By Rabbi Avremel Blesofsky
Abuse is pure evil. The pain caused by the abuser to the people they abuse is unimaginable. Abuse compounded with the violation of trust by caretakers and community “leaders” is devastating. How do we process the news of such horrific abuse? What is our individual and collective communal responsibility in the wake of sexual abuse coming to light?
The primary concern is for the individuals who were abused. To be unconditionally supportive of the people who were abused. To do whatever we can to help them better manage the pain caused by the abuse. It is not about our community, and certainly not about us individuals. We need to show empathy toward the people who were abused. Consider the pain they experience. Don’t make it more painful by othering them through pity. They are not ‘damaged goods.’ They are individuals, just like the rest of us, with tremendous strength and resilience. Don’t label them; respect them!
Friends and family of people who were abused; when the abused choose to share with you personally about the abuse, listen, just listen… without judgment. Listen without giving insight and helpful suggestions. If they explicitly ask for that sort of feedback, do so with humility, empathy, and an abundance of sensitivity. When listening, it is vital to keep in mind that it’s about them, the individual who was abused. Whatever discomfort or overwhelming emotions you, the listener, may be experiencing need to be channeled to listening more closely. Save personal feelings about the situation, including outrage and disgust for the abuser, for some other time. When the abused share, they need you to be a source of strength. Listening empathetically, understanding, and feeling what they are experiencing from within their frame of reference is often a source of strength for the abused person.
It’s not our place to refer to and label the people that were abused as “victims”. “Victim” may imply that the abusive actions define who they are. They may prefer not to identify and define themselves by the abuser’s actions.
The abuser needs to pay for their crimes, and people need to be made aware of the danger they pose. The reason is to protect the abused and provide for them whatever necessary to heal and prevent others from being abused. However, the abuser is not even worthy of infamy. They are not worthy of our attention, neither positive nor negative. Abuse should not garner the abuser standing in our personal and communal lives. Abuse should not propel a person to any form of prominence.
Some of the many criticisms directed at our community’s handling of abuse is the reluctance of many to believe that the abuse occurred. This reluctance is particularly so in the beginning stages of the abuse coming to light.
Various reasons have been attributed to this initial reactive disbelief. A recent article in an Israeli secular paper suggested that the reason for this reaction is because we identify with the abuser more than the abused… The criticism of the disbelief is well deserved and should be a cause for reflection. However, the interpretation and reason attributed to this mistaken reaction is at best presumptive. Worse yet, it is sinister and condescending.
I think that a mistaken reflection fuels the reactionary disbelief. Most of us have never entertained the idea of committing sexual abuse. Therefore, When we hear that a crime of that nature was committed by someone in our community, we mistakenly react, thinking it can’t be true. “It’s not something I would do… It must be that, neither would anyone else do something so horrendous”.
We should approach the believability of sexual abuse in our community from a Torah perspective. There’s a reason the Torah forbids activities and behaviors, precisely because we are capable of doing them. Otherwise, there would be no mention of them in the Torah.
It can happen anywhere. Allow the proper legal authorities and agencies to investigate and follow up with appropriate legal actions. See where procedures were ignored and take reparative measures to ensure it never happens again.
Reactionary rules and regulations are probably not very helpful. There are plenty of laws and Halachic guardrails already in place to prevent abuse from happening. When they are ignored and inadequately followed, it creates an environment that allows for abuse to manifest.
There’s no need to burn books. It may have the opposite of the desired effect, giving the abuser prominence and filling the abuser’s need for attention. Worse yet, undue prominence can cause those who were abused additional pain. It’s probably best to place the abuser’s books into recycling unceremoniously. Speak to our children about it, privately, unceremoniously, without added emotional overtone.
Careful, thoughtful, individual and communal responses will support those who were abused and give them the space to heal. A proper response will significantly diminish the abilities of abusers to continue to abuse in the future.
–Rabbi Avremel Blesofsky and his wife Malky are Shluchim and direct Chabad of Union County in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He recently completed his MSW and is an LMSW, licensed therapist in New York and New Jersey.