There is a perplexing and tragic phenomenon that seems to have become a trend. In recent years, courageous victims of abuse have found the grit and the fortitude to speak truth to power. They choose to take a stand on behalf of their younger selves who suffered at the hands of adults who abused and exploited them. In so doing, they try to reclaim the sense of personal agency, dignity, and honor that they were robbed of by the abuser and all those who remained silent of protected the perpetrator.
They also take a stand for all past victims and forge a path that makes it easier for others to follow their lead. They also raise awareness that hopefully helps to prevent abuse from taking place. They do all of this by simply fighting for justice.
The tragedy from the perspective of a Torah Jew, is that almost without exception, these champions of redress and restitution, seem be forced to leave their communities, often even their families and worst of all Torah in order to represent their cause. To any reasonable person this has to be an indictment on those who representatives of Torah in the victims life who, instead of protecting them in the first place, or standing up for them after they had disclosed abuse, chose to shun and blame them for what happened or for speaking out.
A person’s closeness to God is measured by how well they embody the values of truth, justice, compassion, and love of Shalom. Furthermore, the Torah makes repeated reference to the fact that God stands with the vulnerable, the disempowered, dispossessed, dislocated and the disenfranchised. One would assume therefore that the more a community defines itself by its level of Torah observance, the more impeccable would be its response to victims of abuse in the community.
Ironically and sadly, however, a close observation of the commonalties in people’s stories reveal one pervasive theme. In many of these narratives the dynamics of the family and often the community in which they live are similar. The pervasive ethos that they share is one where the preservation of power and social status takes precedence over truth or the well being of individuals. This applies more especially to those who threaten to status-quo even if they happen to be one’s own children. Power that is used to exploit and control people operates most effectively when it is invisible or denied.
In these typically authoritarian often tyrannical family regimes, relinquishing personal agency, pretending, and lying about ones needs and feelings is the only way to prove love, loyalty, and devotion. This means hiding at all costs, and denying vehemently if challenged, one’s true beliefs, thoughts, and desires. In these families, bonds between members are held together firmly by their tacit consensual agreement is to not reveal, even to themselves, who you really are. In other words, hiding emotional needs, hurts and pain. They keep an implicit pact to maintain a well-honed public front of righteousness and family cohesion. Family members never reveal or discuss even amongst themselves the mythologies that keep the family so securely yoked to each other and so frightened of being emotionally connected.
Authentic expressions of individuality, originality, creative and critical thinking as well as needs for care, understanding, intimacy, recognition, and support are explicitly or covertly punished. The reason that they are seen as illegitimate forms of self-expression is be because they challenge and threaten expose the narcissism, hypocrisy and mean spiritedness of those who dissimulate by portraying an image of virtue and devotion to family well-being when all they are doing is preserving their franchise.
Children in these families get taught the rules either directly, by for example being threatened with gehinom or purgatory, or by witnessing or hearing stories about others being ridiculed, rejected, disqualified and punished for exposing or challenging the status quo.
Truth is silenced. Self-awareness treated as act of sedition. Here the implicit family rule is that saying the truth about how you feel about the family dynamics or how you are treated is in considered treachery. Asking for what you need construed as an act of criticism of illegitimate complaint and therefore disloyalty. Expressions of authentic desires and aspirations that don’t conform to what is expected by the family is construed as traitorous. It is always implicitly understood by everybody that not only are there no such rules in the family.
Children also learn from a very reality age, that nobody is allowed to be aware of let alone mention that such coercive and repressive rules exist in the family. Another rule is that the first rule cannot be mentioned or discussed. The third rule is that no such rules exist. Truth is not just banned from speech. It is banished from awareness. Under such circumstances not only is honesty with oneself let alone others perceived as a major threat, but even the awareness of one’s own inner reality.
Awareness becomes dangerous because it might bring you to speak your truth and put you in danger of rejection of being labeled as mad, troublemaker or evil one. In an effort to survive this tyranny, people avoid self-awareness through resorting to addiction, self-erasure and numbing, distractions like workaholics, compulsive chattering, sabotaging any conversation that evokes feelings or self-reflection, compulsive lying, self-entangling in anxiety and doubt, hysterical displays, wailing, raging, moralistic lecturing, self-righteousness, using overt religious devotion as a ruse, one-upmanship and undermining and ridiculing of people perceived to be a threat to name but a few.
Children are also taught that the lifestyle of their family and community is superior and preferred by God. To reinforce and support that notion children are expected to accept the belief that the outside world poses a threat to their way of life because it is a world of evil and lies.
In this world, the victims get framed as perpetrators, and the perpetrators as victims. If one has any doubt as to the validity of this charge, follow the money. Observe how many are quick to sponsor perpetrators, especially if they are or were religious authority figures, to make sure they evade justice. All the while victims’ lives get destroyed just mustering up enough resources to survive the ordeal of trying to overcome systemic corruption in order to buy justice. The mention of one of these cases in the news almost inevitably gets met with doubt and victim blaming on the part of the listener. It seems too far a stretch for many to appreciate the fact that nobody in their right mind would fabricate a story knowing the ordeal that awaits them when they take on their family, community and the justice system.
Those victims who chose to live in silence to protect group interests inevitably resort in the end to divorce, suicide, child abuse, mental illness, and addiction. These become the preferred options when articulating one’s truth or expressing authentic needs and feelings is simply too dangerous. Lives of the innocent are sacrificed on the altars of honoring parents, keeping the peace, “doing the right thing” and avoiding criticism of neighbors or co-religionists. Secrets and lies are passed off or justified as being tznius or modest and private. In taking the shame and guilt onto themselves, they inadvertently collude with the toxic system that hurt them.
If abuse is not met with compassion and justice, it does not only hurt the victim. It causes damage to the entire fabric of society. It compromises the value of “shalom.” When perpetrators are protected by those who’s franchise is based on a claim to Torah observance, the very credibility of the Torah is undermined. These people who hide behind their professed love of Hashem, through their actions on behalf of perpetrators and callous indifference to victims, impugn and for some destroy the reputation of Hashem and Torah in the world. The sheer cynicism and hypocrisy of a system that allows the vulnerable and victimized to be banished, shunned, and humiliated offends peoples natural sense of justice and fairness. The worst of the damage is that people motivated by integrity and desire for truth and justice lose faith in and connection with the very source of truth and justice.
The writer is a South Africa-based clinical psychologist, an organizational development consultant, expert witness and life coach. He has appeared extensively on radio and television and has hosted two radio shows on psychological matters.