The last few weeks have been among the toughest I can recall for our community. Intense confusion, pain, sadness, mourning, and the ongoing fight for justice have shaken our deepest foundations. Now that things have calmed down somewhat, I wish to share an attempt at responding to a question that has plagued me over many years of experience as a therapist for sexual assault victims within Charedi society. I do not have a concrete and clear-cut answer to the question, but there is no time like the present to try.
The question is this: How can a community charged with achieving the highest levels both in matters of bein adam le-chavero (person-to-person relationships) and in matters of holiness witness such heinous crimes, for such long periods of time, and on so great a scale? Cynics will reply that sexual assault has always and everywhere been with us. I do not disagree. But theft, murder, and adultery have also plagued human society for all time, and these crimes are so rare in our community that there’s no police station in the city of Bnei Brak, and rare is the need for police presence. So why is sexual assault different?
How can a community charged with achieving the highest levels both in matters of bein adam le-chavero (person-to-person relationships) and in matters of holiness witness such heinous crimes, for such long periods of time, and on so great a scale?
In other words, even if the human heart is evil from youth, as the Torah informs us, a society’s culture can help determine how common or rare certain crimes will be. If crime is rampant within a given community, it needs to ask which structural and cultural conditions allow such behavior to flourish. Based on my professional experience, I know that the state of sexual assault in our society is not good; according to many professionals, our community does poorly even relative to other groups.
Given our high standards of moral behavior and personal holiness, how can we make sense of this? How can we be aware of the problem and just go about our daily business? When we are struck by tragedy, Heaven forbid, we engage in public soul-searching and seek to improve our ways. Why is sexual abuse different? Why are we not donning sackcloth and ashes and declaring public gatherings of chizuk and awakening?
Eradicating Evil or Containing Evil?
Every human society cultivates the values and behavior it considers desirable by means of two tools: education and enforcement. At its best, education inculcates the virtues of character that make enforcement unnecessary. Jewish education teaches fear of Heaven and respect for fellow human beings, seeking to embed the observance of Torah and mitzvos deep within the student’s soul.
When the educational frameworks of society, formal and informal, domestic and institutional, function properly, most people’s behavior will not require external correction. And moreover, when education is deficient, no law or law enforcement will help much, as Avraham told Avimelech: “But there is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me over my wife.” If people have no internal fear of Heaven preventing them from violating laws of integrity and morality, it is hardly possible to feel safe in a given society, no matter how effective the police is at catching criminals after the event.
Yet, alongside a robust education system, every community needs authorities with the power to sanction those who unacceptably deviate from community norms and rules. Chareidi communities, following a long tradition, sanction wrongdoers by imposing NaCHaSH: Nidui, Cherem, and Shamta—meaning, different degrees of proscription and ex-communication from communal life and institutions.
Banning someone from an institution is, of course, different from physically restraining him (via imprisonment, for instance). Nonetheless, social means of enforcement are often effective, functioning as an extension of a community’s educational structure. For this rather harsh form of education to work, however, a community needs to be explicit about the centrality of the relevant norms. The reactions of community members to wrongdoing needs to be commensurate with the severity of the wrong committed. Only then will the relevant sanction serve its proper educational role.
When it comes to sexual assault, not only does our community not do anything to remove offenders, it even broadcasts (unintentionally) that we can abide such contemptible behavior
We are all familiar with this basic idea as parents. Children absorb a family’s values by means of parental response. If parents respond more severely to hitting a sibling than they do to sullying a carpet, then we’ll probably see more carpet stains, but fewer bruises. If the opposite is true, then the house will be tidier, but also bloodier. Similarly, children in Charedi homes almost never turn on lights on Shabbos, even when they are in a rebellious mood and really want to anger their parents. They might draw on the walls, pour juice on the floor, and do all sorts of things they know they’re not allowed to do—but they won’t flip the switch. Charedi children understand that turning on the light on Shabbos is a much more serious offense than throwing food on the floor.
Every community has a hierarchy of norms. Violations risk communal censure, but not every violation leads to exile. Someone who violates the basic articles of faith or sources of authority of a given community will risk ex-communication. By contrast, a person who merely acts crudely—by cutting in line, driving recklessly, or speaking inappropriately—will be condemned, but not cast out. Sometimes, the community seeks to fortify a weaker norm by expelling those who transgress it. The use of unfiltered technological devices is a good case in point. Every observant Jew will concede that owning a smartphone is not as heinous a crime as violating Shabbos, yet precisely because many violate the norm requiring kosher cellphones, the community is forced to impose tougher sanctions in order to get its message across.
This brings us to sexual assault. When it comes to sexual assault, not only does our community not do anything to remove offenders, it even broadcasts (unintentionally) that we can abide such contemptible behavior. The absurdity of our attitude towards sexual assault screams to high heaven. As a Chassidic woman, I am prevented from driving a car. I cannot get a driver’s license without risking expulsion from my community. If I violate this norm, my children may not be permitted to attend our community’s school. But if a person sexually assaults others within the community, he can be sure that the community will not only not refrain from driving him out, but will even do everything in its power to protect him from public condemnation.
