Sin and Subtext

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New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women” read the subheader of a New York Jewish Week article on October 26. The study found nothing of the sort.

Based on a self-selected sample — women who chose to fill out a survey offered on Jewish websites and in newspaper advertisements, synagogue bulletins, doctors’ offices and through other means — the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities. Randomized studies, like those that have focused on abuse in the general American population, yield reasonable estimations of the behaviors of their foci. Self-selected surveys of the same populations, however, can easily yield data that diverge substantially from the reality in those groups.

Thus, the study’s authors themselves responsibly cautioned that “those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population,” and noted that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a “major limitation of this study.” The study also notes that “there was a high proportion of subjects [51% — AS] receiving mental health treatment in this group [the sample recruited for the study],” further suggesting that the respondents were not representative of the larger Orthodox population (victims of abuse are, of course, more likely than others to seek counseling).

And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that “Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women,” the Jewish Week writer was comparing apples and tractors. If anything, the similar percentages arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the Orthodox community. After all, if 26% of a group likely to contain a disproportionate number of abuse victims report they were abused, one would expect a much lower percentage of a randomly selected group from the same population.

Abuse, of course, is a serious sin and a serious problem and, tragically, it exists in every community, including the Orthodox. That is bad enough. What is also lamentable, though, is that its existence — to whatever extent — in the Orthodox world provides fodder for those who are always at the ready to pounce on the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence to “expose” what they believe are the moral shortcomings of Orthodox life.

Last year, an article appeared in New York magazine that told the tawdry tale of an alleged serial Orthodox child abuser.

The New York writer did more than salaciously detail an alleged victim’s accusations. He went on to share with readers his own consideration of the prospect that such ugly behavior is “more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere.”

“There are no reliable statistics,” he admitted, “… but there’s reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes.”

The “reason to believe” turned out to be the report of another writer who had explored the world of once-Chassidic people who turned their backs on their communities and found it “shocking” to hear how “so many boys [emphasis hers] have had this experience [of abuse].”

Now, abuse, tragically, may well have been a factor in the trajectory of those disheartened Jews’ lives. And if it was, our hearts must ache with the anguish of the victims. But to consider their agonizing experience as somehow emblematic of Chassidic life, much less broader Orthodox life, is like deciding there must be a national epidemic of broken bones after visiting a hospital and seeing “so many” patients in casts.

Employing the trusty journalistic tool of ascribing unfounded speculations to anonymous sources, the New York writer went on to reveal that “There are some who believe” that “the repression in the ultra-Orthodox community can foster abuse.” By “the repression,” he helpfully explained, he meant things like the strict forbiddance of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws that regulate when married couples may and may not engage in intimacy. The “few outlets for an Orthodox man with compulsions,” those unnamed “some” believe, create “a fertile environment for deviance.”

Those comments go to the crux of the matter of why Orthodox Jews should care about any of this. After all, why not just ignore it all? Just as unfounded negative assumptions about Jews in general are popular in much of the non-Jewish world, so are Orthodox Jews unfairly maligned in the larger Jewish one. Do we really have to make a fuss?

Well, I believe we do. Because there is a subtext here. The maligning is not of Orthodox Jews alone; it is a maligning of mitzvot, of modesty, of Torah. It is a claim, in effect, that dedication to Torah doesn’t help prevent sin, that it even leads to it.

I believe – and it is Judaism’s belief – that Torah is transformative, that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torah-life and Torah-study. To be sure, there are Jews who lead publicly observant lives yet who are not truly committed to Torah, who have not internalized “fear of Heaven.” And so, there will always be anecdotal evidence of Orthodox wrongdoings of many sorts, with perpetrators identifiable, and duly identified, as Orthodox.

But the vast majority of observant Jews take Torah seriously. And it does elevate them, and empowers them to live exemplary lives. That is part of why the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in the realms of societal ills like rape, AIDS, prostitution and marital infidelity that affect their less “repressed” neighbors. Although it is certainly possible that rates of child or spouse abuse in the Orthodox world are equal to those of general American society, I would expect a similar underrepresentation in those realms as well.

I cannot know that my expectation reflects reality; there are no meaningful statistical data to mine at present. But neither are there any to support the assumptions and speculations of writers like those cited above.

