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'If You Beat Him He Will Not Die' (1): Judaism and Child Abuse

A personal and theological meditation on child abuse 

Richard Silverstein 2003


As spiritual communities, it is enormously important that we provide grief work as part of the process of healing [from the effects of abuse].  At the same time, we have to take that lesson of choosing to make justice, of choosing to make meaning out of our experience, and say, 'There wasn't a reason I suffered, but I will make a purpose out of that suffering.  I will make sure that suffering doesn't happen to others.  I will make sure that suffering is known, so that justice can happen.'[2]


I was a victim of child abuse.  I should say I am a victim of child abuse, since my early abuse continues to afflict me to this day.  Strangely enough, while this trauma has had negative repercussions it has also had positive ones too.  On the one hand, it has inhibited my ability to form strong and lasting friendships, especially with women.  I suffered from crippling shyness as a child.  I have always mistrusted authority figures which in turn impaired my work performance.  But on the other hand, I have developed great empathy for the plight of the oppressed.  Because I was inhibited from developing relationships with peers, I resorted to the world of books.  While this was an isolating behavior, it enabled me to fall in love with the world of ideas and writing.  So there is good with the bad.  But I would have much preferred not to suffer; and so given up whatever I have gained positively from this experience.


Rabbi Drorah Setel writes on this subject: "The experience of suffering or injustice [felt by abuse victims] opens at least two possibilities.  One is that it makes us very aware of injustice.  As a people, Jews have a history arising out of our own oppression and we have the capacity to respond to that history by being outraged and angry and sensitive to injustice done to ourselves and others.  But the flip side of our history of oppression, a side we don't like to talk about is that the experience of suffering also teaches us how to inflict suffering.  The experience of injustice teaches us how to be unjust."[3]


Many of us are angry towards ourselves for allowing the abuse (as if we could control it!) and at our abusers for perpetrating it.  Our friends, family and rabbis who do not know what abuse is, accept a societal norm that suspects and rejects such anger.  In dismissing the abuser and his or her anger, we do a great disservice to the victim and foreclose the ability to empathize with his/her suffering.  We also misunderstand the role of anger in relationship to justice.  Those of us who have been victims should never lose the anger at the injustice done to us.  I do not mean that we should constantly live with anger, or let it rule our lives.[4]  But rather, anger, like the proverbial Jewish guilt can be a powerful motivating force for good in the world.  In a more humorous vein, Rabbi Leonard Beerman delivered a High Holiday sermon in which he memorably said: "Guilt is good and Jewish guilt is the best guilt of all!"


Abuse victims often look for a purpose in their suffering.  Why did it happen?  What can I do about it now to make something more positive out of the experience?  In a sense, this is why I am writing this article--so that a rabbi or a victim reading this might find some guidance or comfort in these words; so that another does not have to suffer as I did.  But really what can be the purpose of such suffering?  We hope that God does not cause suffering in order to make a point or teach a purpose; for this would make God terrible.


Judaism always allows for the sinner to turn from his sin in tshuva (return).  But the sad fact is that most abusers don't even acknowledge what theyve done, let alone turn away from it.  So sufferers like me will never have the opportunity to accept an abusers entreaty to forgive.  For many years, I believed that my mother would change; that she would see how loving and caring I was and that this would make her turn; that she would realize how wrong she'd been and say how sorry she was.  Alas, this put me into a hopeless situation of always expecting an imminent return, but never seeing it.  This has led to many bitter, disappointed tears.


My siblings and I feared we would be cursed with the mark of abuser as were our parents.  We knew that abuse was a learned behavior whose lessons are passed on from parent to child.  But I've learned subsequently that children who become abusers usually see their father abuse their mother or themselves and this is how the poison is passed on from one generation to the next.  In our family's case, the primary abuser was my mother.  My father (who sometimes abused us, but not as often as my mother) never abused my mother.  And while our abuse was severe, it was not sexual and it was not life-threatening.  This possibly explains why none of my siblings have carried the curse into this generation.


There are many forms and gradations of child abuse.  For the purposes of this article, I will focus mainly on psychological and emotional abuse because that is what I suffered.  To understand the psychology of the child abuser, Rabbi Elliot Dorff provides a good clinical prescription: "Hitting the child is not responsive to the child's behavior or needs, but rather acting out the parent's frustration.  This occurs especially when the parent either does not understand the needs of the developing child or has expectations of behavior that do not match the childs capabilities.  Parents abuse children when they do not know alternative, effective methods of discipline."[5]  I couldn't describe my own abusive parents better than this.


Why Victims Do Not Recognize Their Victimhood?

