Child Abuse - Taboo
I do not want to hurt or blame
anyone with my observations, rather much more, to direct attention to this
grave problem. The only ones who can make changes, who can intervene and
help, are those who are aware.
Imagine that your rabbi or his wife
beats their children. Would you do something to help the children? Would you
speak with the rabbi? Call in the youth office or even the police? Most of
us would simply do nothing. After all, it's about our rabbi. Many would
think "He has good qualities too that" to find a reason not to get involved.
We also think that it is definitely a case of exception, that the rabbi or
his wife feels stressed, that it's not easy to be a rabbi in Europe, etc.,
etc. In this way, we have created a taboo. Because we cannot and do not want
to imagine at all that child abuse is wide spread in Judaism.
What is child abuse? The spectrum is
nearly endless: it reaches from bodily to psychological - and from violent
to "soft" abuse. For the victim - children, in this case - every form of
abuse profoundly undermines his/her sense of security: it damages body,
spirit and/or soul and often brings devastating consequences for further
development. Children who fall victim to abuse are people who are unable to
provide for themselves. The are dependent on the help and support of adults
(at first, mainly their parents). The perpetrators are people (chiefly
adults), who either consciously or unconsciously exploit the helplessness of
their children to their own advantage. I will deal with sexual abuse of
children here as an example, and with the help of biblical citation, will
show that this problem does not only exists in Judaism, but also that it is
a great taboo.
Sexual abuse of children may not be
equated with rape - even though when many people want to believe that. With
sexual abuse, the perpetrator uses the child to become sexually aroused and
to attain sexual gratification for hin/herselve. The most difficult
situation is the one in which the perpetrator is a member of the child's
family (incest). A father who lets his daughter dance for him and
becomes sexually aroused or
masturbates, without telling the child to stop, has already abused her
sexually. A mother who caresses her son's genitals while diapering him, and
becomes sexually aroused, or, has an orgasm, sexually abuses her child.
Those are just two examples for more or less unconscious sexual abuse. But
what does that have to do with Judaism? Sexual abuse of children is taboo
everywhere. And yet sexual abuse of children is widespread in our modern
society. It is generally assumed that every third girl and every fifth boy
is sexually abused, mostly in their own families. In Israel, the talk is of
every fifth girl. Boys are hardly mentioned, and in orthodox cities in
Israel, according to statistics, sexual abuse of children hardly exists.
Among the Jews in the Diaspora, the numbers are unclear. Is Israel really
"better" than the rest of the Western world? Are we Jews really spared this
problem? Or is sexual abuse of children so taboo in Judaism that we actually
believe it doesn't exist?
How is it that sexual abuse of
children is more taboo in Judaism than in other Western religions and
societies? First, we generally characterize the People of Israel,
positively, and in so doing tend to cover up our human weakness. As the
"Chosen People", as "Light of the Peoples", we should be an example for all
the other nations. As such, something like sexual abuse of children cannot
exist. The Jews are also named "The People of the Book". The Torah is not
only our doctrine, but also our book of law. In it, we find many
prohibitions and laws that gove them impression that sexual abuse of
children doesn’t exit and severe punishments that made incest taboo.
Lot and his Daughters
Let us begin with the famous story of
Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19.30):
"And Lot went up out of the Zoar, and
dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to
dwell in Zoar; and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the
first-born said unto the younger: 'Our father is old, and there is not a man
in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth. Come let
us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may
preserve seed of our father.' And they made their father drink wine that
night. And the first-born went in, and lay with her father; and he knew not
when she lay down, nor when she arose. And it came to pass on the morrow,
that the first-born said unto the younger: 'Behold, I lay yesternight with
my father. Let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and
lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.' And they made their
father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose, and lay with him;
he knew not when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both, the
daughters of Lot, with child by their father. And the first-born bore a son,
and called his name Moab - the same is the father of the Moabites unto this
day. And the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Ben-ammi- the
same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day."
