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Child Abuse - Taboo in Judaism

Hadass Golandsky

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, Verse 2;

- Sex with parents, verse 7, perpetrator: child;

- 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, perpetrator: child;

- Sex with the uncle, Verse 14, perpetrator: child.

- 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 the parents.

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 exist.

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 Fleminger


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