Most of my life I did not consider myself abused.  For the life of me, I can't figure out why.  I've had thirty years of therapy on and off, in which my parental relationships were a major topic of conversation.  I discussed all the symptoms of my own child abuse with therapists; but it was, for all intents and purposes, the horror "that dare not speak its name."  Only in the last ten years have I begun to discuss with my siblings their own abuse (which in some cases was worse than my own).  Hearing how my parents repeated these patterns of abuse on each of us enabled me to cross over the threshold and call myself an abuse victim.


This article is a personal and communal meditation on child abuse: how its affected me and how our Jewish communal leaders and institutions respond to the problem.


Did the Jewish Community Fail Me?

I was raised in an east coast Conservative synagogue, then attended Camp Ramah and the Joint Program (Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University).  Because of my deep childhood involvement with the synagogue, I'd like to focus the communal portion of this article on synagogues, rabbis and rabbinical seminaries.  How does my rabbi's response 40 years ago to my predicament compare with how a rabbi today might respond?  Have things changed for the better?


My congregation rabbi is a mensch.  He was the founding rabbi of a small suburban congregation and has served there for over 45 years.  He truly cares for his congregants.  He nurtured many of us children who grew up in the shul, which in turn encouraged us to engage with our tradition.  Several of us have made aliyah, pursued Jewish Studies in college and graduate school, and become active members in congregations of our own as adults.  Certainly, this is a legacy to be proud of.


In my case, the rabbi encouraged my mother with much persuasion and cajolery to enroll me in Camp Ramah.  This was one of the most important liberating influences in my life.  This camp, through its sensitive and caring staff opened me to people I had never met.  It forced me to turn from books to human relationships.  It exposed Jewish tradition to me in a profound way I had never before experienced.


Despite all of these good things, more could have been done for me.  Any adult who knew me well in those days would have to know the deep level of conflict in my parental relationships.  If the rabbi had taken me aside and said: "You seem very sad sometimes.  What makes you feel sad?" then perhaps I would have been able to talk about my abuse.  But he didn't.  Perhaps the rabbi, sensing a problem, but realizing that he could not or would not become directly involved, realized that Camp Ramah could be a liberating influence.  If so, he was right.


My parents would turn to our rabbi for advice whenever things became especially bad between us.  Invariably, he would come to me and say: "Your parents care a great deal for you.  Dont you think that youre being hard on them?  Shouldn't you try harder to see it from their point of view; to follow their advice and obey their rules?"  What he didn't realize was the emotional and psychological damage my parents were doing at home to me and my siblings.  The rabbi mistakenly thought that our domestic situation was normal.  That a good talking to would cure whatever ailed us.  And his understanding of my behavior was certainly informed by the Biblical commandment "Honor your father and mother."[6]  As such, in his view, the onus was on me to adapt to my parents stringent rules and behavioral demands.  How wrong he was.


He never, at least to me, suggested getting counseling.  I don't know whether he ever suggested it to my parents.  If not, he should have.  But what can we rightly expect that a rabbi should do in this or similar situations?  Dorff, in his article, describes the rabbis responsibilities when he actually sees physical evidence or hears a disclosure of child abuse.  But what if a rabbi merely witnesses behavior that might be abusive, but cannot conclusively be called abusive?  What if a rabbi sees a child who betrays emotional symptoms of abuse (depression, lethargy, ambivalent attitudes toward parents, troubled home life), but nothing more?  This is tricky ground and requires great moral perspicacity on the rabbis part.  But (and here some rabbis might disagree) the rabbi even in this ambiguous situation must not stand idly by.  "Even suspicions of abuse must be reported to the authorities for Jewish law maintains [that the law itself] must be violated when the threat to someones life is not certain."[7]  He must ask carefully phrased questions of the potential victim and potential abuser.  He must pursue the matter.  He must encourage them to seek help if indicated.  If they will not get help, then he must consider filing a report with civil authorities.


Within the last year, I wrote my rabbi describing some of the abuse my siblings and I suffered during childhood when our family was among his congregants.  I did not write to blame him or tell him he did anything wrong.  I merely wanted him to know that there were other hidden factors at work within my family which he wasn't aware of at the time.  I knew this rabbi was circumspect and extremely reticent to intrude into his congregants lives, especially without being asked.  So I suspected that my e mail might make him uncomfortable.  I was not entirely surprised that he chose not to respond to me.


This brings me to another rule that rabbis should live by: when a victim approaches you, even if it is years after the abuse and you don't really know how you can help or what you are being asked for by the victim; do not turn away.  Even if you only write a few consoling lines, this will at least allow the victim to feel that you care, that you acknowledge their pain.  If you are silent, you are, like Jonah, fleeing from the healing role that you can play in the victim's life.


