view counter
`Mishpatim’ – Judaism Abhors Child Abuse
Mon, 02/01/2016 - 17:12
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz

Just after the giving of the Law at Sinai, the Torah presents us with an assortment of laws, some criminal, some civil and some purely religious.

The civil laws in our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, regulate how we act with one another. They must have been of immediate, practical use, even in the desert; they dealt with slavery, mayhem, and stealing, among other sins. Even more basic are the foundational principals of justice – some explicit and some implicit, but clear in their meaning. The Torah is clear about equality. No one is above the law. Individuals of all stations in life and society must be treated equally. It does not matter if they are of high rank or not. It is of no concern whether they are men, women or small children: the law is equal to all of them.

These laws are as relevant today as they were in ancient times. Mishpatim makes clear, for example, that Judaism abhors the abuse of children.

As the Torah well understands, child molestation is an ancient vice. It has become much more widely discussed because of several recent scandals, mostly in religious institutions.

There are some objective reasons why such things happen quite often in religious institutions. Children are taught and trained to be obedient and to accept their elders as authorities – which makes it so much more difficult for them to resist abuse or to report it. Unfortunately there is no sex education in some of the schools; nor is the subject discussed in some homes. So when something like this happens, it takes time for a child to understand it and even more than that – to talk about it.

Child molestation almost always causes enormous, multi-level damage to the victim's soul: it may make the victim unable to form healthy relationships. They may lose trust in people, because the molesters are often those who were supposed to be their caretakers and protectors.

It should also be stressed over and over again that this crime of child molestation is not just a civil offense: it is also a very severe religious crime. Under Jewish law, it may even deserve capital punishment. Offenders may also be liable for the most severe punishment of karet (untimely death by the hands of the Almighty).

It is important to say all that because there is a tendency to cover up such incidents, especially in institutions, and sometimes even to protect the perpetrators. Partly this is so because those in charge are often more in touch with the molester – who may be a colleague or a friend – than with the children. This is especially the case since children hardly ever express their hurt. And, of course, institutions do not want their reputations to be harmed.

The first and foremost duty of any educational institution, and the prime responsibility of its heads and leaders, is to be rid of anyone who causes such great harm. Good reputation or personal friendships must by no means stand in the way of investigation and clean-up.

We must make sure that such a person will never again be in a position to repeat such offenses. It is therefore not enough to fire the perpetrator from his (or her) work place: it is both the organization’s and society’s duty to make sure that the crimes are known and punished.

As Mishpatim reminds us, no one is above the law.  Child molestation is not a local problem; seemingly, it has been with us for millennia. Our duty is to diminish, even eradicate, this evil as much as humanly possible.

Rabbi Steinsaltz, who lives in Jerusalem, is a teacher, philosopher and author who has translated the Talmud into Hebrew and English. 

Judaism, Mishpatim

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Thank you Rabbi Steinsaltz for your words and wisdom. You are a beacon of light for all of us. I have read many of your writings and have been elevated by your teachings. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and understandings with us. This subject is a terrible tragedy for so many innocent ones and I pray for this harm to end. Thank you for another illuminating article. Love & light "BH"

While there can be no doubt that a strong statement like this from one of the world's greatest Talmudic authorities is a positive contribution to the emerging awareness and discussion of child sexual abuse in Judaism, I am concerned that the article, in its current form, will be dismissed by other Torah scholars. The article is a strong statement but it is a statement of opinion without any specific sources brought to support it. The rabbinic authorities who have expressly stated that a victim must first attain the permission of a rabbi before going to the police will not be swayed by an argument that does not make even one reference to something in scripture or the oral law.

