“You say that the abuse [against children] cuts across all religions. However, in Judaism, even in extreme sects like Hassidism, children are viewed as ‘gifts from God’ and children are elevated to a very high status; family life really revolves around them and their needs and education. Because the religious culture lacks the more traditional authoritarian hierarchy, I wonder if violence is, nonetheless, a problem within these (strict orthodox/hassidic) families? What about sexual abuse? Is this also a greater problem within [these] religious sects than in the general population?”
Most people of faith, and those of no faith, commonly talk about children in glowing terms. Jews, in particular, often express the view that children are important people in our society. For example, some have pointed out to me that children learning to perform mitzvot [good deeds] can give young people a feeling of empowerment.
However, it is one thing to speak of children as being “gifts of God” and another thing to treat them as such. More and more critics are bringing to light the fact that very conservative faith communities, including Orthodox Jewish communities, are failing to protect children of physical abuse and sexual abuse.
I asked one woman who would like to be known as “an Orthodox Jewish mother of a number of children” to comment on the question posed above. In an email, she notes that the view of children as “gifts from God” is “the ideal that is expressed in our Torah, but in practice, very sadly, we have gone off the derech [path].” She continues, “There is way too much sexual abuse going on in ultra-Orthodox and Chasidic communities, and it has been covered up for far too long. In addition, the ultra-Orthodox and Chasidic children are predominantly not even yet educated about their own basic personal safety, so that they will know how to protect themselves from predators in their midst.”
The woman also points out that, like most sexual abusers, “The perpetrators are most commonly their older close relatives or neighbors—often yeshiva bochurim [fellow students]—close relatives or neighbors, as well as frum [Jewish] community members involved with working with youth.”
As I discuss in my book Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, problems of child maltreatment in yeshivas [Jewish schools] have been largely ignored. One man I interviewed for the book, Joel Engelman, is one of a number of boys who has accused the principal of the yeshiva of his youth of molesting him. Engelman, aged twenty-six, writes in an email that the “children as gifts of God” concept is “thrown around” in Judaism, as well as in other faiths:
But what does that mean? Does it mean that children are protected from child abuse? It is obvious to me that this is not the case, as the rabbis who beat me on a regular basis would use that against us, and say, “This is why I’m beating you every day, because you are so special and pure in the eyes of God, that you especially need your soul cleansed of impure thoughts and wrong actions.” So in effect an abuser in a religious environment can easily pervert this concept to fill their abusive desires.
And what about parents? Engelman asks. “Do parents protect their children because their kids are ‘gifts from God’? All indicators in the orthodox community seem to be saying NO. The rabbi who sexually abused me as a child is still teaching children every day, despite very public accusations from several victims, and this scenario is sadly, not uncommon at all.”
What explains this insensitivity? Asher Lipner, who practices as a clinical psychologist treating abuse victims in the Chassidic community, writes in an email that the reasons stem partly from a reaction to the past: “Being a small and historically persecuted group, there is a tendency of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.” Lipner goes on to explain that this attitude sometimes “breeds mistrust in outside help from mental health professionals and law enforcement, probably the two most important tools in fighting child abuse.”
I bring a sociological perspective in Breaking Their Will, as religious child maltreatment most often occurs in faith communities that are authoritarian. Now, most of us do not perceive Jewish cultures as authoritarian, as we are more familiar with Reform or Conservative Judaism rather than, say, “ultra-Orthodox.” Also, rabbis are not considered to hold divine power, as is the case with other religious leaders.
But many who have grown up, or currently live, in Orthodox Jewish communities say that outsiders know little about what actually goes on inside. For example, as I point out in Breaking Their Will, many might be surprised to learn that rabbis who are administrators and teachers in Orthodox Jewish yeshivas often hold great power both within those facilities and throughout the community.
“The communal and religious structure [of Orthodox Jewish communities] is undeniably super authoritarian,” writes Engelman in his email. The Jewish mother concurs: “The ultra-Orthodox and Chasidic communities have a very traditional authoritarian heirarchy in place. Adherents to these ways need to take back individual responsibility. We need to do all we can to help change the current situation, so that in practice, our ways can be in line with the guidelines found in our Torah.”