One thing I do know, though, is that my expectation is based on the quintessential Jewish idea that the study and practice of Torah create more refined human beings. And the others’ assumption is based on their conviction – fueled, perhaps, by wishful thinking – that it does not.

The writers are entitled to their cynicism. But all Jews who respect Torah are entitled – I believe obligated – to expose it, along with offerings of unfounded, bias-born speculations as facts.

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18 Responses

  1. Shlomo Kohen says:

    The study mentioned in the article was of Orthodox families. Orthodoxy cononts an adherence to the Torah lifestyle. Consequently, statistics regarding Orthodox families is ostensible reflective of the impact a Torah lifestyle has an its particapints.This is a mistaken premise. Rabbe Gifter Z”L said that he is not interested in the percentage of Orthodox Jews, rather in the actual number of ‘ Torah Jews’. For many people, unfortanatly, Orthodox Judaisim is not much more than a social group that they conform to, but they are far removed from a Torah lifestlye. The vast majority of the people in this study, I would venture to say, are Orthodox Jews not Torah Jews.

  2. mbg says:

    i’d like to second a few points already mentioned and add a few as well:

    1 – the difficulty doing studies like this is itself an issue that needs to be addressed. Satmar or other centrally-controlled hasidic groups are one thing, but what is going to make other orthodox groups/subgroups responsive?

    1a – rather than criticizing this study for shortcomings the authors acknowledge, and which they could not fix, the real hand-wringing should be over the absence of reliable information to guide teachers (kallah or otherwise) and others who deal with these issues.

    2 – re: the following exchange:

    “I do not believe that you will find 3 professionals who deal with child and spouse abuse in the Orthodox world who will agree that the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in those realms.”

    ‘I am curious how you know this? Have you spoken to professionals about this? And if you have, could they have provided you with more than the sketchiest type of anecdotal evidence?’

    I don’t understand why “sketchy anecdotal evidence” from people who have at least some access to what is really going on is not better than assertions based on _no_ evidence, which is what the “we have less of a problem” claim amounts to. It is based on faith statments, not evidence at all.

    3 – chaim wolfson said: “Zalman, If you were correct, then shouldn’t have this been a problem for the past 3300 years? Nothing in our tradition indicates that it has been. “Chazal”, the Rishonim and Acharonim were famously self-critical, and pointed out many flaws in Jewish behavior, yet we find very little, if any, discussion in their literature that points to the widespread existence of sexual abuse.”

    First of all, to the extent that “abuse” includes “rape,” your statement is not true. second, the fact that a transgression almost always carried out in private, and around which there has long been a culture of silence and shame, did not (allegedly – i don’t know enough to say this for sure) make it into the written halakhic material that has survived until now doesn’t mean much to me, actually. by your account, do you think abuse is a problem of the modern western world? after all, we hear far less about it from other times/places.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    May I make a recommendation? As an outsider, it seems to me that there are two types of Jews who accept the strictures of Orthodoxy:

    1. True believers, who follow Halacha because that’s what G-d wants. With all due respect to their Yetzer haRa, I suspect this group doesn’t contain many spouse or child abusers. They could sin once, but having sinned they’ll try very hard not to be in the same situation again.

    2. The socially Orthodox, who follow Halacha in the public view because they want to be part of Orthodox society. Habitual sinners, such as the Monsey treif chicken seller probably tend to be in this category. Spousal and child abusers are probably also in this category in most cases.

    Since the socially Orthodox fear exposure and shame, maybe it would be a good idea as a society to use exposure and shame to get them to fear being abusers. It might be a bad idea to actually publish the details of their sin, but maybe there should be a central registry, managed by somebody trusted, for Cherems caused by serious offenses.

  4. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “Things like the strict prohibition of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws may indeed foster abuse. Why not recognize that possibility?” (Comment by zalman — November 25, 2007 @ 6:49 p.m.).

    Zalman, If you were correct, then shouldn’t have this been a problem for the past 3300 years? Nothing in our tradition indicates that it has been. “Chazal”, the Rishonim and Acharonim were famously self-critical, and pointed out many flaws in Jewish behavior, yet we find very little, if any, discussion in their literature that points to the widespread existence of sexual abuse. On the contrary, “Chazal” (who had an undeniably keen understanding of human nature, whatever you might say about their scientific knowledge) inform us that the family purity laws, rather than fostering abuse, foster a deeper love between husband and wife. I can easily make the argument that the same is true of abstinence from pre-marital sex. In any case, the New York magazine writer (who presumably is not Orthodox, and possibly not even Jewish) certainly is in no position to claim that these restrictions promote abuse rather than enhance relations between husband and wife, since he/she has no personal experience with them and so cannot gauge their practical effect. Finally, even if we assume, for argument’s sake, that these restrictions do foster abuse, now what? What exactly do you propose should be done about it?

