What Remains


Vindication is nice, but there’s sometimes bitter mixed in with the sweet.

Back in October of last year, a headline in the New York Jewish Week read: “No Religious Haven From Abuse.” The subheader amplified: “New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women.” As I wrote shortly thereafter, first in a letter to the Jewish Week and then in a longer essay, the study found nothing of the sort.

Because of the sample it recruited, the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim at all about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities.

The study’s authors themselves in fact stated as much, noting that “those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population,” and that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a “major limitation of this study.” What is more, over half the women comprising the recruited study sample were receiving mental health treatment at the time. Victims of abuse, needless to say, are more likely than others to seek counseling, and so the sample would be expected to yield a larger number of victims than one representative of the larger Orthodox community.

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 and non-representative) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that “Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women,” the Jewish Week writer revealed only her own innumeracy. If anything, the similar percentages between an Orthodox group disproportionately likely to have suffered abuse and a non-Jewish random sample arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the former.

After daring to call attention to all that, I was roundly and strongly censured. One subsequent writer to the Jewish Week, utterly uncomprehending of the point about the number of study subjects receiving mental health treatment, claimed it indicated the precise opposite of what it did, and accused me of denying that abuse exists in the Orthodox community, although I explicitly noted in both my letter and essay that abuse exists in every community, including the Orthodox.

Another letter-writer, this one a Long Island psychologist, condescendingly sniffed that without “a knowledge of… non-parametric statistics” I simply was not qualified to address the study’s findings. He too, incredibly, managed to misconstrue the entire point about the sample’s disproportionate share of mental health patients. Then blogs, of course, weighed in, demonstrating with their rantings just how widespread is the misconstrual of the word “critical” in the phrase “critical thinking” as “negative” rather than “analytical.”

Finally, though, several weeks later, some sanity came to reign. In a long and comprehensive article, the Director of Psychotherapy Training in the Psychiatry Residency Training Program at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Nachum Klafter, asked by a blog to evaluate the study and the Jewish Week article, presented his conclusion that I had “correctly read the AJP paper” and that the Jewish Week writer had clearly misreported its findings.

That was followed by a joint monograph by a Professor of Psychology, a Professor of Education and Philosophy, a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology and a well-known and regarded author of essays and books on cultural issues. It stated that “to attempt to generalize from [the study highlighted in the Jewish Week article] to the Orthodox mainstream – or to draw grand comparisons between subgroups within this skewed sample – seems to be a gross misrepresentation of the data obtained.”

Both of the recent papers, moreover, noted that the study’s data in fact yields the remarkable (yet somehow unremarked upon by the Jewish Week) fact that the survey respondents who were raised Orthodox were 50% less likely to have experienced sexual abuse than those from non-Orthodox homes. Considering that the survey asked if abuse occurred at any point in respondents’ lives, it is plausible if not likely that much of the abuse reported among those raised non-Orthodox occurred before they joined observant communities.

None of which, of course, is to deny either that abuse exists in the Orthodox community (as it does in all communities) or that all communities, including the Orthodox, have a responsibility to put effective measures into place to prevent it. But the fact of its existence in the Orthodox world is no justification for drawing unwarranted conclusions about its extent there.

I am gratified, of course, that the record regarding the study and article has been corrected. But something still grates, and, I think, for good reason.

Because all that many, if not most, of the Jewish Week’s readers will likely ever remember about the entire business will be a mendacious headline. Despite all the setting straight of facts, what will remain in minds – not to mention in the eternal echo-chamber of cyberspace – will be only those deceptive, in fact slanderous, words.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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Chaim Wolfson
7 years 7 months ago

Dr. Klafter,

I always enjoy reading your comments; the common sense and level-headedness they display are truly refreshing. Generally, I find myself in agreement with your points, and for what my layman’s opinion is worth, I agree with your observations about OCD and “frumkeit”. Undoubtedly, OCD can manifest itself in mitzvah observance as in any other aspect of human behavior. I do wonder, though, if the usual clinical standards can be used to define a “gadol’s” behavior as excessively compulsive. I am not a psychologist, but it seems to me that our definitions of “rational” and “irrational” behavior is informed to a large extent by our life experiences. A case in point: During the recent NFC championship game, some foolhardy souls painted their faces green and yellow, and stripped down to the waist in sub-zero temperatures to watch the game. Now, we know that these people are not crazy (not in the clinical sense, anyway); they are simply passionate fans. We know that because every football season we see many other rational people exhibiting the same type of seemingly irrational behavior, and also because we can relate to the passion that drives them, even if we personally are not football fans. But if a visitor from a different planet would witness such behavior, wouldn’t he conclude that those people are suffering from a mental disorder? I would argue that the same is true (“l’havdil) of our perception of the behavior of “gedolei Torah v’yirah”. Their lives were/are driven by a different dynamic than ours are, one which is outside our range of experiences and to which we cannot really relate. In their case, do the usual clinical models of “irrational” behavior apply?

