Rabbi, Why Are the Classical Sources Quiet on Child Abuse?
01/18/13
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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A friend who read my article last week, on the subject of social and sexual pathologies in the Jewish community and the tendency to try and hide them, sent me an e-mail that could not conceal his frustration. Why is it, he asked, that given the rather brutal treatment that a number of children receive in the book of Genesis, the Torah itself does not address the issue of child abuse?

Think about it. Isaac (the Akedah/Binding of Isaac) is nearly slaughtered by his father. Ishmael (expelled from his father Abraham's house with his mother Hagar) is exiled from his birth family and sent off into the wilderness. Esau (deprived of his special blessing) is played for a fool by his mother and brother. Children, particularly first-born sons, suffer a lot in Genesis. The Torah talks a great deal about compassion and caring. Those qualities seem disturbingly absent with regard to the aforementioned children.

This is not an easy question at all, and any answer is likely to leave some people unhappy. But it seems to me that there are two ways to address the issue.

The first answer is an historical one. It can fairly be said that the dominant and recurring theme of Genesis centers on procuring the choice blessings of the male first-born. As an ancient text, Genesis is unique in that it repeatedly subverts what was a given in its time. The male first born received a double share of inheritance, and the much-coveted choicest spiritual blessing of the father. Again and again, Genesis tramples on that convention, and introduces the idea that the most worthy child- or, to put it differently, the more appropriate child- receives the blessing, and not because of an accident of birth order.

 Two of the previously mentioned characters, Ishmael and Esau, were displaced first-borns. The other, Isaac, receives the choice blessing, but he, too, suffers greatly for his father’s willingness to stretch his faith to its outer limits. To put it in contemporary terms, the pain of those involved in the story turning out as it should (has to?) might best be understood as “collateral damage.” People get hurt in the process of the stories resolving properly, and that is damage that the Torah, and its subsequent classical commentators, regard as acceptable.

The rabbis of the Midrash deal with this issue by retroactively projecting on to the characters negative qualities that are not immediately discernible in the texts themselves. I have always understood these commentaries as their way of justifying the collateral damage. In essence, what they are saying is “they deserved it.” Ishmael mocked Isaac, and Sarah. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. How could he receive such an important legacy blessing? He obviously was not equipped to handle it. Maybe so-–but still, to be plotted against by your own mother and brother?

The second answer is, I will admit, more conjecture on my part than anything else. I can’t know for sure if it’s true; perhaps scholars whose specialty is cultures of the ancient world would be able to attest to its veracity or lack thereof. But I base this on many years of studying ancient Jewish texts, and appreciating the window that they open on the ancient world.

Simply put, I’m not at all sure that our contemporary understandings of social pathologies were at all a part of the ancient consciousness, whether within the Jewish world or outside of it.

Our Torah and its subsequent commentaries have strict guidelines about what is considered to be acceptable sexual behavior, both within families and outside of them. There is no question about that. But I don’t know of texts that deal with people who repeatedly violate those norms–particularly sexual norms– because of compulsions that they have no control over. I have to imagine that those kinds of compulsions existed thousands of years ago, but recording them, and thinking about them in any kind of systematic way is, I think, a reflection of modern understandings of human psychology. It does not appear to have been on their agenda long ago.

That said, there are those times when we might wish for the voices of those treated harshly to be heard more powerfully. I rarely read the story of the Binding of Isaac without lamenting the fact that Isaac is so silent in his acquiescence to his father’s mission, or, for that matter, that the same Abraham who argued for Sodom is so mute when it comes to sacrificing his own son. Similarly, I can only imagine that the atmosphere was tense and chilly in Abraham and Sarah’s tent after Abraham sent his first-born son and mistress off into the desert with but a flask of water. One longs for a more expansive dialogue that the one with which we are provided…

But on that score, I would suggest to my questioner that the rabbis of the midrash were not completely without compassion for those who were clearly not the favored child. Ishmael was saved and allowed to become a great nation, even though his descendants would become adversaries of Isaac’s. The reason, a midrash teaches, is because, when he was expelled from his home, he was blameless, and therefore was judged according to who and what he was when he was at his most vulnerable. Many commentaries point out that Jacob suffers all his life from the deceit of others, just as he deceived his father. As a religious tradition, Judaism is not incapable of hearing the cry of the distressed. There is a larger sense of equity and fairness.