At first glance, the story appears to
be completely clear: the daughters were desperate because they believed
there were no men in that land, and they outwitted their father into having
sex with them. That is also the usual interpretation. Yet, is the story
really so simple? Let's go into it more deeply: Lot, Abraham's nephew, lived
with his wife and two daughters in Gomorra, a city that, together with
Sodom, formed the cities of sin that God completely annihilated (Gen. 19,
24-25). It is not clear exactly what happened in Sodom and Gomorra, only
that the citizens of both cities were extremely evil. But evil in what way?
The name of the city Sodom can give us a hint, because sodomy means sex with
an animal. In modern Hebrew, the word means anal rape. This brings us to the
assumption that forbidden sexual practices were carried out in Sodom and
Gomorra. Although Lot was represented as the only just man in Gomorra (Gen.
19,1), and together with his wife and daughter, was the only one to be
saved, we must still ask why he had lived for so long in such a city at all.
Was Lot perhaps nice only once to the guests, the messengers of God who had
come to the city, but otherwise evil like all the other inhabitants? Verse
29 in the same chapter gives us one indication that Lot was actually not so
good: And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, that
God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the destruction,
when He destroyed the cities in the area where Lot dwelt." That means that
God saved Lot not because he was the only just man in Sodom and Gomorra, but
because he was related to Abraham!
As we know, Lot's wife froze into a
pillar of salt while fleeing out of Gomorra (Gen. 19, 26) and Lot was left
alone with his two grown daughters. He was afraid to settle in Zoar and
moved with his daughters into the mountains, where he lived alone with them
in a cave (Verse 30). Why was he afraid to live in a city that God had
recommended to him? One has to simply wonder why he could live fearlessly in
Sodom and Gomorra, but not in Zoar.
It is not known how long Lot and his
daughters lived in the cave. One day, in any case, the older daughter
decided to sleep with her father because there were no men in the land
(Verse 31). How did she arrive at that conclusion? The daughters were
certainly not born in the cave, away from civilization. They didn't only
know men and women in Sodom and Gomorra, but they certainly must have also
seen and met men in Zoar and on the way into the mountains. The daughters
had their father drink wine until he noticed nothing more (Verse 33). That
means, that Lot must have been so drunk that he lost consciousness. In such
a state, he couldn't have been physical capable of having an erection! At
the end of the story, each daughter then brings a son into the world (Verse
37). But that his daughters became pregnant doesn't seem to have surprised
Lot at all. If he really hadn't noticed anything, and if there actually had
been no men in the land, he must indeed have been quite astounded!
This closer look at the story brings
us thus to the conclusion that Lot was for some reason protected, perhaps
because he was Abraham's nephew, or perhaps because in Biblical opposed to
post-biblical times, as the family line stemmed from the father, and his
children and grandchildren founded two important tribes. (Verse 37).
Prohibition on Incest
Incest was not only hushed up in
stories, but also tabooed by laws, bans, commandments and repetitions. Most
of the laws of the Torah are found in the Third. Book of Moses, including
the prohibition on incest (Lev. 18 and 20.) Many of the laws in chapter 20
are repeated from from chapter 18, for example, the prohibition on
homosexuality (Verse 22.) In Israel and in progressive Judaism, (Reform and
Liberal Judaism), homosexuality is currently no longer taboo. Unfortunately,
mention of incest still is.
We find the prohibition on incest in
greater detail in Lev. 18,6-17. In the following list, the specific
prohibitions on incest are given. The perpetrator is always the one to whom
the prohibition applies:
- General prohibition on incest,
- Sex with parents, verse 7,
- Sex with the mother, respectively,
step-mother, Verse 8, perpetrator, child;
- Sex with the sister, respectively,
half-sister, Verse 9, perpetrator: child:
- Sex with the aunt, Verse 12-13,
- Sex with the uncle, Verse 14,
- Sex with the uncle's wife, Verse
14, perpetrator: child;
- Sex with the sister-in-law, Verse
15; perpetrator: child;
- Sex with the daughter-in-law, Verse
15, perpetrator: child;
- Sex with the granddaughter, Verse
19, perpetrator: grandfather;
- Sex with the step-daughter, Verse
17, perpetrator: step-father;
- Sex with step-granddaughter, Verse
17, perpetrator: step-grandfather.