    “I do not believe that you will find 3 professionals who deal with child and spouse abuse in the Orthodox world who will agree that the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in those realms.”

    I am curious how you know this? Have you spoken to professionals about this? And if you have, could they have provided you with more than the sketchiest type of anecdotal evidence?

    “The Torah does not guarantee that the Orthodox world will know no abuse.”

    No, it does not. Because the Torah does not gaurantee that everyone will strictly adhere to its dictates. But if everyone would follow not just the letter of the Torah but its spirit as well, I doubt abuse would be a problem, as Rabbi Shafran and Toby Katz maintain. The story is told of the person who came to the Gerer Rebbe, Rav Yisrael Alter, complaining about someone’s behavior. “So-and-so is crazy,” he said. “What makes you think so,” asked the Rebbe. “Because he dances with women and he eats pork!” the man responded. The Rebbe replied, “If you would have told me that he dances with pigs and eats women, I would agree that he’s crazy. But dancing with women and eating pork? That doesn’t show he’s crazy, it shows he has a ‘yetzer hara’ (evil impulse) he doesn’t control.” What I take out from this study is that there are Orthodox Jews who don’t control their “yetzer hara” (although I tend to think that child molesters belong in the category of “pig dancers and women eaters”). That, in and of itself, is not news; we’ve been struggling with our “yetzer haras” since Adam ate from the “Eitz HaDaas” (Tree of Knowledge”), and not always successfully. What IS alarming is that the study points to a particulary harmul form of “yetzer hara”. But living a Torah lifestyle does not create the “yetzer hara”, it’s the antidote to it.

    “We should acknowledge that such abuse exists, it is not rare and that uneducated comparisons with the rest of society do not bring a cure; they delay the cure.”

    I agree with you 100% that we must acknowledge that abuse exists, regardless of how rare it is. But it is the Jewish Week’s extrapolation from the study’s results that is uneducated, as is clear from the disclaimer made by the study’s authors themselves. If anything, one could make an educated guess that the problem IS much rarer in the Orthodox world. I would think that there is a correlation between sexual abuse and the incidence of rape, AIDS, prostitution and infidelity; all are indicative of a certain level of promiscuity. If the Orthodox Jewish population is underrepresented in the latter four categories, as Rabbi Shafran points out, is it not reasonable to assume that the same is true of abuse? [Perhaps this argument is not as valid in the case of spousal abuse — which, as the (ever-perceptive) Ori Pomerantz points out, takes place in the privacy of one’s home where there is less pressure to conform to societal norms — as it is in the case of child molestation. Nevertheless, the standards of a society do have an effect on one’s private behavior.] This is not to minimize the problem; one case of abuse is one case too many, and unfortunately there is more than just one case. I do not know what the solution is, but ackowledging that it exists is certainly the first step to solving it. However, I, like Rabbi Shafran and many of the commenters here, strongly suspect that the Jewish Week and New York magazine had a different agenda than merely bringing this problem to our attention.

  5. YoelB says:

    On reflection, I doubt that the studies at UC Berkeley included questions about sexual abuse, so I don’t think that the fact that the population characteristics of users and non-users of a university psychiatric clinic were the same a generation ago mean much for the recent study under discussion here.

  6. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    I also read the survey, and noted that approximately 40% of the respondents were baalei teshuva. Since they grew up in non-Orthodox homes, their experiences are irrelevant to what happens in Orthodox Jewish households or among those with Orthodox Jewish upbringings. Furthermore, the BT’s reported about half the total incidents of abuse reported. (At the same time, the sample was unrepresentative since it did not account for those who have gone off the derech, whatever that percentage may be.) As a result, I don’t see the survey as being very reliable.