Dorff talks of the spousal abuse victim as halachically obligated to come forward to help remove him or her from an abusive situation.  He adds that a child is not obligated, but should be encouraged to do so.  What this approach neglects is the profound fear and repression that an abused child feels.  If I could not say I was abused until relatively recently, can we expect children to be articulate enough, and to possess sufficient psychological presence of mind to understand their condition this acutely?  No--that is why it is incumbent on respected communal figures like rabbis to watch out, to the best of their ability, for childrens physical and spiritual welfare.


When a rabbi learns of a troubled family such as mine was, s/he is naturally inclined to think that there are two or more troubled parties and that this trouble may be worked out by talking to both parties to determine how they might live together better (this reminds me of Rodney King's plaintive "why can't we all just get along?").  In reality, victims of domestic violence must not be seen as co-participants or collaborators in their own abuse.  The problem lies wholly with the abuser, not the victim.  So, realize that the victim needs help and strong intervention, not a good talking to or counseling with the abuser.  My rabbi made the mistake of thinking my troubles might have been brought on by a bad attitude and that this attitude could be readjusted with some kindly exhortations to do better.  While he could not have known this at the time, this was not a helpful approach.


Dorff writes: "Rabbis must not simply send the person home with the instructions to do what he or she can to restore peace in the home; that only reinforces the sense that the Jewish community does not want to acknowledge family violence and will not protect its victims."[8]  A domestic abuse victim quoted in Embracing Justice takes the Jewish community to task for its inadequate response to her predicament: "We are unprepared to respond [appropriately].  Our response is an otherwise normal, reasonable desire not to take sides.  That perspective has created an unsupportive, judgmental climate that results in victim blaming."[9]


Finally, during college, while suffering my first serious bout of depression, I turned to either my college advisor or the rabbi (I can't remember which) for help.  He helped me find a therapist who began my first psychotherapy treatment.  Therapy has been a godsend in ameliorating my suffering; though no treatment can do away fully with the trauma and its impact.


Are The Rabbinical Schools Doing Enough?

How do the rabbinical seminaries and congregational rabbis deal with child abuse today?  Can they relate the problem to our Jewish tradition and find a Jewish way to respond?  Are students and rabbis trained in school and through continuing professional education about ways in which they might intervene in such family situations as they arise?  What resources can these rabbis provide to help families in such distress?


A depressing answer to this question is provided by Rabbi Abraham Twerski: "I can only guess how manycases [of domestic abuse] I failed to identify in twenty years of ministering to people with emotional or marital problems.  Neither in my rabbinic nor psychiatric training was there any teaching about domestic abuse. [emphasis mine-RS]  I must assume that if today's rabbis and psychiatrists are prepared the way I was, their knowledge of domestic violence is as meager as mine was."[10]


A senior academic officer of a west coast rabbinical seminary told me recently that the school has no formal curriculum devoted to child abuse.  Another west coast seminary devotes three hours to the subject in its pastoral counseling curriculum.  While this is a good start, it is not enough.  When the Board of Rabbis in a major Jewish community sponsored a program on the subject conducted by Jewish Family Service, only six rabbis attended (out of a total potential audience of scores of people).  Though we should commend those who attended, it is unconscionable that so few rabbis came.  If our seminaries do not teach our rabbis what to do, then how can we expect any rabbi to do the right thing when faced with this problem?  How can we expect any rabbi to realize the profound danger that this situation represents for the child?  We must do more and we must do it fast.  The problem only becomes bigger as time goes by.[11]


While I commend the Conservative movement for grappling with the issue of child abuse in Elliot Dorffs Family Violence (teshuva), it does not go far enough.  It says: "striking a child with a rod, belt or instrument of any kind is forbidden.  Jewish law prohibits a parent's use of corporal punishment to the point of abuse."  [emphasis mine]  This statement temporizes with the problem by allowing for situations in which striking a child might be justified.  A truly modern and progressive Jewish moral position should call for an outright ban on corporal punishment.  In fact, Dorff implies some discomfort with this position when he says: "The use of corporal punishment, even within permissible parameters, is questionable."  Later, he adds: "Jewishly, the best policy is not to use physical punishment at all."[12]  The contradiction between these two positions derives from the latter being Rabbi Dorff's own position; and the former being the position of the rabbinic committee which endorsed the teshuva.


What should we expect of rabbis?  Rabbi Twerski says: "Rabbis should not become therapists.  However, the rabbi should acquire the skill to identify domestic violence, whether physical or emotional, and be able to refer the parties to appropriate resources for help.  The rabbi should also be a strong support for those who are abused, an enlightened source of guidance for family members, and a courageous teacher and model of social justice in the Jewish community."[13]


Steps Rabbis Can Take to Address the Scourge of Abuse in Our Community[14]

1. Demand that your rabbinical association and seminary train you to:

  1. recognize potentially abusive situations
  2. take family histories which include instances of abuse
  3. provide counseling for abusers and victims
  4. know which professionals and agencies within the community may be called to help.