In ways often more subtle than overt, our tradition teaches accountability for our actions. Expecting an ancient tradition to have contemporary sensibilities is not realistic. But that is why we continue to study Torah, constantly expanding its teachings and moral power even into the twenty-first century. Within the context of today’s understandings of family and children, there can be no excuse to do otherwise.

Last Update:

04/18/2013 - 17:13

Comments

It is a truly wondrous thing, The Midrash, through finding "cryptic midrashim" finds an excuse for all evil human behavior, Even Esau got an evil rap, not evident in the Tanach.
The chassidim (some of whom i actually almost like) are particularly adept at this. But I am so tired of reading, "in a cryptic Midrash" give me a break, we are not brain dead. the rabbis can come up with ANY interpretation they want on any occurance.
And and and re child abuse, no one, no one, has found a source, amongst the several lists of gilui arayot, that forbids the daughter, acharei mot, kidushim, i am not an expert perhaps there are another fifty lists, but on YOM KIPPUR, daughter is conspicuously absent, There are those who quote from gemara shemara midrash whatever that by implication, by intention, clearly they meant the daughter as well, well, every other possible combination and permutation of family connection is listed, mother, granddaughter, so, I ask you, was the daughter just considered chattel? I find the by "inference" or by "implication" that they clearly meant to include the daughter, a major crock. a distortion.
All over the commentaries, the little i have been exposed to, there are long explications of why, some point was listed twice in two different versions, IF, it already was said, Kacha, why was it repeated again Kacha. and so I bring up the missing daughter in lists (all, as far as any rabbi I know can tell) as being a sign that the daughter was chattel.

The New York Times recently published an article entitled, “No Religious Exemption When it comes to abuse.” The article intimated that the Orthodox Jewish Community is doing nothing to prevent professionals and clergy from crossing professional boundary violations. Connie A. Lofgreen, MSW, CSAT, in her book, “Storm of Addiction, Rescue, and Recovery” speaks about the vulnerabilities of clergy from a Ministry point of view. It is clear that it is easy for helpers and healers to fall into the gray abyss of clear boundary violations. While the Times presents one side of the story, revealing cover ups and letting perpetrators “go quietly,” my colleagues, Jewish mental health providers, have come out strongly against this type of hidden stance, of ignoring the issues at hand. I, for one, have created a needed workshop, a black and white guideline for boundary violations within the professional and clergy community because, not only do these types of abuse violate the law of the land, they also violate our very own Jewish and non-Jewish codes of ethics and morality. I sincerely hope that our religious leaders, professionals and counselors will step up to the plate and learn how to prevent professional boundary violations which cause a Chillul Hashem in our frum community.

Zeva Citronenbaum, LCSWR, CSAT-S.
1581 Route 202, Pomona, NY 10970
914-646-3164

Jewish Law and the Tragedy of Sexual Abuse of Children
– The Dilemma within the Orthodox Jewish Community
Steven H. Resnicoff* suggest everyone read this article RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

Responsibility? Where is that in old world or new? Thinking/feeling one is separate from others is the cause of so much abuse, war and everyday suffering. Maybe our differences, as Jews, which served another purpose in that other world, remain now only as boundaries that keep us from being a part of a world kehilla - that you, as a rabbi, cannot pinpoint in our tradition why & how child abuse is unJewish, is a horror of an answer to child.
As someone who spent a lifetime in the holy vineyards, our synagogues too have no answer - congregants leave Judaism, for the most part, in the shul. This is a deep, long conversation - I mean no disrepect.
Perhaps you'll continue the dialogue.
Good Shabbos!

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