    With regard to our community’s unwillingness to take part in such surveys, I believe it’s unfortunate. In the 1950s and 60s, Cleveland State sociologist Israel Rubin did a study of Satmar in Williamsburg. He noted at the beginning that he was going nowhere until he met with the Rebbe and the Rebbe gave the study his approval. Suddenly, the community opened up. The result was “Satmar, an Island in the City.” If we can find the studiers who will be truly objective and careful, what can we lose by learning something about ourselves?

  7. YoelB says:

    In the 1960s my stepfather, alav ha shalom, was the director of psychiatric services at a major university, which then had an on-campus hospital including inpatient psychiatric treatment and a staff of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. Due to its academic affiliations, studies of various kinds were done on the users of the psychiatric service. The students who used the services were indistinguishable from the general student population by any measure used save the fact of their seeking counseling. I remember my stepfather saying that this was typical of other demographic studies in other populations as well.
    I don’t know whether more recent studies show that those seeking counseling are atypical of their demographic, (e.g.., whether victims of sex abuse are over-represented in non-Orthodox women seeking counseling.)
    We all hope that a Torah life, on average, protects us and our families from some of the ills of the surrounding culture. We certainly have anecdotal reports that for some, it may. We know it is not an absolute protection. In the absence of data about how representative of the larger Orthodox world this study population is, any claims, be they assertions of a lower occurrence of sexual abuse of women and girls in the Orthodox world or attempts to extend this study beyond its bounds to bolster sensational claims of widespread abuse are both wishful thinking. (Of course, what someone wishes may reveal something about them, but that’s a different story and doesn’t shed light on this study.)
    Victims of sexual abuse may indeed be over-represented in the study population, married women seeking counseling. But then again, wishful thinking aside, they may not. We just don’t know.
    I welcome Charles B. Hall’s input into the demographic questions I have mentioned. I think that he, as well as Alan and Mike S above have the right take on it.

  8. zalman says:

    1. Things like the strict prohibition of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws may indeed foster abuse. Why not recognize that possibility?

    2. I do not believe that you will find 3 professionals who deal with child and spouse abuse in the Orthodox world who will agree that the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in those realms.

    3. The Torah does not guarantee that the Orthodox world will know no abuse. (If you should learn that the rates of child or spouse abuse in the Orthodox world are equal to those of general American society, would you stop your observance?)

    4. We should acknowledge that such abuse exists, it is not rare and that uneducated comparisons with the rest of society do not bring a cure; they delay the cure.

  9. Mike S. says:

    while the study has its limitations, as the authors admit, one should not use those limits to deny the importance of the problem. For one thing, while the sample might overstate the percentages it might also understate them for all the traditional reasons Orthodox Jews are reluctant to report misdeeds. However, the report does make clear that the problem is not trivial. In any event, our standard of comparison should be perfection in observing the halacha, not the behavior of our nonreligious neighbors. That there were enough frum women who have been abused enough to reply to the study is a Chillul Hashem, regardless of hpw the numbers compare to other social groups.

    While it is true that one who is truly a Ben Torah is transformed thereby, not only is it easy to assume the outward appearance of a Ben Torah without that transformation, it is apparently also all too easy to spend years in the Batei Midrash of our best yeshivot, both MO and Chareidi without becoming a true Ben Torah, as many of the cases that have reached the press demonstrate. As frum Jews, we must strive to make sure respect for the Tzelem Elokim of every person is deeply inculcated in ourselves and our children. If one truly accepted Ben Azzai’s clal deep in his heart, he would not be able to abuse or cheat anyone.

  10. Alan says:

    Rabbi Shafran:

    The issue, I think, is not whether the percentage of sexually or physically abused Orthodox women (or children) is the same as in the general population. It is whether it occurs. The continued need for organizations such as Shalva and Project Shield in Chicago and other similar organizations around the county tells us that, unfortunately, these problems continue.

    The Chillul Hashem is in the act, not in its exposure. I would like to respectfully suggest that the Agudah focus its efforts on helping victims and exposing perpetrators, not in trying to demonstrate that we have less of the problem than the general population.

  11. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Toby Katz: A person who totally follows a Torah way of life WILL be a better person for it.

    Ori: The question is, how many Orthodox Jews follow the way of Torah as best they can, and how many follow the norms of their society when they think somebody (human, not Avot 2:1) might be watching. Sexual abusers are obviously in the second group.

    How would you prove to a suspicious audience that most Orthodox Jews are in the first group, those who truly believe and live accordingly?