In fact, I am left wondering if this omission was due to fact that there is very little actually said about the subject in these sources. I cannot think of a single verse in the Torah that speaks about punishment for child sexual abuse. Although there are many that come to mind that would suggest the opposite. There is, for instance, the payment a rapist must make to the father if he wants to then 'marry' his victim. Another that teaches us if a woman raped in a city and does not cry out it is a sign that the act was consensual. A father can sell his daughter as a slave and the purchaser can have sexual relations with her, with the clear implication being that this could be against her will. The list goes on but I think these examples should be sufficient to suggest that the Torah does not seem to have what we would consider a 'progressive' attitude towards the issues of rape and child sexual abuse.

I have to wonder how much these attitudes have pervaded the perspective of our Torah scholars, particularly when I am unaware of any halachot dealing with the way we need to intervene in cases of abuse and when the leaders of our generation still consider it an issue of mesirah when a victim goes directly to the police. I would love to be proved wrong on this. While I am observant, I struggle to understand how such attitudes to could be the word of G-d. It would be very reassuring to read a detailed account of the biblical and rabbinic laws regarding child sexual abuse.

Finally, it is curious to me that this article was about child sexual abuse but the word 'sexual' was not included in the title. Such a small omission seems to speak volumes about our ongoing inability to face this issue, even in the very act of speaking about it.

Thank you for your article concerning this prevelant issue... It affects more than we realize. The Jewish outlook on this terrible thing that is happening to our children.

The source is "ve'ahavta l'reicha kamocha" and "lo ta'amod al dam reyecha" at the very least. Also, Jews are obligated to save an adult being pursued by a person looking to engage them in unwilling sexual activity - even using lethal means if necessary. Those pursuing children for sexual acts must of course be stopped as well, and through the same means if necessary. And "avdus" has little to nothing to do with our notion of "slavery".

Thank you R Shteinzaltz for speaking out. I was at a meeting in New York this week to discuss the fate of tiny Chareidi English speaking children in lsrael who are not only being molested as if thats not heinous enough, they are being tortured and brainwashed and their naked pictures are all over the internet. It happens while they are in yeshiva which means that their rabbeim and teachers are part of the ring. And if that isnt shameful enough, if that isnt cause for karet, the gedolim are playing it down and saying that children cannot be believed. Rav Shteinzaltz you are THE GADOL HADOR. Make this stop. How can we as the am hanivchar perpetrate such attrocities? How can we go to sleep in our warm cozy beds when our brightest sparks, our future, are not safe in our Holy Land? How can lsrael deny the safety of these innocent little people who did nothing wrong? Please Rav Shteinzaltz, HELP THEM. Help these little children and their families. And help the lsraeli law enforcement bring these pera adam to justice.

I opened this article thinking that I will finally see a real source forbidding this horrible behavior. but ? can you tell us what is the source ?

What an absolutely ridiculous article. Of course the Torah and (common sense!) abhors molestation but to try and derive this from this Parsha is ludicrous. Where are his sources? Did the good rabbi forget the part of how any father can sell his young daughter (less than 12) into slavery/marriage??? That actually happens to be explicitly permitted.

I am so sick of people (and Rabbis) trying to stick modern sensibilities into what they would like the Torah to say. All molesters should drop dead and will burn in hell. No doubt. But to jam that into Parshas Mishpatim is pretty far fetched.

As someone who it seems has had no contact with these sorts of crimes BH, your comment is justified. R Shteinzaltz made mention of this probably because things are really bad in lsrael as well as chareidi communities everywhere. It needs to be said. Sadly this article will not be published in their papers

Of course this article will not be published. Because it purports to be a D'Var Torah and contains nothing of the sort. I am sorry you really don't know anything about me. Like most people, this absolutely vile plague of sexual abuse has changed the life of someone I care deeply about. One of my closest cousins was actually molested in a most heinous way (in a Shul bathroom no less). I am extremely sensitive to this subject. But this article has zero scholarship merit. It should be on the op-Ed page. When there is some substance, not a regurgitation of obvious condemnation it will be worthy of wide publication. This article is very, very disappointing. Especially considering the author's scholarship credentials.

Um, as it states at top of the page, it IS an "Opinion" which is why it is published in the Jewish Weeks' "Editoroal & Opinon" section