Rabbi Yosef Blau on False Religious Justifications for Abuse

Rabbi Blau, image credit Sharon Altshul

This is the second installment of a report on the Tahel conference entitled, “The Jewish Community Confronts Violence and Abuse.” In part one, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow addressed the question, “Is Religion the Solution or the Problem?” Dr. James Cantor spoke on Pedophilia and the Brain.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual supervisor for Yeshiva University and a well-respected advocate for abuse victims, spoke after Rabbi Cherlow. He began by agreeing with every word of Rabbi Cherlow.

Rabbi Blau noted that Jewish law is often interpreted in a private and formal way. But when making halachic decisions, we also need to consider the societal and moral implications. Like Rabbi Cherlow, he gave examples of how religious practices and rulings can interfere with advocacy for victims and prevention of future abuse.

  • Definition of rape. If a teacher tempts a 14-year-old girl to have sex with him, secular law considers it statutory rape. But according to Jewish law, it is consensual. With girls under 12, the age of bat mitzvah, anything but full intercourse may be technically permissible even when the relations are not consensual. These halachot are used to justify not reporting abuse, and even to allow abusers to have continued access to victims.
  • Mesirah. Mesirah is the prohibition of reporting a Jew to the secular authorities for a crime. But rabbis have ruled that this only applies in places that have institutionalized anti-Semitism. Just like the mishnah says that we trust a doctor about whether it is permitted to fast on Yom Kippur, we need to consult with psychologists and other trained therapists in cases of molestation and abuse. Rabbis are not the experts in this area.
  • Hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name. But who is responsible for the hillul Hashem, the person reporting on the abuse, or the person abusing victims? There’s no question that abuse occurs in our communities, and pretending it doesn’t only makes the problem worse. Too many rabbis deny abuse and even when they want to deal with it, they don’t understand the issues involved.
  • Kosher witnesses. Children cannot serve as kosher witnesses in a Jewish law court. But no one is stupid enough to abuse a child in front of adult witnesses.  According to the arbiter Shoel Umeishiv, children’s accounts of abuse are enough to disqualify a teacher.

In my next post, I’ll share Rabbi Cherlow’s comments, in the question and answer session, about the top three reasons for divorce in the religious community.

See Part 1: Jewish Community Confronts Violence and Abuse: Is Religion the Solution or the Problem

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