 2. Demand that your movements rabbinical seminary make Embracing Justice: A Resource Guide for Rabbi on Domestic Abuse required reading for every rabbinical student.


3. Together with the temple/synagogue board, write a comprehensive set of guidelines detailing what concrete actions will be taken when cases of abuse arise.  The policy should encompass all possible variations of abuse (parent/child, teacher/child, rabbi/child) and what steps will be taken to address them within the context of the temple/synagogue.  For example, should an alleged abuser be allowed to continue serving as board member, volunteer, staff member?  Should the abuser continue to receive honors like aliyot?[15]


4. Do not attempt to handle the situation alone.  Do not be afraid to call in other communal professionals who have more specialized training to deal with this problem.


5. Provide child abuse services within your synagogue and support communal efforts outside it to do the same.


6. Preach a sermon, lead a study group or sponsor a public forum on the subject in order to reach out to families in isolation and turmoil.  Mothers Day, Fathers Day and Rosh Hashanah (when the Akedah story is read) are apt times of year for such a service, forum, sermon or reading on this topic.  To paraphrase Hillel: if you don't do it, who will; if not now, when? 


7. Form a support group for adult survivors of childhood abuse, giving them an opportunity to vent and heal in a Jewish context.  Ask the help of Jewish Family Service to establish or staff such groups.  Invite a clinician who is an expert in this phenomenon to address your board or a service.  Make clear to your congregation that you personally endorse the message.


8. Include a domestic violence project within a Mitzvah Day program.


Child Abuse is Given Short Shrift Within Overall Categories of Abuse

Today's Jewish newspapers are filled with lurid stories about adulterous rabbis murdering their wives, youth leaders molesting their teenage charges, etc.  While such sexual abuse is especially heinous and deserves all the attention it is getting, I would caution that a fixation on sexual abuse diverts our attention from other forms of abuse that are even more prevalent and no less pernicious.


In fact, an abuse victim in Embracing Justice makes the case that psychological and emotional abuse can be more severe than physical battering: "The worst part of abuse is not the breaking of objects or the physical attacks on ones person.  It's the emotional abuse, the crazy-making stuff that destroys.  It's the abuse that doesn't leave any visible scars that perhaps cuts the deepest."[16]  This was certainly true for me.


When our community does deal with domestic abuse, this almost always means spousal abuse.  While there is no doubt that abuse of women is a scourge in our community as it is in the non-Jewish world, we must not make the mistake of subsuming child abuse under the rubric of spousal abuse.  There is much that these two conditions have in common, but there is much that is different.  For example, while studies estimate that 85% of spousal batterers are men, this is not necessarily true of child abuse.  In my case, though both parents abused us, my mother was the worse of the two.  The horrible truth is that Jewish mothers can and do abuse their children.


I was not sexually molested by my parents.  I was not physically neglected or deprived of food or shelter.  Yet, the screaming rages, the hours of sullen, depressive isolation behind closed doors, the hard spankings and harsh disciplineall left an indelible mark of Abel on me.[17]  The trauma is there forever, never to be exorcized.


As a rabbi, if you hear from a possible abuse victim, don't make the mistake of thinking that parents who engage in emotional tears against their children are letting off  steam that any parent might naturally feel toward a wayward child.  A child doesn't experience such an emotional tear as an adult might.  They have no context into which to place such behavior.  It appears deeply frightening and threatening.  As an adult, you must try to imagine yourself as a child experiencing this behavior.  If as a child it would've frightened you, then its definitely frightening that child too.  Take some action, even if it is merely gently questioning the child and/or parents about their behavior.  While suggesting to a parent that a child enter into therapy may be perceived as threatening (by the alleged abusive parent), what if your suggestion is the one that pushes that parent over the final obstacle and gets them to understand that their child needs help?  What is worse: angering a parent and possibly losing a congregation member or allowing potential abuse to continue unabated when you could've made the difference in stopping, or at least ameliorating it?


What the Jewish Sources Say

Rabbi Dorff says: "Surprisingly and unfortunately, when we probe the sources, we find that some permit forms of family violence, and some actually encourage it."[18]  Isn't this a chilling thought?


The title I chose for this article is meant ironically.  It is deliberately provocative because I want to challenge our community to do better in confronting child abuse than it has done.  Let's begin by grappling with problematic aspects of our tradition which Elliot Dorff refers to above.


But first, it is critical to understand that our tradition is not one pasuk, one idea, one statement or one halachic decision.  Judaism is not a fixed system.  It is a living breathing dialogue between us and our ancestors.  If rabbis past ideas on domestic abuse trouble us, then we must grapple with these views and adapt them when they fall short of what Jews need today.