In most of the cases (7 from 11), the
perpetrator is the child, who doesn't have to be a minor. The first detailed
prohibition refers to sex with the parents. There is, however, no
prohibition that refers to sex with the daughter or son. The biological
father and biological mother, are not denoted as perpetrators. There is no
woman as perpetrator.
Unfortunately, I do not have an
explanation for these phenomena. Yet, if the incest prohibitions to do not
apply to the parents, it means that they must never have been perpetrators.
Parents who sexually abuse their children are therefore taboo! And if a
sexual act occurs with the father or the mother, the child is guilty and not
After the prohibitions follow the
warning, the repulsion and the choosing of the people of Israel: "Defile not
ye yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are
defiled, which I cast out from before you. And the land was defiled,
therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out
her inhabitants..." (Lev. 18, 24-25). The punishment was announced at the
end: "For whosoever shall do any of these abominations, even the souls that
do them shall be cut off from among their people" (Verse 29). In chapter 20,
the punishment for these atrocities is death. Next to murder and idolatry,
incest is one of the three main atrocities in the Torah.
It is often maintained that because
of the forceful and repetitive warnings and threats of death penalty, incest
does not exist in Judaism. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
An additional taboo – related to
incest may be inferred one of the 10 commandments, which - like the
prohibition on incest - is listed twice in the Torah (Ex. 20,1-17 and Dtn.
5,6-20). The 6th commandment: "Honor thy father and mother, as the Lord thy
God commanded thee..." obligates the child to honor his parents, regardless
of what they have done or do to him. This commandment is further enforced by
the obligation to God, in which the child who is abused by his parents can
in no way act against them. A commandment "Honor thy children" doesn't
Abuse by Circumcision
What role does the Torah play in our
lives? Which commandments and laws do we keep and which not? The commandment
to keep Shabbat or kashrut is not observed by many. The commandment to
circumcise is kept by nearly all Jews, and in my eyes, that is the greatest
taboo related to sexual abuse of children in Judaism. Questioning the
commandment to circumcise is so deeply tabooed in Judaism, that it's neither
talked about nor criticized.
Circumcision appears first in Genesis
17, 10-13, where God enters the first covenant with Abraham: "This is My
covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee:
every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in
the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me
and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every
male throughout your generations..."
There is hardly a Jew worldwide who
is not circumcised and hardly a circumcision carried out without religious
ritual. There are hardly any Jews who would dare to question (publicly)
circumcision or to call it child abuse. I am not in any way talking about
the act of circumcision. Many people think that removing the foreskin is
healthier and more hygienic. That may be. But circumcision because of
disease can be carried out at a later point in time, when the child is
already able to understand the necessity of such an operation. In few cases
is a circumcision necessary for reasons of health directly after birth. I
refer here to the religious act, that is performed on all Jewish boys at the
age of eight days. It can be debated whether an infant of this age
experiences sexual sensation, but the assumption that at eight days a baby
is not as sensitive to pain as is an older child, is simply wrong. A baby
cannot speak out "that hurts!".
Circumcision is a violent
intervention and a wounding of a child's genitals, which purely physically
is a form of sexual abuse, of sexual maltreatment. Yes, it is very difficult
thing for many of us to accept, because it could mean that all Jews who have
their sons circumcised are sexual perpetrators. As mentioned above, it is
neither my intention to blame anyone nor to present all Jews as people who
mistreat children. I merely want to break every form of taboo about child
abuse and to stimulate discussions so that we can better deal with the
subject. We can do it through attentiveness, by questioning and by learning.
Biblical citations from: The
Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Edited by Dr. J.H. Hertz, C.H., London.
Hadass Golandsky, born 1962 in Haifa,
studied photography and pedagogic. 1987 she moved to Vienna, where she works
as a secretary at the Institute of Jewish Studies at the university of
Vienna. Besides she is a painter and a singer (under the name Haddi Golan).
She teaches "Basic Judaism" at Or-Chadasch in Vienna and leads services.
Translated from German by Madelon
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