As reported in the American Jewish press over the past several months, Yeshiva University in New York is now conducting an internal investigation into two former rabbis and teachers at its boys’ high school who are accused of sexually abusing students over two decades. YU chancellor Dr. Norman Lamm acknowledged publicly in December that the school handled the alleged abuse by quietly allowing the teachers to leave and find other employment. Yeshiva U. is the most recent of Jewish religious institutions and communities that have allegedly or definitely harbored child sexual abusers, ignored or intimidated victims who came forward, or failed to report allegations of sexual abuse in their midst to the police.
Obviously, the Jewish community is not the only one embroiled in this crime perpetrated by adults in positions of power and authority. Revelations of repeated abuse by Catholic priests, by popular teachers at the prestigious Horace Mann School over three decades, and by former football coach, Jerry Sandusky, at the Penn State University football program are now well known. They are all terrifying examples of the capacity of authority figures – men in particular – to take advantage of personal power and prestige, as well as codes of silence within rigid hierarchies, to exploit and abuse children.
Though child sexual abuse has been a dark part of human existence for a very long time, it is perhaps only in the last thirty years that Western societies have moved to deal with it as a heinous crime. We continue to develop moral, legal, and psychological parameters for punishing abusers, mandating reporting by leaders and communities, protecting children, creating safe environments, and securing justice for victims.
In that spirit, I am suggesting to my colleagues from all streams of Jewish life that we publicly label child sexual abuse as toeivah, the biblical word for an abomination or abhorrence. My goal in doing this is to do more than engage in making empty official statements, as I explain below.
In the Torah, the word toeivah and its variants describe sexual sins, idolatrous acts, improper sacrifices, aspects of the Israelites that repulsed the ancient Egyptians, and the use of dishonest weights and measures in business. Variants of the word occur one hundred seventeen times throughout the Jewish Bible. There seems to be no way to determine why the Torah in particular labels one prohibited behavior toeivah and not another, notwithstanding later rabbinic and modern commentaries on the word’s meaning. Perhaps the best known use of the word is in reference to male homosexual behavior, in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Over millenia and up to today, its presence in these two verses has been one factor promoting the vitriolic hatred of gay men and women and their behavior; this is the case despite our modern understanding that gays and lesbians are not monsters, but whole human beings fully capable of responsibly loving others, caring for children and contributing to society.
The book of Ezekiel, the fiery prophet of the Jewish exiles in Babylonia, is where we find variants of toeivah used most frequently in one biblical book. Though the book has none of the legal weight that the Torah’s prohibitions do, its emphatic use of the word makes a moral point that we would do well to emphasize. In condemning his fellow Jews’ evil behavior prior to the exile as toeivah, Ezekiel does not mention homosexuality explicitly, though he does mention idol worship, violence, marital infidelity and promiscuity, and general communal arrogance. Of particular interest, Ezekiel twice condemns as toeivah the people’s oppression of the poor and the needy, and their murdering their children as part of idol worship. At one point, he even quotes God as calling those children, “My children.”
When applied repeatedly with the force of tradition and religious authority, words have transformative power. Toeivah is a very powerful word. Just ask any gay or lesbian Jew who grew up internalizing the message that he or she is a repulsive abomination, not for being deranged or dangerous, but simply for being different. Ezekiel’s use of toeivah in the context of oppression and abuse, particularly of children, is more than a rhetorical flourish by an outraged prophet. It is substantive religious language that in the hands of contemporary Jewish leaders and teachers of all denominations can carry genuine moral and behavioral weight.
Imagine if every rabbinical organization, bet din, and Jewish leadership conference openly condemned child sexual abuse in the Jewish and general communities as toeivah, as the word was used by Ezekiel. This collective voice would certainly influence traditional Jews who accept rabbinic authority and who understand that Halakhah (Jewish law) demands that we care for children and other vulnerable people. It would make clear that children’s safety must take precedence over fears about reporting fellow Jews to the civil authorities or concerns about hurting prominent adults’ reputations. It would also influence non-halakhic and liberal Jews by giving them authentically Jewish religious language that speaks out honorably and ethically against this horrible injustice toward children.
The commanding voice of God heard in the Bible’s words is eternal. So too is our ongoing interpretation of God’s voice in those words. As we gradually lay to rest the repugnant demonization of homosexuality as toeivah, we must continue to address forcefully this repugnant evil of sexual abuse that damages God’s most vulnerable creatures. Child sexual abuse is the new toeivah. Saying and teaching this unequivocally could make a real difference in protecting children’s lives.