There is no single cultural norm regarding domestic abuse within Jewish life.  Dorff says of ancient traditions: "Rabbis living in Muslim countries were the most permissive of wife-beating, those in France less so, and those in Germany not at all.  Wife beating among Jews in Muslim countries was frequent, especially among the lower social strata and particularly when economic times were hard.  The phenomenon of early marriage for girls contributed to this, for their older husbands assumed they were not only partners, but substitute parents.  In contrast, Ashkenazic Hasidim made any insult or shame caused to a person, including wife-beating, not only a crime, but a sin."[19]


Other Jewish experts on abuse hold a diametrically opposite view: "that the incidence of abuse among todays Jews cuts across all sections of the Jewish world, without significant differentiation in abuse rates by Jews who are affiliated or not, by denomination (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionists, etc.) or by socio-economic class or level of education."[20]


Dorff has collected many of the relevant Jewish texts on this subject in his chapter, In God's Image: Aspects of Judaism Relevant to Family Violence within Shalom Bayit: A Jewish Response to Child Abuse and Domestic Violence (1993), produced by the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.[21]  To a great extent, this section is a moral dialogue with his work.


The overarching Jewish principle informing any discussion of this issue must be the Genesis passage: God said: "Let us make man in Our image, as Our mirror."[22]  We are commanded to see the image of God in every human being and to treat every human being accordingly.  Behavior that falls below that standard violates this spirit and the tradition from which it emanates.  Judaism holds us to a very high moral standard in our treatment of our fellow human beings.


However, we must ask how Judaism sees abuse not only in theory (as in the Biblical passage), but in practice.  The practical dicta of many rabbinic sources do not live up to the author of Genesis on this subject.  Of course, few rabbis condoned domestic violence.  But by being less than zealous in condemning it; allowing for mitigating circumstances to cloud their view of its existence; in doing all of this they have allowed a pernicious myth to develop that says Jews do not engage in such anti-social behavior.


Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel (13th century) is reported to have said that "wife beating is not the custom of our people, only of the gentiles."[23]  What does such a statement tell us about the rabbi who made it?  First, while he personally was undoubtedly above moral reproach (and hence not able to imagine one of his charges engaging in such behavior), he nevertheless wore moral blinders.  Can we really believe that there was no domestic violence among Jews in the 13th century??  Rabbi Mordechai never saw the problem because he did not look for it; and even if he had, he would not have known what to look for to find it.  And if he could not find spousal abuse within his community, then he certainly would not have found child abuse.


We know that there is domestic violence in our community.  But attitudes like Rabbi Mordechai's still prevail and poison the well as far as allowing us to seriously confront this scourge among our fellow Jews.


Rabbi Simcha of Speyer (13th century) formulates the strongest condemnation of wife-beating, declaring it a more serious offense than assaulting any other person because the husband, in signing the ketubah, assumes the obligation to honor his wife above the normal obligation one human being has to respect another.[24]  His penalties for such a crime are more severe than the remedies for general assault, "[and include] excommunication, flogging, and cutting off his hand if [wife-beating] is his custom."  Other medieval rabbinic authorities (including as distinguished a scholar as the Rambam) permitted wife-beating when the woman taunted or degraded her husband.  Moses Isserles (16th century) says: "If she curses him or denigrates his father and mother and he scolds her calmly at first but it does not help, then it is obvious [!] that he is permitted to beat her and castigate her."[25]  But when the beating is rooted in the husband's aggression, it is not acceptable.  How are we to determine what behavior is rooted in aggression and what is not?  The victim believes the beating is rooted in aggression and the abuser believes it is rooted in the wife's bad behavior.  We must reject such rabbinic views of the problem and completely forbid violence of any kind against either spouse or child.


If these rabbinic figures permitted striking a wife, then al achat kama vkama they permitted striking a child, since "a child might be considered even more a man's property than his wife."[26]  This is a sad thought.


Why would our rabbis make any allowance for abuse?  Because our tradition conceptualizes marriage as the husband's purchase of his wife (al shlosha devarim ha-ishah niknayt "a woman is purchased [married] in three ways").  Though the Mishna and Talmud went very far to protect the rights of the woman, after all is said and done, the language of betrothal states that the man acquires his wife.  This is a terribly problematic concept in a modern context.


Dorff continues his argument in ways that are relevant to the issue of child abuse:  "If a wife is construed as a possession, all the more so were his childrena tenet shared by American law."[27]  Thus Rambam's rationale for spousal abuse is even more problematic when applied to children as we see in the verse from Proverbs quoted in the title: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod he will not die.  Beat him with a rod and you will save him from the grave."  Devarim even states that parents may bring a wayward and defiant son to the town elders to be stoned.