The first “gadol” to whom you referred was known for his tremendous love of Torah. “Chazal” teach that the “love” referred to in the “passuk” in “Shir HaShirim” (8:7), “were a man to offer all the treasures of his home for love, they would surely scorn him”, refers to love of Torah. We have no conception of the depth of “ahavah haTorah” expressed in the words of the “passuk”, but I suspect that “gadol” understood it quite well. If we possessed love of Torah to the same degree as he did, perhaps many of us would behave as he did. Or perhaps not? We have no way of knowing, so we really have no way of judging.

The second “gadol” you mentioned was famous not only for his Torah knowledge, but also for his outstanding “yiras shamayim”. Maybe it’s not irrational for someone with such a refined spiritual sense to react the way he did. I am reminded of something the previous Gerrer Rebbe, Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter, once said when a non-religious professor commented that the prohibition of “kol Ishah” has no place in our modern age, that only primitive people are affected by such matters. The Rebbe pointed out that while a Bedouin wals barefoot in the desert and is not bothered by the stones and thorns under his feet, a European is bothered by even a small pebble in his shoe. “I’m sure we agree,” the Rebbe concluded, “that the European is more civilized than the Bedouin.” Personally, I the sight of a cross does not bother me. But is that because I’m a Bedouin? Perhaps only a European can answer that question.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the greater one’s “ahavas haTorah” or “yiras shamayim” the more likely he is to act in the manner these two “gedolim” did. We never hear such stories about Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky or Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, for example. But that could very well just be a difference in personality, not a question of nuerosis. [IIRC, “Mekor Baruch” by Rav Baruch Epstein contains an amusing account of the contrast between the “Netiv’s” Pesach seder and the “Beis HaLevi’s,” which underscores the difference in their personalities and how this difference manifested itself in their “avodas Hashem”.]

I’m not saying that a “gadol” CANNOT suffer from OCD. Obviously he can, just like any other human being can. I’m just wondering if we are equipped with the tools needed to judge his behavior one way or the other.

7 years 7 months ago

Dr. Klafter: Thank you for your kind words. One story I remember that made my hair stand on edge was told in some hagiographic book relating the life a particular Gadol. The story concerned a certain Rav living in Jerusalem in the early part of the 20th century. (The Rav was not the Gadol.) This Rav was always (to my mind almost pathologically) concerned about the proper order in making birkhot hanehenin or whether he made the right berakhah over a particular food, etc. He would always be coming up with new problems and dilemmas and was (again, to my mind almost pathologically) worried lest he got it wrong. He was wont to comment that he did not understand how people could enjoy their food; they should be worried about making some mistake in the halakhot of berahkot. I was shocked that he begrudged ordinary people, struggling in very difficult economic circumstances to put some food on their table, the pleasure of eating the fruit of their labors. My feeling was he needed to be reminded that the term is birkhot hanehenin, NOT bithkot ha-innuyim. What was worse, in my view, was that the author of the book told this story in praise of this Rav’s scrupulous halahkic behavior.

7 years 7 months ago

RE: #22 Dr. Klafter is making a very important point that bears restating in an even more emphatic way because it is one of the things about data sets that takes some getting used to especially when we have an emotional investment in an issue:

If the data are unrepresentative (due to small sample size, or the sort of factors Rabbi Shafran mentions regarding the AJP article, etc.) you cannot draw any conclusion at all — whether it be a conclusion that you don’t like or one that you do like — about the population the sample was drawn from. You might even be right in your opinion; it’s just that the data don’t support your ideas (the data don’t refute your ideas either.)

nachum klafter, md
7 years 7 months ago

Yes, what you say is a very reasonable speculation about one artifact in this data. However, once we determine that the data are declared as unrepresentative. we simply can’t draw any conclusions from it about the general population. I.e., the point you are making is may be neutralized or greatly overpowered by many other factors.

The Rosmarin et al argues the opposite of what you are imagining. If you see footnote #10 of my essay I briefly address a few of the many points in their critique which I take issue with.

Prof Kaplan: You are always one step ahead of me. A point I forgot to make is that if the stories are hagiaographic bubamayses, then it is all the more remarkable to consider that in our current frumkeit, one person’s inspiring mayseh is another’s pathognomonic sign of OCD.

7 years 7 months ago

Dr. Klafter: That is why I referred to “some ” of these stories.