The recent suicide of Chaim Walder has created an enormous ripple effect in the Jewish community worldwide. Within seconds of the announcement of his death, social media exploded with emotional reactivity and commentary. Few have remained unaffected.
Walder’s victims (one died by suicide shortly after his funeral) are suffering repeated re-traumatization by the tributes that were paid to Walder after his death, and the rabbinic warnings against slander and shaming. Victims of sexual abuse from other perpetrators have been triggered as well. In insular Haredi communities, there is little support for victims who want to report their abuse and they are often deterred by warnings of negative repercussions. They are often told that they will be seen as damaged or used goods and wont be able to get married. Or, that something bad will happen to someone else. Walder’s suicide confirmed for many victims that ‘something terrible indeed will happen’ if they report, further denying victims their opportunity to seek justice.
Children who loved his books and their parents, are experiencing confusion, shock, disbelief, and horror. There are, bless them, the angry activists with their immediate initiatives and then there are mental health professionals, like me, trying to reflect and make sense of this and hold space for our patients and ourselves.
This is both a personal tragedy and a societal one, which has underscored failures. There are failures to protect children, failures in the legal system, the educational system, and the mental health system. While failures exist in all societies, what I am witnessing currently in the religious communities is a profound failure of spiritual leadership. And what I am seeing clinically amongst my patients, as well as among some colleagues, is a crisis of faith.
In 2007, my colleagues and I published a paper titled “History of Past Sexual Abuse in Married Observant Jewish Women” in which we reported a higher proportion of sexual abuse in ultra-Orthodox women than in the modern Orthodox women in our sample. Abuse happens in all societies, but the expected benefit of insular societies is that they are meant to be protective.
Therein lies the crisis of faith. Many sexually abused members of very insular societies bear the risk of losing their social status, identity and family and community support by reporting abuse. They often must choose between emotional health and religious identity, and are thrust into a secular culture which they are unprepared to navigate.
Recent events have unfortunately driven this message home. A patient with a history of sex abuse was triggered by recent events although her abuser was not Walder. She reported to me that in her Haredi neighborhood, discussing the Walder incident has been deemed “lashon hara” (slander). Teachers and school administrators are not discussing the subject with their students. Wanting to protect her own daughter in a way that she had not been protected, my patient explained to her daughter why she was getting rid of Walder’s books. But she also had to swear her to secrecy so that she would not be ostracized by her classmates. Her own friends, who know the history of her abuse, have told her that they are not allowed, by rabbinic decree, to discuss the Walder incident with her, preventing them from being available to her for comfort or empathy. “What am I still doing here? she questions sadly. “But why should I have to leave? I love and believe in God, though I am losing my faith in religion.”
Her micro crisis of faith likely reflects a macro one. Save for less than a handful of rabbis, the response of religious leaders has been disappointing at best, painful and triggering at worst. The ideal response of clergy leadership would have been to unequivocally support victims of sexual abuse and state in no uncertain terms that non-consensual sex and sexual abuse of minors is against the Torah, against civil law, is immoral, unethical and must not be tolerated. They would have decried the shaming of victims, the viewing them as “used goods” and placed the shame where it belongs, on the abusers.
Instead, some well-respected rabbis made public statements such as “one who commits adultery still has a place in the world to come, but one who publicly shames another, does not have a place in the world to come.” One rabbinic statement decried the sin of “niyuf”(consensual adultery) without differentiation of this act from child sex abuse. Rabbis have spoken about how perpetrators should “do teshuva” (repent) as if abusing a child could be compared to missing prayers or other transgressions against God, that do not consider lives that were destroyed.
I also listened to several rabbinic addresses to mental health professionals on the subject. I had hoped to hear about the need to support and empower victims, the need to promote health sexual education that addresses bodily autonomy and consent. But the rabbis I happened to listen to focused on greater adherence to yichud laws (laws dealing with seclusion of men and women) the banning of opposite gender therapy, and how to protect children by not speaking of these terrible things to them. These words did not resonate with me and left me uninspired. These responses miss the mark and fall short of the need for a great deal of soul-searching that is required around issues of sexual abuse in our communities.
Yet, with trauma, there is post-traumatic growth. This crisis of faith may lead to change. In fact, there are reports in the Hebrew press of “revolution” that describe the grass root efforts of Haredi influencers to support abuse victims. The mental health community as well has been active in efforts to support survivors. These efforts include a zoom meeting for sexual abuse survivor parents, a tent set up with volunteer professionals to support abuse victims, and a Facebook group, set up by Magen for Jewish Communities, a non-profit organization in Israel dedicated to creating safer communities, to offer support to Walder’s victims. It is my sincere hope that these efforts will transform this crisis of faith, repair the damaged parts of our society, and create a safer reality.