Some time ago, I came across a case of a melamed—a run-of-the-mill schoolteacher for boys—who assaulted dozens of children for many years at a Talmud Torah institution. When the situation became untenable and scandal threatened to erupt, the community took care to move him and his family to a Jewish community abroad, all with funding from the neighborhood charity! Is that not outrageous?!
I don’t know if the members of the new community abroad knew they were being sent a predator, but I do know that they didn’t hear about it from the predator’s previous community. To this day, parents of those young victims are being asked not to share information about what happened and even to refrain from seeking treatment for their youngsters. The primary concern of the heads of the community was protecting the attacker—and the pristine image of the community—rather than the victims.
Many acquaintances of the perpetrator in question have, of course, heard about the affair. Perhaps among them were potential predators. Doubtless, they got the message: sexual assault is forbidden, to be sure, but in terms of the community’s norms it’s more embarrassing than it is damnable. The community will contain, absorb, even protect the attacker. The main concern is that the story doesn’t get out. Instead of “and you shall drive out the evil from your midst,” we get a policy of “and you shall contain the evil within your midst.”
When Community Trumps Education
Our policy of containment allows predators to flourish, which raises the terrible question: How can this intolerable state of affairs continue? Unquestionably, our education system strongly condemns sexual assault. A sexual offender tramples all that is dear and holy to Jewish living and to Jewish learning. His act is a sin against God and a terrible act against his fellow. Ostensibly, sexual assault should be condemned within our community more than almost anything else. It is an unforgivable act for which there should be zero tolerance. So how can it be that we contain this evil? What explains the distorted mechanism described above?
The trouble, it seems, is that our institutions and culture, which are supposed to be tools for promoting communal flourishing in an atmosphere of holiness, have become ends in themselves. They are more concerned with their own survival and authority than they are with promoting the worthy goals they are tasked to pursue: maintaining the tradition, transmitting Torah from generation to generation, and ensuring our moral education and the safety of the vulnerable.
To take an analogous case, the mitzvos that a teacher instructs his students to perform ought to be more central than the value of “being a good student.” As a means of encouraging upright behavior, the teacher might show his appreciation by means of compliments, prizes, candies, and so on, earning the child social respect. Yet, social standing must remain a tool for communicating values, and not an end in itself; if it becomes the central value, the educator has clearly failed in his mission. In a similar sense, when all our energies are invested in an anxiety-driven need to belong to the community, education leads to the perverse result of hiding crimes rather than condemning them. Instead of our absorbing the fundamental values underlying the community, we internalize one basic principle: the crime must not be exposed.
[W]hen the fear of being expelled from a social circle becomes the primary motive for actions rather than a tool for indicating the severity of wrongdoing, we end up with a society more concerned with its image than it is with its actual health
In other words, when the fear of being expelled from a social circle becomes the primary motive for actions rather than a tool for indicating the severity of wrongdoing, we end up with a society more concerned with its image than it is with its actual health. The direct consequence is that information that would be scandalous were it made public is kept hidden, and secrets upon secrets are stashed away in the dark shadows of our image anxiety.
I see the result, writ-small, in my professional work. People with whom I meet at my clinic prefer to live in agony as well as moral decay rather than tarnish the pristine family image. Women are willing to suffer their husband’s assault against themselves and their daughters so long as their good name is not sullied. Communities deport predators to other locales instead of holding them to account. School principals prefer to hide skeletons deep inside the closet instead of tending to their most elemental house cleaning.
At the end of the day, the message our children receive, God forbid, is that you can commit sins—sins of a certain type—so long as you’re not caught.
Our need to preserve appearances and maintain a perfect image makes it eminently hard to recognize and correct the darker sides of self and community, which ought to be the primary goal of any life-seeking community—especially our own. When our basic hierarchy of values is distorted, we end up with a social situation that enables and even empowers the evils that plague us. The worse a predator is, the more urgent it is for the sake of our community’s self-image to keep his crimes secret.
The latest scandal hit our community square in the gut. It has taught us, in the most shocking way, that our society does not do enough to condemn and sanction its criminals, choosing instead to suppresses information about them
The latest scandal hit our community square in the gut. It has taught us, in the most shocking way, that our society does not do enough to condemn and sanction its criminals, choosing instead to suppresses information about them. And so the crimes continue, hurting us where we’re most sensitive and vulnerable. Our community needs a change in mindset. We need to stop containing evil and start working to extirpate it.
I hope and pray that Rabbis and communal leaders, alongside a range of passionate activists who deeply understand the issues at stake, will initiate a campaign to drive this evil from our midst. Of course, they will have to use the tools available to them to deal effectively with potential predators, which involves both therapy and cooperation with the authorities, rather than outing them publicly without compassion and justice. But the rallying cry itself, if articulated loud and clear, is of great value. It will move the public to understand that what matters most is our community’s internal wellbeing and flourishing—our cleanliness of hands and purity of hearts. How we look is a secondary concern.
I hope our community will succeed in cultivating a spiritually and physically safe environment, in which we can be proud to raise our children and, hopefully, welcome the Mashiach.