Sunday, August 19, 2012

Orthodoxy, Sex, and Abuse

Guest Post by Kevin in Chicago

A regular commenter from Chicago has asked some thoughtful and honest questions about the controversy that surrounds Orthodox Judaism's treatment of sex abuse. I think he gets to the heart of the matter. I just want to preface it with some background.

There is certainly a different attitude to sex in a societal sense today than there was during the time the Torah was handed down from Sinai. One need not go further than how the Torah itself (Devorim 22: 28-9) deals with the rape of a Na'arah (a 12 year girl) - to see how God himself treats it. The rapist (or seducer) must marry his victim without any recourse to future divorce. If the victim chooses not to marry him he pays a fine to the father of fifty Shekalim. (A Shekel was the unit of currency at that time similar to our dollar.)

And yet the laws governing sexuality are among the strictest in the world. For example the Torah forbids sexual intercourse with a woman during her period of menstruation on penalty of Kares – the most serious form of death by heavenly means.  Adultery with a married woman is a capital offense - punishable by a court of law!  …as are many other types of forbidden relationships.

The rabbinic enactments of Halacha that are designed to distance us from violating biblical sexual offenses  go very far in that direction. If one looks at the codification of the rabbinic enactments in the Shulchan Aruch they will see just how far they go.  By societal standards of our era they seem very extreme.

In our day there are Poskim that take the positions of the Shulchan Aruch to even greater lengths – separating the sexes as much as humanly possible. In those circles that has created a mindset that avoids any discussion of sex at all with children even after they reach puberty. The result of that is that in insular communities like Satmar or Ger, some young men and women have no clue that procreation involves sex. And may not learn about it until shortly before they get married.

And yet in these same circles, they tend hide sex abuse from the public and have been known to intimidate victims and their families from going public - or worse from informing secular authorities about it. They feel that when it happens the victim should just get over it and get on with their lives. I can’t think of a greater disconnect than that.

It is will all this in mind that I present the following guest post originally posted as a comment. Frankly, I’m not sure I can answer his questions. His words follow.

I want to ask this as an innocent/ignorant question from an outsider.  Without in the least suggesting that Charedim condone child molestation, is it possible that some Charedim have a different attitude toward it?  Might it be that, as long as it does not involve anal intercourse, mishkav zakhar, that sexual contact between boys, or between men and boys, while sinful, is not considered the epitome of evil?  

In this case, it appears that the camp authorities were concerned about the length of time the perpetrator spent in each (unmonitored) cubicle, suggesting that their primary concern was whether anal intercourse might have occurred.  This is in contrast to those of "us" who visit this blog (I presume mostly non-Charedim), who are outraged that he was going into the boys' cubicles at all.

I'm wondering whether there is a cultural difference here that needs to be taken into account, specifically the culture of rigid separation of the sexes and same-sex educational institutions. Keeping boys away from girls prevents some sexual activity; it does not prevent all sexual activity.  

I understand that in the past, in English "public" boarding schools, homosexual activity was common and more or less accepted, although boys were expected to "grow out of it."  Older, stronger boys sometimes forced themselves on weaker ones.  Sometimes teachers were predators, or at least became involved with boys.  Everyone knew, nobody told, and it became an unspoken part of the culture.  Some may be offended by the comparison with English public schools, but it is naive to believe that talmud Torah eliminates the yetzer ha-ra.

I suggest that men raised in such an all-male environment, whether in an English public school or a yeshiva, had some exposure to homosexual activity, not only among peers, but with older boys and men.  It is probable that those who went on to serve as teachers and administrators in similar institutions were those who felt they suffered no ill effects from that exposure, and consequently are likely to have a more indulgent attitude toward child molestation than those not raised in that environment. 

This is not to suggest that they condone molestation, only that it would be understandable if they do not see it as deserving the very harsh penalties our criminal law prescribes.  Mishkav zakhar is, of course, a capital offense d'oraita, but other, lesser, sexual contact, although forbidden, might not be felt to warrant a lengthy prison term followed by lifetime stigmatization.  Who knows whether a rebbe who hesitates to report a molester might himself have ambivalent memories of a rebbe he loved and respected but who crossed the boundaries?