In all honesty, these sources come to the problematic conclusions they do because of the weight of the Biblical injunction to honor one's father and mother (this may be what caused my congregation rabbi to tend to see me as the wayward, rather than the victimized child).  This is such an important precept that it is inscribed in the Aseret Ha-Dibrot (Ten Commandments).  In this light, a child who appears to violate such a precept must be seen as a violator of Gods law and deserving of punishment.


While we cannot now make "honor your child as yourself" into the Eleventh Commandment, we can elevate it alongside the other ten and give it an equally prominent role.  While parents certainly deserve the respect of their children, children deserve a different kind of respect from their parents and both should be equally strong in their respective ways.  Anything less must not be tolerated in our tradition.


Onaat Devarim: Verbal Oppression

According to the Talmud, we are forbidden from verbally abusing or degrading others.  Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb formulated an apt traditional definition of this phenomenon as it might relate to children as well as spouses: "The prohibition [against verbally shaming others] is this: not to say to another person words which would pain him or her, or cause him or her pain in a way that s/he is not capable of responding to adequately.  This prohibition applies when there is a superordinate and a subordinate relationship, when one person is in some way more powerful than the other, and pains the victim in a way that he or she cannot protect him or herself.  There is no way for the person to respond adequately to stop the intrusion, to stop the offense."[28]


Dorff notes that verbal abuse of one's wife and children is never developed as an independent violation of the law.  Rather it is subsumed under the general prohibition of verbally shaming any person.  Unfortunately, there is no rabbinic consensus that verbal oppression is even more hurtful and traumatizing when it occurs within the private framework of family life, and therefore deserving of special halachic sanction.


Hillul haShem

Traditionally, this concept relates to a Jew who commits a heinous act of denial of the Jewish people or curses God.  Dorff interprets the tradition expansively to include abuse.  He says "one honors God and the Jewish people when one honors others;  one dishonors God and desecrates God's people when one verbally abuses a human being created in the divine image."[29]  This bestows the most severe spiritual and moral sanction on abuse, which it certainly deserves.


Abused children feel a strong urge to conceal their abuse from those who might help.  They probably fear that revealing their abuse might endanger them more than the abuse itself.  That is why it is incumbent on rabbis and other communal professionals to go the extra mile in ferreting out potential abuse.  If we hold a family's privacy and honor above the abuse that might be taking place, then we are debasing the victims and our own tradition.  Or as Dorff says: "Concern for honor may not get in the way of preservinglife and health."



Dorff defines domestic violence as a bald exercise in using physical might to exert power over someone.[30]  Judaism unequivocally forbids such behavior.  Jewish law specifies punishment for those who strike others.  It prohibits verbal abuse of all kinds.  Such an attitude is deeply rooted in its theology.  "Abuse of another represents a denial of God's image in every human being."[31]  "Thus Judaism can [be] a source of strength for the abused because it tells the victim no matter how much the abuser has diminished your self-image ultimately you are created in the image of God.  Like God, you have inherent worth, regardless of what anyone else says.  That divine value represents a challenge to us, for we must each strive throughout our lives to realize the divine within us.  This is what gives life meaning and hope."  Amen.


What Should We Expect of Our Rabbis?

Is there a rabbi today who feels that child abuse in our community is not a problem of the first order?  Could there be a rabbi who feels that dealing with child abuse should not be within the realm of a rabbis responsibility?  Can a rabbi today feel that such rabbinic intervention violates the privacy of an abuser's family?


To any rabbi who disbelieves the statements above, I urge him/her to read carefully about the fate of Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, who recently confessed to his inadequacy as the rabbinic leader of a 1989 beyt din in the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a youth counselor later convicted of child molestation.  His beit din forced the victim to apologize to the abuser before the beyt din proceedings began.  Yes, really!  Then it deceitfully allowed the world to think that it had exonerated Lanner (it hadn't); and allowed Lanner to continue his role until he was exposed by Jewish Week several years ago.  All of this is unconscionable behavior for a spiritual leader.  What is now left of Rabbi Willig's stature as a communal leader?  How could he show his face in his community without being a morally diminished figure?  What rabbi would wish to experience the pain of public apology and confession which Willig has undergone before his rabbinical students and the entire Jewish world?  What rabbi wants to feel that s/he was in a position to do something to help such a victim and turned his/her back?


Of course, the rabbinic role is terribly complicated in this type of situation.  He or she must assess his/her own personality (how outgoing are you with your congregants and how willing are you to share their personal lives?), that of the victim (what is the best strategy for enabling the victim to open up to you?) and the alleged abuser (what is the least intrusive you can be to the abuser, while still at the same time helping the victim end the abuse?) in determining what is the best course of action.


