(This article was originally published by The Awareness Center in 2004 and republished by The Times of Israel on March 8, 2015. The article was co-authored with Michael J. Salamon, Ph.D., and Na’ama Yehuda, MSC, SLP, TSHH.)
Spirituality and Sexuality are very often confusing issues for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and for several valid reasons. In families where the concept of God is present, a child’s first representation of God is either of their parents or through their parents. If you have loving, kind parents you may develop a view of God that is loving and kind. If, however, you grew up in a family of violence your perception of a higher power would be of a being that is controlling, explosive and violent. For children who have been sexually violated by their parents, their role model for God is that of a sex offender. Survivors’ internalize a view of a punishing, abusive God, who only allows bad things to happen to them because “God loves them.” They live in a place where nothing is safe, not even their thoughts, because God can read those and therefore punished for even feeling angry, upset or disrespectful. Given the way children develop a perception of the world, a survivor of the heinous crime of incest would naturally question the veracity of a kind, loving God.
The Talmud (Moad Katan, 17a) relates that a respected Rabbinical educator was rumored to have been involved in behavior that was “hateful.” The commentators suggest that he was either an adulterer or seduced young women. The Rabbis ostracized this individual. Unfortunately, despite this tradition to ostracize such offenders, Jewish communities have not taken such a strong, responsible position toward molesters. Too often when allegations of child molestation are brought to the attention of community leaders, parents or relatives of victim’s are reminded that discussing issues of molestation within the community or bringing these types of allegations to the public would result in any number of negative outcomes for the survivor. These consequences include difficulty finding a marital partner of substance for not only the survivor, but also other family members, or could result in the survivor or family members of survivors not getting into good yeshivas (schools). There are tales of families of abuse victims of having to relocate to another town as a result of the political pressures following disclosures. Not only does the survivor have to struggle with their trust and belief in God so does the survivor’s family.
We have begun to discuss the possibility of a correlation between assimilation and childhood sexual abuse. According to the most recently available data one in every three to five women, and one out of every five to seven men, have been sexually abused by their 18th birthday. As part of the healing journey, the majority of survivors of abuse reach the point where they try to integrate what happened to them on a spiritual level. Many are in twelve-step programs, surrounded by individuals of other faiths, yet the Jewish survivors often feel different. Jews have very different customs then that of their Christian friends. When a survivor is from an unaffiliated background, they may feel at a loss — unsure of what to do, or how to do it while survivors from backgrounds that were more traditional and included a Jewish education may feel betrayed by that background. The confusion of the healing process adds to the inability to find a healthy spiritual place within their own religion. So what is a Jewish survivor of childhood abuse to do?
Up until now there have been very few individuals who are “survivor friendly” in the Jewish community. We need to start opening our minds and our hearts to begin listening to survivors of childhood sexual abuse bearing witness. Just like holocaust survivors, who were initially shunned, survivors of childhood abuse need to be allowed to speak in order to heal, to be able to learn to connect with God, to see God as something other then neglectful, abusive and cruel. Those listening to these disclosures have a responsibility to themselves, their families and to the survivors. It is vitally important to make sure they have access to a support group conducted by a trained facilitator who is experienced with compassion fatigue (secondary post-traumatic stress disorder), so they are allowed to debrief and maintain balance, after hearing the voices of survivors.
Karen is a thirty-year-old survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She indicated that she spent her life trying to connect to something that was spiritual, yet felt she was failing. Over the years she approached many rabbis asking them questions. Unfortunately, the Rabbis, due to a lack of training, were unable to help her understand either her questions or the concepts with which she need the most help. Most had difficulty listening to her disclose her abuse history. When Karen was a child, while her father was molesting her, he would say “this is how you know God loves you . . . you know anything that feels this good has to have come from God . . . this is how you know God is inside you.” Knowing this information would be critical in understanding Karen’s difficulties with the concept of God. Yet most Rabbis doing outreach were unable to help her reframe her experience and make it possible for Karen to learn to connect.
Rivka was in her teens when she first disclosed to a friend that her father, a rabbi was molesting her. Her father was also a principal of a school for young boys. Her friend told her mother, who in turn, went to a local community leader to ask for advice. Because of the stature of her father, the community leader suggested they keep quiet about the abuse. As time went on, Rivka was unable to cope. As a teen she ran into some difficulties and ended up moving into the home of one of her classmates. Due to political pressure within the community, the family that Rivka resided with was asked not to daven (pray) in the synagogue they had been members of for years. The family was dedicated to helping Rivka heal, and were not about to put her out on the streets. Rivka eventually went to college, was able to support herself financially, got married and is the mother of three. Rivka came from a Torah observant upbringing, but from her experiences with the denial of the community, she no longer practices. She feels betrayed by her family, the Jewish community, and most importantly by God. When speaking to community leaders of the town she was from, and when her name is mentioned, they make comments such as she’s happy, she is married and has children. But they are not completely correct. Rivka’s is in mourning. She misses her biological family, she misses her connection to her community and she feels that has no one to talk to about her feelings about God.
Mitch grew up in family filled with physical and sexual violence. The family belonged to a synagogue and his parents made sure to enroll all their children in programs so that they could learn about Judaism. There was a problem — Mitch was deaf. None of the Jewish educational programs had interpreters. Mitch was not proficient at lip reading and disclosed that he was bored and felt left out. Growing up Mitch never felt that he was a part of his family since the majority of his family members were not proficient in sign language. He was alone isolated in his deaf world.
School was Mitch’s only respite. He was enrolled in a school for the deaf, and could communicate freely with people who could understand and relate to him. Growing up in the South and being deaf meant that he didn’t have any Jewish friends. As he reached high school, he wanted to be like his friends. Most of them went to church. Mitch had no concept of God, and was like a sponge to learn, to connect to something spiritual. Mitch’s concept of God was that of a father who was filled with anger and rage. No one in the Jewish community ever took the time to meet Mitch’s needs. He never was given the opportunity to express his thoughts and feelings about his concepts of God to anyone Jewish. But then the missionaries reached him. Like so many survivors, the desire to feel loved was strong. His new friends knew this and showed him unconditional love. He would do anything to feel loved and cared for, and if it meant learning about another religion, then he did it. When his family realized what was happening they tried to rectify the situation, but again it was done in a way that appeared to be an attempt to control and abuse him. Their attempt was unsuccessful. To this day Mitch’s views Judaism as something that is abusive and wrong.
The more our communities, and our leaders are educated on the issues relating to childhood sexual abuse the easier it will be to help heal the oozing wounds of childhood sexual abuse. Band-Aids can only cover up an infection. Our communities need to do major wound care, some individuals may require “spiritual surgery,” while others my just need a topical ointment. But together as a community, as a people we can come together and heal the world.