Do Orthodox Jews Hold Children in High Esteem?

One woman recently asked me this question:

“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.”

joel engelman

Joel Engelman as a Boy

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.”


  1. What’s important here is to distinguish between intent and impact. You can say that your intent is to save money, for example, but in reality you went into debt. The fact that your intent was to save, doesn’t diminish the impact of the outcome–you still don’t have any money in savings.

    When it comes to religion, adults may have a loving intent to care and raise their children according to a specific set of values. If the impact of that training leads to a child to have low self esteem, depression, and other negative side effects of authoritarian parenting, then original intent of the parent doesn’t really matter that much.

    I know my parents had loving intent, but the impact of their actions was devastating to me. I believe there is a Bible verse that makes reference to my point. Something about you shall know a tree by its fruit.

    • Janet Heimlich says:


      You raise a good point here. I find it irksome when people look for ways to rationalize abuse. “The parents still loved their children.” “They meant well.” “They did the best they could.” Perhaps where such rationalizing has been most apparent is in the child death faith healing-related criminal trials. In these cases, parents cause their children unimaginable suffering and, ultimately, their death. And yet, these parents generally are given very light sentences. This is not because they show remorse — in fact, usually they remain stalwart that their refusals to give their children medical care were righteous — but because they expressed grief at having lost their children.


  2. It must also be recalled that the Bible promotes spanking!

    • Janet Heimlich says:


      Thanks for noting this. My book has a chapter devoted to the section of Proverbs that advocates for parents to make use of “the rod.” There are a number of interpretations of just what “the rod” means, however, what is not in dispute is that many conservative readers of the Bible justify the corporal punishment of children based on these passages. Some perpetrators of physical abuse have done the same in justifying their actions as well. Another good book that delves into this particular topic is SPARE THE CHILD: THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS OF PUNISHMENT AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF PHYSICAL ABUSE by Philip Greven.


  3. Miriam Pollack says:

    Bravo to this brave author for exposing this righteous abuse of our most helpless family members. I’d like to add one more dimension to this: metzitzah b’peh, the practice of sucking the blood from an infant penis as part of the circum-cision ritual conducted by the mohel. This is a multi-layered violence against the child. STD’s have been introduced to the newborn infant in this manner resulting in death. Because the orthodox community screams, “ANTI-SEMITISM” no protection was put in place for the infants. Furthermore, genital surgery, including circumcision is excruciating for the infant, even with an analgesic or the administration of wine. Add to that mixing uninvited oral stimulation and we lay the groundwork in the infant brain, albeit unconscious, for what may be seemingly inexplicable fears and bizarre attractions around sexuality.

    Circumcision, even without metzitzh b’peh, although normative in all branches of Judaism, can easily be seen as part of the long catalogue constituting child and sexual abuse. We now have the data from research which has measured heart and respiratory rates, cortisol levels, etc. on infants while being circumcised presenting incontrovertible evidence of the extreme pain suffered by infants during a circumcision. We also have scientific evidence (Taylor & Cold, 1996) demonstrating that the composition of the foreskin is made-up of over 20,000 of the most highly sensitive nerve endings found on the penis. These two findings are in complete contradiction to the principles of Torah. When that happens, as it did with the exclusion of deaf people from a minyan, halacha is obliged to change. Recognizing that our newborns, as well as children of all ages, must be protected from harm and enforcing this in our homes and communities will be the greatest mitzvah we can create–a legacy that will indeed secure our place in this world, and the world to come.

  4. I think it’s always risky to comment and try to analyze what goes on inside a community when you have outsider status. This is true in all sorts of fundamentalist religious communities, where there are secret rituals and hierarchies, and part of the secretive nature is so the outside world which may not understand the “inside” rituals and therefore pass judgements based on knowledge that is “incomplete.” I remember being fascinated as a teenager, reading Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” and seeing the role of the rebbe as the authoritarian ruler in his community and the damage potentially that did in terms of relationships, both in the family and the community as a whole.

    Thank you for being willing to open this topic up and focus a spotlight in a very dark, secretive place, Jan Heimlich. You have done a bold, brave action.

  5. There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

    Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

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