The discussion is getting hotter as Omicron, the newest strain of the Covid virus, invades our space. We are all getting tired of the news and the shouting and the insecurity of what and who we can and cannot trust.
All the while, an equally dangerous, but a much more lasting plague has been seeping through our midst, taking in its wake our greatest treasure- our women and children. Sexual abuse is currently being swept under the rug as it has always been. So many are in a state of blindness of their own making – shutting their eyes to a reality that is too difficult for them to handle.
Not only are the victims not receiving the help and care that they need, they and their families are being shamed into remaining silent, even when the perpetrator is known. If it was “just” Walder, it might be a fluke; one terrible misguided, sick man in our midst. But Walder is not a unique phenomenon.
The Three Secret Predators
First there was Moti Alon, teacher, Rabbi; a person I truly admired. I “religiously” (pun intended) watched “Rav” Alon on TV every Friday, in the years when his was the last program on that TV station before Shabbat began. I bought his books and devoured them. Then came Yehudah Meshi Zahav (golden silk), the highly praised communal leader. We have come to learn that this creator of ZAKA, a religious service to victims of terror, was, in fact, a local terrorist. Most frustrating of all is that so many people knew what was happening but “kept it quiet” as though that would change anything.
And now we come to the deepest cut of all – Chaim Walder. I met Walder years ago when I took my grandson to an event he was hosting for kids. There were many hundreds of children, mostly elementary school aged, all screaming his name, all trusting him with their stories and worries and fears. They loved him. We took along one of his books for Mr. Walder to sign. This was more than rock star type admiration and “love”. Here was pure trust. When I asked a random boy sitting behind me why he thought that Mr. Walder was so special, the answer was quick in coming, “because he listens to us. He hears us. He really cares.” It was not just the kids who felt this way. I suggested to many of my child clients that they read Walder’s books. I used these books to help many “lost” and lonely children! How are they coping, I wonder, when their savior is now the monster that they feared? The only thought I could focus on was, “How can they ever trust again?” All three, sexual predators?? All three men were heralded by the Greater Jewish community as heroes!!
The Making and Breaking of a Life
To go through life with enough strength of character to keep us afloat, we need to feel protected, safe and loved. We need to really be able to assume that the people close to us are “safe” and on our side. This includes family members, teachers, school staff, shul leaders. Research has found that a child needs at least one non-parent adult who cares about him/her to be able to trust and be well adjusted. This goes double for young children who are just beginning to find their place in the world. The way they thought of the world and their place in it changed the moment they were betrayed. The boys and adults who were abused by any of these three men, and countless others, who were supposed to represent all that is right and pure are finding it difficult to cope. They tend to experience a longer lasting, deeper trauma as opposed to someone who was abused, but is believed, comforted and loved. At this point, a type of living death, of hopelessness, descends on them. They are in survivor mode, which means that they can’t afford to waste any more energy trying to cope. Their inner world, much as their current outer world, is in lockdown.
Few people outside the medical and therapeutic spheres seem to understand the full impact on a person, especially a child, of being molested or raped. It goes way beyond feeling violated. It is a real trauma. This is especially true for the ultraorthodox of any religion or belief system. The reason is as simple as it is short sighted and dangerous. It comes down to how well people can tolerate cognitive dissonance. That is, the mental discomfort that results from having two conflicting truths. One of them has got to go.
A New Perspective
For example, from the time of the Talmud ( sixth century CE), the faithful among us have been taught to make peace with this very uncomfortable intruder by simply denying the veracity of anything which saw our national heroes, especially our religious heroes, as flawed. Thus, thinking that King David committed a sin with Bat Sheva is not correct. King David was a Tzadik (a righteous man) and righteous men are perfect. The Talmud takes up three folios on this defense alone. (Shabbat:56/a). This is an extremely unfortunate way of thinking, as it creates an impossible expectation and goal of perfection. Instead of seeing undesired behavior as an opportunity for improvement, for repentance, it has become a source of shame, not for the person who did the deed, but for the victim and his/her entire family as well! From this long held view comes the parent who, instead of holding his/her child close after s/he has been molested, does not acknowledge that anything untoward has taken place. It is shame that does this to adults caught in the crosshairs, but it is felt by the child as total abandonment and can actually result in a break from reality. There is simply no safe place to go.
Is there really any wonder that so many of our religious youth are leaving the trappings of religion behind? Or that so many are involved with alcohol and drug abuse? In cases such as these, drinking and drugs are not signs of rebellion, but rather of a deep existential wound; an emptiness so vast and painful that only forgetting can bring about some sense of relief, temporary as it may be. Adults, even leaders, look away amid hushed tones. They fail to overcome a natural reluctance to come face-to-face with what is actually happening. It is too raw, too confusing and takes a lot of will power to overcome the cognitive dissonance. We have come full circle. What is needed now, to make a dent in repairing innocent lives and preventing future trauma, is for all those who have influence to look the boogeyman straight in the eye and not blink.
That would be a great start.