A rabbi, like any human being, will feel awkward and uncomfortable being placed in this situation.  No one likes deliberately intervening in the personal affairs of others.  So a rabbi is placed in an unnatural position.  But this is why training is so important, because with it a rabbi can learn strategies for intervention that are the least intrusive, but most effective in helping heal an abusive family environment.


Mandated Reporting

Many states now require rabbis to report suspected child abuse (mandated reporting).  Other states are considering such legislation.  I can imagine that rabbis might resent such intrusion upon their professional prerogatives.  After all, who would want to be in the same category as police officers and social workers, who are by definition societal agents seeking to control and ameliorate aberrant behavior?  I could understand why a rabbi might feel "I didn't sign up for this."


But again we should return to the Willig-Lanner case.  What happens if a rabbi has a chance to get it right in such a case and fails, as the beit din did.  Were it not for Jewish Week and the State of New Jersey, a case of botched Jewish jurisprudence would never have been revealed; and a terrible wrong would never have been righted.  In a situation as important as the health and welfare of children, it is important for rabbis to have an independent agent like the State reviewing and disclosing major errors.



Rabbi Willig explained his deficiencies and those of the 1989 beit din by invoking the rabbinic dictum: Ein le-dayan ella ma she-einav root ("The judge has nothing [to judge with] but what his eyes see.")  I would maintain that in cases of suspected child abuse, the rabbi should constantly ask him or herself what s/he  is seeing.  Is s/he seeing what is there or what s/he wants to see?  The classic ways in which a rabbi might come to suspect abuse are physical (scars or bruises) or oral (a victim's disclosure) evidence.  But there are many more subtle ways to search for, and detect child abuse.  These involve warm and caring relationships between rabbi and child in which the latter might learn to feel comfortable enough to share his or her experience of abuse.  After all, children who suffer from this syndrome are by nature secretive and frightened.  They are not inclined to reveal their problems or their secrets readily.  That is why such cultivation is extremely important.


The first adult who really helped me deal with the crippling social afflictions stemming from my condition was a Camp Ramah counselor who noticed that I spent the entire first week in my first summer at camp in my bunk reading a Bruce Catton Civil War history.  After witnessing such reclusive, asocial behavior, this counselor held long private weekly Motzaei Shabbat counseling sessions (actually I wouldnt have called it counseling at the time and Im not sure he would have either) during which I revealed myself personally to an adult for the first time.  It was entirely liberating, freeing me to engage socially with my peers and enjoy my first serious interactions with folk music, Judaism and other intellectual ideas.  This experience was one of the most important in my entire life.


My camp counselor exemplifies what a positive adult interaction can be for an abuse victim.  It is incumbent on rabbis to try to play this role for the children in their care.


Writing this article has disturbed some old, forgotten (or repressed) childhood memories at the hands of public school teachers: a 2nd grade teacher slapped me in the face because I threw a piece of lunch meat into the hair of a girl sitting next to me (we were probably doing the closest thing to flirting that 6 year olds can do); my 6th grade math teacher threw a book at me from one end of the room to the other hitting me squarely in the head.  My offense: I was reading a concealed novel during class.


But the most relevant memory to this subject involves Camp Ramah again.  This incident was not its finest hour.  A senior rabbi on the camp staff (and a distinguished Jewish educator) ejected me from the chadar ochel during a meal, proceeding to yell at me about my behavior.  I had (unintentionally) forgotten to don my kipah during the meal.


As I returned to my bunk alone with the rest of the camp behind me at the dining hall, I was humiliated, shamed, mortified.  I thought about leaving camp, but then I would've been forced to abandon all the good friends I had made at camp; and forced to return to my abusive household.  The rabbis rage confronted me with two choices, one bad and one worse.


Is my unintentional violation of a minhag a more serious transgression than the one commanding us not to verbally shame or chastise our neighbor?  You may ask why I didn't protest my treatment.  Keep in mind, this 17 year-old saw the rabbi not as an individual, but as Camp Ramah itself.  Why would anyone wish to take my side against such a distinguished and formidable figure?


In researching this article, I found an online encomium to this rabbi from one of his students, who called him an exemplar of the teacher, an honorable and accessible role model, in Hebrew a dugmah eesheet.  It is both odd and disconcerting that such an abuser can be a moral exemplar in a public setting; and so much less so in a private setting.  But this contradiction is characteristic of abusers.  When I sent an e mail to the rabbi who wrote the encomium to his teacher telling him about my camp experience.  He too never responded.


