Speaking about the unspeakable

Speaking about the unspeakable

Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson, Conservative

My husband served on a jury a few years back. When the case was resolved and he was allowed to discuss it, he summarized it in four words: “There was this pastor….” That’s all he had to say, and people (sadly, correctly) assumed the rest.

I recall that trial now, because, not long ago, the public learned that there was this rabbi … who ran this mikvah…. Since then, Jews have wondered in private and in print: How could a Torah scholar commit such a violation? Columnists in the Jewish Standard have discussed human nature, male sexuality, the dynamics of authority, and rabbinical education. All are worthy of attention but should not distract us from an obvious and difficult truth: he did it because, at least for a long while, he could get away with it.

After almost every major scandal that has been reported in the newspapers, including this one, I have heard community leaders say, privately if not publicly, “It was widely known.” Or “It was long suspected.” Or “Other women came to me before this.” Abuse happens in every movement within Judaism, as it does in every faith tradition. We can claim neither immunity nor surprise. If perpetrators lie convincingly and intimidate their victims thoroughly, rabbinic colleagues and lay leaders may not (yet) know what is happening. But in many – perhaps most – cases, we don’t want to know.

To give proper credit, the Jewish community, in sync with larger social trends, has grown increasingly responsive to sexual misconduct. But we still have a long way to go. The impulse to keep these things private due to the overwhelming shanda (shame and embarrassment) ends up harming victims and shielding perpetrators.

Violators always have their defenders. The pastor had a gaggle of supporters from his church sitting behind him in the courtroom, although he admitted to having sex with many teenaged girls in his congregation.

No matter the nature or degree of sexual violation – filming unsuspecting women, seducing teenagers, molesting children, harassing employees, committing rape – at least some people will plead for mercy and “balance.” Yes, he sinned; but he did so much good in other areas! This is inevitably true – and deeply painful. Victims of a religious leader often ask, “Why were other people blessed by him, while I was exploited by him?” Or, worse, they blame themselves and wonder: “What was it about me that elicited evil instead of good?”

Years ago, anyone who came forward with an allegation likely would be asked not “to ruin the reputation of a fine man.” Jewish organizations meted out few consequences to offending rabbis, and virtually no support for their victims. Even today, it is horribly difficult to come forward. Many victims – for this and other reasons – choose not to speak out, and those who do often feel stigmatized. False accusations are possible, of course, but I personally don’t know of any. I do know of many valid accusations that were ignored, dismissed, or met with hostility.

I have no personal knowledge of the most recent case or its victims. But every victim I have ever spoken with was urged to keep silent by at least one person – and sometimes by an entire board of directors. Speaking out, they were told, would harm the community, the rabbi’s legitimate good works, and his innocent family. In other words, everyone else’s pain at hearing about what happened to these victims was deemed more important than the victims’ suffering in actually enduring it. Effectively, Jews sought to protect the perpetrator from the victim, rather than the other way around. Some victims also were cautioned that their own reputations would be harmed, implying that they should feel ashamed and humiliated, and that silence would protect them. We should never pressure victims to come forward. That is their choice. But we must make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

Publicly exposing someone else’s sins is never done lightly, but sometimes it is the right choice. It is a mitzvah to treat the perpetrator and the family with compassion – but never at the cost of helping victims heal and protecting the public.

If sexual misconduct has occurred, then human dignity is already inevitably a casualty. The question becomes: do you want to sacrifice truth and justice, too? Silence is always easier in the short term, but in the long term it is toxic when imposed on those who have been exploited, dangerous for potential victims, morally corrupting for witnesses, and no favor to the perpetrator or the community at large.

How do I know so many victims? First, because there are a lot of them – many more than we hear about. Also, because of the timing of my ordination. I was in the first wave of women rabbis ordained in my movement. A female classmate confided in me when we were student rabbis, “I feel like I have a sign on my head that says: ‘Tell me about your abuse.'” There was a backlog of women who had been waiting to talk to a rabbi with whom they would feel completely safe.

In 1994, I published the first volume of “Lifecycles,” whose subject was women’s perspectives on Jewish ritual. It was a sign of our changing times that one chapter dealt, in part, with sexual abuse. I rarely mentioned it in speeches. Yet as I conducted a speaking tour, dozens of women approached me to tell me about their molestation – by rabbis, cantors, and, most often, relatives. Subsequently, I served on an inter-movement council on rabbinic sexual misconduct in Southern California, where I learned of more victims.