  12. dr. william gewirtz says:

    “There is a false meta-message: Orthodox Jews, across the board, are no better than anyone else.” A person’s environment, provides a context and a hence background against which one is judged. We should feel honored when orthodox jews are implicitly held to a higher standard by the larger community. I tend to see this as a (unintended perhaps) back-handed compliment.

    It is only in defensiveness or denial that we diminish our deserved position. I would worry about those areas where more is NOT expected of us.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    Charlie Hall-Your perceptive comments illustrate a flaw in the study inasmuch as the authors themselves admit the study group is not representative of all observant women. Yet, the JW, which competes with the secular media and the non-Orthodox Jewish media, in Ortho-bashing any sector of the Torah world to the right of its editorial staff, seized on this study to say that Orthodox women are as abused non-observant women.

  14. Benjamin E. says:

    Toby – Yes, the way you put it, that statement is false. It better be true that a Torah way of life has an impact on my character or else we’re in big trouble as a people and a religion. However, your final statement is obviously wrong. The fact that there is sexual and other sorts of domestic abuse in the Torah community shows definitively that one will not *necessarily* be a better person for it. Even one who follows the Torah and does not abuse his wife can still be, as so much halakhic literature discusses, a “naval bir’shut ha-Torah” – a scoundrel with the Torah’s permission. In other words, Torah does not automatically make you a good person, even though it has the potential to.

  15. Toby Katz says:

    There is a true message: Sexual abuse takes place in the Orthodox community.

    There is a false meta-message: Orthodox Jews, across the board, are no better than anyone else. Our society offers women no more respect and protection and security than any other society and may even be worse, because we are so secretive and sweep our problems under the rug. A Torah way of life has absolutely no impact on character, except possibly a negative impact. All false, false, false. A person who totally follows a Torah way of life WILL be a better person for it.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    Yes, Virginia, spousal abuse exists. However, a high profile article should have provided a link to the study. I found it curious that the article expected the reader to accept the conclusions without reading its factual and purportedly evidentiary foundation.

  17. Charles B. Hall says:

    Rabbi Shafran’s essay also appeared on the Yeshiva World blog, where I left a comment. I don’t normally cross-post comments, but so much has been written about the research by people who have not read it that I will make an exception here. First, the link to the research article:

    http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/164/11/1700

    The cost to download is $15 unless you have a subscription or work for an institution that does.

    Second, my comment:

    It is not uncommon for the popular press to take exaggerate or even misinterpret research findings. This was a particular problem in this case because the Jewish Week article appeared over a week before the actual research article was available online, so many people jumped to conclusions based on things not in the actual research article.

    Fortunately, the actual research article, “History of Past Sexual Abuse in Married Observant Jewish Women”, by Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D. , Michelle Friedman, M.D., Talli Y. Rosenbaum, P.T., Ellen Labinsky, Ph.D., and James Schmeidler, Ph.D., is now available on the American Journal of Psychiatry internet site. (Anyone can access it but you have to pay if you don’t have a subscription to the journal or work for an institution that does.) It was in the November 2007 issue. I found the research to have been carefully done and the conclusions of the authors (not the Jewish Week article) appear to be well supported by the data.

    Two quotes from the actual research article are worth mentioning. First, why the study was done:

    “The goal of the study was to gain a better understanding of sexual attitudes and practices, and…the study investigators believed that such knowledge could inform premarital education (Kallah) classes, as well as be useful for medical, mental health, and rabbinic professionals who treat and counsel observant Jewish women.”

    Secondly, the limitations were addressed by the study authors:

    “A major limitation of this study is that it was not feasible to obtain a representative sample of observant Jewish women, since no sampling frame was available. It was also not feasible to limit a representative sample of the general population to just observant Jewish women….We do not…claim that this study group is representative of all observant Jewish women.”

    And finally, the conclusions stated in the abstract:

    “While observant Jewish women live in a culture defined by a high degree of adherence to specific laws of conduct, including rules designed to regulate sexual contact, sexual abuse of various types still exists among them.”

    I think that the authors (I think at least some of them are Orthodox themselves) have made a contribution to our community.

  18. joel rich says:

    R’AS,
    We had an interesting discussion of this issue on Avodah. I agree that the data used herein is suspect but I also submit that it appears that our communities are unwilling to participate in any scientific studies that would allow for objective analysis. Interesting question as to why.
    KT