Judaism and Sexual Abuse

We were studying under a huge maple tree outside the United States when it became increasingly clear from the workshop participants’ comments that a traveling rabbi had sexually abused quite a number of women in the region over a period of years. Some had gone to him asking a deep spiritual question and were shocked by the kind of "outreach" they received. Others were young girls accepting a loving hug from a clergy person only to experience a horrific violation of their physical boundaries. All believed themselves special, "the only one." Some were sworn to secrecy. More could be said, let's just say it was becoming clear that a Jewish clergy person had left an international trail of hurt.

In a twist of fate, I realized to whom it was they were referring, for his itinerary had unfortunately intersected with my own life just after my bat mitzvah. I was very innocent, clueless and confused by the encounter. As he began, he told me he was going to give me a blessing in a special way, and that I was to keep it secret because it was a holy thing, that the blessing wouldn't take if I told. In the 1970's no one taught about good and bad touching to their children, we were innocents. The experience, while not full-out rape, didn't feel like a blessing. The rabbi seemed unaware of me at all, I was like a cloth which was admired briefly until the holder wiped his hands and tossed it away as now dirtied. I remember sliding down the wall behind me in shock to the floor.

Years later, when innocence was lost in college about such matters, the incident came into focus for what it was. While talking therapies proved worthless in this situation, a combination of Lowen's body-centered therapies and Gestalt therapy led to the ability to reclaim the wholeness that had been stolen by that early invasion. Skillful embodied psychospiritual health work is essential for those who have been raped or sexually assaulted to reclaim our bodies, to become good as new, in some ways better. Even so, I was feeling a victim-for-life, even thirty years later, something remained unresolved.

Back at the retreat in Canada I prayed for how to be useful to those gathered. And a, well, a vision happened, or a memory with visuals of someone I'd never actually seen, only read about. Beruriah, a wise woman in the Talmudic literature came to me, dressed in period clothes, she appeared as though an actual vision within my imagination. She reminded me part of her story, where highway robbers in her neighborhood were causing her husband, Rabbi Meir, a great deal of trouble, and he prayed for them to be struck down. But she told him: "Pray not for their destruction, rather, pray for them to repent their ways." [B. Berahot 10a]

After relating Beruriah’s wisdom to the workshop participants, I wondered aloud, "Is there a way to pray for those who have hurt us to lose that capacity in this life? Or, if s/he has died, to pray for their experience in the world-to-come to be different for them? And, if souls do return to this planet, if there is reincarnation, could we pray for them to be free of such terrible compulsions, that they might have a new experience of life and that no more people might be hurt by them?"

It was a new kind of teshuvah for all of us. To turn our anger, which those present had sufficient time to vent and process over the years, into a prayer. A lightness entered our group, a feeling not of having forgiven the unforgivable, but rather of having turned a new face to an old wound, of the scars having been resurfaced and a new dimension of healing had begun.

Inside something shifted profoundly. Instead of hating the man, Beruriah had shown me how to relate differently. As those in the workshop tried this out themselves, all were equally astonished. Something had lifted, shifted. Such is the power of prayer.

The official word on sexual abuse in Judaism is that is simply unacceptable. If you believe you are aware of someone who invades the sexual boundaries of others, inform a healthy, discrete authority who can take steps to get help to the perpetrator and provide a process of support for victims. If you did not directly experience the invasion, urge those who have to step forward, as most processes can't act fully without testimony from someone directly involved. Stay in contact with the authority, some institutions will try to cover up rather than act or accept that they have a problem requiring urgent action.