I have worked in some depth with a dozen victims. Most came to me as part of the Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where I taught for 20 years. Partly because of my gender, and partly because the program involved spiritual mentorship as well as classroom learning, they told me their stories. Ten had been molested by rabbis as children or young adults, and two discovered as teens that the rabbi doing marital counseling with their parents was simultaneously having an affair with their mother. Every one of them suffered unspeakable emotional and spiritual pain as a result of a rabbi’s betrayal, with long-term, practical consequences. Nine out of 12 converted to another religion at some point, although all were born Jewish.

It is obvious that rabbinic sexual misconduct ravages God’s reputation, even as it abuses bodies and psyches fashioned in God’s image. But unless we have experienced it ourselves or are close to someone who has, I don’t think we fully appreciate the depths of the anguish caused by this hillul hashem (desecration of God’s name).

About five years into my rabbinate, I asked a trusted male mentor how many people had come to him about this topic during his 30-plus years as a rabbi. His answer was “two.” I was shocked by that number, and he was shocked, in turn, when I told him that I had spoken with dozens of women and several men who had been the victims of sexual misconduct by male rabbis. He believed me, but found it hard to conceive that the problem was so widespread in the Jewish community. Although there is broader awareness now, both abusers and victims remain invisible to many.

Rabbis can help by talking publicly about the problem, inviting people to share their stories, and holding ourselves and our colleagues accountable. The task is not easy, but we – and especially male rabbis – must be transparently appropriate and lovingly approachable. Unfortunately, the “good guys” – the vast majority of rabbis – have to communicate that they are above reproach. Many rabbis have added windows to their office doors, to make sure that visitors feel comfortable and to avoid any possible appearance of impropriety. Clergy not only have to be safe to talk to; we have to be seen as being safe.

Based on many precedents, a student or congregant has reason to fear that rabbis will protect a colleague over a “Jew in the pew.” Too often, synagogues and national organizations have brokered agreements that assure victims of internally imposed consequences and/or supervised counseling for the perpetrator, but offer little transparency, even maintaining silence about the perpetrators’ offenses.

Following many scandals, “teshuvah” (repentance) is invoked with great frequency and at high volume. “He must be allowed to repent” certainly is true. And “he is sincere in his repentance” may be true. But neither is a reason for victims to keep silent.

According to Jewish law, repentance includes deep regret, explicit apology, compensation to the victims, and a sincere vow by the perpetrator not to repeat the offense. Teshuvah is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It doesn’t mean: “hey, victims, he’s done teshuvah, so stop talking about this.” On the contrary, a truly repentant person will admit his or her guilt publicly, apologize face-to-face with victims, and listen to victims for as long as they want to talk. Someone who has done teshuvah over sexual misconduct also will give up positions of authority and access to potential victims, so as to mitigate temptation (for him or herself), pain (for past victims), and fear (for potential victims).

Years ago, a prominent pulpit rabbi resigned when faced with multiple sexual harassment and molestation charges. His board thanked him for his service and publicly expressed regret at his departure for “personal reasons.” In short order, he was hired to a prestigious position at a major Jewish institution. Women rabbis – joined by a significant number of men – raised an outcry. Many other male rabbis cried “teshuvah!” although the rabbi in question admitted nothing. Victims simply cried. The sexual abuser assumed and retained his new position. It was only five years later that he vaguely admitted culpability in a letter sent to the press, asking forgiveness of “anyone who was hurt by my actions.” He neither named his crimes nor offered personal apologies to the victims. At least two of his 12 known victims had left the Jewish community by then. One joined another religion.

This case does not stand out in my memory because it is unique. It stands out because of a powerful comment that I heard about it from Rabbi Jane Litman: “Anyone who fights a lawsuit by victims of their sexual abuse has not done teshuvah. Anyone who takes a job that places them in a position of charismatic leadership has not done teshuvah. If he had admitted guilt and become a shoe salesman, then I could believe that he had done teshuvah.”

Here is my plea to violators – whether known or not yet known: Religious leaders who are guilty of sexual misconduct have an irreplaceable role to play in the healing of their victims. Your confessions, apologies, and compensation can mitigate the harm you have done in a way that no one else’s intervention can. You have the opportunity to realize the rabbinic principle that “in the place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand” (Berachot 34b).

For rabbis who know or suspect misconduct in a colleague, please love that person – and any possible victims – well enough to inquire, offer help, and intervene. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your compatriot, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).

If you are a victim, I want to affirm your right to speak publicly, privately, or not at all. But please don’t let that decision be guided by fear or a misplaced sense of shame. I hope that you will find a loving Jewish community and a rabbi you can trust. Healing is not only possible, it is, I believe, God’s will for your life. I hope you believe that, too.

Finally, whether you are a layperson or a spiritual leader, if you have not had direct experience of this issue, please open your eyes and your heart to the people who have. You may know some folks already – even if you don’t realize it yet.

As individuals and as a community, we can only heal what we are willing to acknowledge.