In closing, I ask any rabbi reading this: if you saw a fellow rabbi casatigating a child in such a way or suspected that such an incident happened what would you do?  Would you approach the rabbi and ask him to explain his behavior?  Would you approach the victim and offer comfort?  My suspicion is that doing either of these things in this type of setting would be extremely difficult and it would take a very brave rabbi to stand up to such an injustice.  That is why our struggle against child abuse is so difficult and requires such vigilance.  Even our finest leaders (rabbinic and otherwise) can, in a dark hour, behave in a way that disgraces their sacred vocation.  The price of keeping our children safe from such depredations is eternal vigilance.  We must do more to help our children and we must do more to teach rabbis that such abusive behavior is unacceptable in educating a Jewish child.

[1] Proverbs 23: 13

[2] Rabbi Drorah Setel, Can Justice and Compassion Embrace? in Embracing Justice: A Resource Guide for Rabbis on Domestic Abuse, Diane Gardsbane ed., Jewish Women International (2002), p. 56.  This book, like almost every other Jewish resource Ive read speaks to spousal abuse, rather than child abuse.  But there are great similarities between the two (and many differences) and in many cases what can be said about spousal abuse also holds true for the other.

[3] Ibid. pp. 53-54.

[4] Ibid., Setel, p. 55

[5] Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Family Violence (teshuva), Committee on Jewish Law and StandardsRabbinical Assembly, 1995, p. 10

[6] It is important that we not allow our grave and profound respect for this commandment to obliterate our acknowledgement of child abuse in our community

[7] Dorff, Family Violence, a chapter from a book on Jewish ethics that will be forthcoming this fall.  To distinguish between this work and Dorffs teshuva of the same name, I will refer to them as Family Violence (teshuva) and Family Violence (chapter).

[8] Dorff, Family Violence (chapter), p. 256

9 Op Cit., Gardsbane, p. 2

10 Ibid, Rabbi Abraham Twerski in Introduction.  Confirmation of the ignorance or benign neglect shown to this problem in our seminaries is to be found in the many unanswered attempts (with a few exceptions) I made to contact various officials and faculty at the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist  seminaries in preparation of this article.

11 Dorff, in Family Violence (chapter), p. 206, quantifies the incidence of child abuse by referring to John Brieres Child Abuse Trauma.  Dorff says that ten to twenty percent of university students retrospectively report that as they were growing up both they and other family members were beaten to the point of producing, at a minimum, bruises or bleeding.

12 Op. cit, Gardsbane, p. 207

13 Ibid., Introduction

14 Some material in this section is from Dorffs Family Violence (teshuva), p. 39 ff., which is drawn in turn from a California State Department of Social Services pamphlet produced by its Clergy Advisory Board for clergy of all religions throughout the State.

15 The Kehillah Community Synagogue has created possibly the most comprehensive institutional program addressing this issue.  More about this program can be found in Drorah Setels Role of the Synagogue in Embracing Justice, pp. 107-110.

16 Embracing Justice, p. 11

[17]17 While Genesis describes the mark of Cain as the sign of the murderers shame, Jewish victims of child abuse have what might be called the mark of Abel (the sign of the victims shame), put there not by God (as in Cains case), but by the abuser and the abuse.

18 Elliot Dorff, Aspects of Judaism and Family Violence in Gardsbane, p. 43.

19 In this passage, Dorff is quoting work of Abraham Grossman in Medieval Rabbinic Views on Wife-Beating, Jewish History, Spring 1991, pp. 53-62.

The March 7, 2003 edition of the New York Times features a fascinating exposition of Jewish cultural relativity on this subject.  Old Ways Bring Tears in a New World by Joseph Berger portrays the New York Bukharan Jewish communitys response to spousal and child abuse, in which it attempts to balance the social tension between an Old World tradition which tolerates the practice; and a recognition that norms are different in the U.S. Jewish community.

20 Gardsbane, p. 8

21 I am also indebted to Sally Webber of JFSLA for pointing me toward some of the Jewish communal resources I used in this article, including Shalom Bayit, of which she is a co-author.  Rabbis Lori Forman, Cindy Eigner and Zari Weiss and several other rabbis suggested other resources.  I am grateful to Rabbi Dorff for speaking to me at some length about his work in this field and sharing his unpublished manuscript.

22 Genesis 1: 26-27, 9:6

23 Dorff, Shalom Bayit, page 48.  I have included passages about spousal abuse because it applies by inference to children as well; and because the tradition says relatively little about parental child relationships.  The tradition defines the limits and obligations of a childs behavior toward parents; but talks very little about parental behavior toward children.

24 Ibid, p. 49. 

25 Ibid., p. 49

26 If a mans wife was construed as his possession in the past, all the more were his children. Dorff, Family Violence (chapter).

27 Ibid., p. 50

28 Sermon, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in Embracing Justice, p. 123

29 Family Violence (teshuvah), p. 20

30 Ibid., p.56

31 Ibid., p. 57