empowers. It gives a woman a sense that she has the ability to choose, that her own fingers can play a new tune on the keyboard, that not everything depends on the whims of bad men.
Deep down, a discourse that separates guilt from responsibility actually empowers. It gives a woman a sense that she has the ability to choose, that her own fingers can play a new tune on the keyboard, that not everything depends on the whims of bad men. It is important to emphasize, however, that this is relevant for advanced stages of treatment. It is also important to separate the manner of dialogue with women who were abused in their early childhood from those who were suffered assault at an older age.
I know these words may upset those who have a one-dimensional agenda engraved on their banner, whose theme is the denouncement of offenders under each and every tree and rock. Yet, I believe our discourse of protection, respect, and modesty should not begin and end with the contemporary agenda of liberal society. It must draw from the eternal thought of our Torah, and this includes a strong element of choice and personal responsibility. The “safety discourse” that takes inspiration solely from Western culture surrenders the soul and gives up our fundamental aspiration for a society with spiritual ideals beyond individual rights.
If we want to help victims live a healthy life after the injury imposed on them, then we must grant them responsibility. The responsibility dimension increases the victim’s freedom and allows her to restore the sense of ownership of her mind and body.
Be Humble: A Social Perspective
Many good people get their hands dirty in seeking to eradicate the bad grapes from the Jewish vine. On the rabbinical, legal, explanatory, educational, therapeutic, and journalistic levels, we all do our work for Heaven’s sake. However, we are at the end of the day flesh-and-blood creatures, and an ulterior motive, small and innocent like a mustard seed, will often creep in. I want to dwell on this motive – not in order to eradicate it, for in its absence humanity will perish, but to become aware of it and to act beyond it.
A social activist engaged in a wealth of important matters recently wrote that the latest affair marks a watershed in “the victory of the new Charedi elites over the old ones.” There is much to unpack here. The words raise issues of Charedi power struggles, the dominant hegemony, the influence of the web, and the contribution of feminism to the war on abuse. From all that can be said, I wish to question the worthiness of the framing: Is this really a case of the triumph of children of light over children of darkness?
Anybody seeking to drive forward processes of change and development should understand that explosive statements, provocative challenges, and binary categorizations of bad and old versus of good and new, and ineffective means for pursuing correction and progress.
A force of youth and vitality, combined with technological means of communication and an astute knowledge predicated on education, can indeed promote healthy processes in our society. Yet, this must come together with a deep sense of continuity and genuine respect (not merely lip service) of core values of Jewish modesty, humility, and restraint
A force of youth and vitality, combined with technological means of communication and an astute knowledge predicated on education, can indeed promote healthy processes in our society. Yet, this must come together with a deep sense of continuity and genuine respect (not merely lip service) for core values of Jewish modesty, humility, and restraint.
Indeed, it is a great mitzvah is to ensure the dignity of the camp and the safety of our children, but it is essential that this be done out of a commitment to the word of God and its teachings, and not, Heaven forbid, as a means toward becoming social-media celebrities. This is true both on the essential value level and on the tactical level.
Many projects and initiatives serve as safety nets and engines of growth in our communities. Good people, whether in the middle of the Charedi road or on its fringes, are working to make our society better and more God-seeking. They do this not because they wish to bask in the floodlights, but because they care about Hashem and their brethren.
As we come to repair little by little the crack that has opened among us, let us adopt the internal motion of humility, moderation, and consciousness that transcends the here and now, touching eternity.
Photo by Silvan Arnet on Unsplash