Facing the empty: Recovering from rabbinic abuse

For fourteen years, I was a victim of rabbinic abuse. I fled the rabbi nearly three years ago, leaving everything behind. I currently live far from him, thank G-d, and have started my life over.

I could say a great deal about the specifics of the harm done: the rabbi’s manipulation and gaslighting, the secondary abuse by the synagogue board, the shunning by the congregation, the long descent into despair. A year and a half ago, I was still having daily flashbacks and felt as though I had slid into a crater of isolation and lost years.

I’ve written about the details. But while they delineate the outline of the impact, they don’t speak to the healing that is happening.

As the weeks and months go by, I have fewer and fewer flashbacks and find myself reconnecting more and more with myself and others. But until recently, there was something I hadn’t done — something that I needed to do in order to free myself from the burden of the past.

I call it facing the empty — acknowledging that all I once believed about those fourteen years of my life was a lie.

In the beginning, of course, there was no feeling of emptiness at all. In fact, when I met the rabbi, I had the feeling that we’d always known each other. There was a sense of familiarity, of coming home, of fullness and spaciousness. I felt that he could see me in a way that no one else could. And he said that he felt the same way about me.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that many who knew him had the same feeling that I did. Some of his peers later told me that they felt they’d always known him, that he knew them better than anyone else, and that he could see them clearly. As the years went on, I watched as person after person basked in the glow of feeling special, loved, understood.

I now understand that he had this effect on everyone, including me, for one simple reason: He was an empty mirror that reflected to people exactly what they wanted to see about themselves. He gave people a clear reflection of their deepest desires about who they could be. It was a way of being for him, and it was very effective in putting people into a kind of trance.

They rarely criticized him. In fact, they held him in a kind of guru-like esteem. After all, the mirror had to be protected, at all costs.

And of course, he could never muddy the reflection by pointing out anything negative about anyone, because that would conflict with the mirror’s purpose. And so, he never held anyone accountable. He never criticized anyone at all. People could stand directly in front of us, treating me as though I were not there, or criticizing me for things I’d never done, and he met it all with utter impassivity. The one thing I could count on was that he would be unfailingly silent in the face of it all.

It fell to me to point out what he would not, and of course, this did not go over well with anyone. I could not compete with his silence and non-responsiveness because that passivity created a clear screen on which people could see themselves as blameless. To them, he was wise, long-suffering, more spiritually evolved than they were, simply because he did not respond as a typical human being would.

But I came to see that there was an emptiness that had nothing to do with spiritual maturity. To the contrary: there was a lack of empathy, of emotion, of self behind the mask. In place of authenticity, there was only a very convincing performance.

He told me that we were soulmates with a unique, unbreakable spiritual connection — a connection that the world would never understand, a connection that would last for all eternity. We would do the work of God in the world, he said, and it would transform us. He drew me into a spiritual romance of love and service to God. And I believed in the romance, with all of my being.

But now I am facing the fact that it was all empty, that it was all a lie, a story without substance. All of it.

Of course, I loved him — or who I thought he was. But whom did I love? Was it is simply the best and highest version of myself? Was it some version of who I thought he could be? Was it my love for God re-directed onto a human being? Perhaps it was all of these things.

I’ve been having trouble moving forward because some part of me has been holding onto the spiritual romance, onto that feeling of being entranced by promises that were never kept. After all, how do I come to terms with the fact that all the promises, all the high and holy words, were simply empty husks devoid of substance?

There is only one way through, and that is to commit myself to the truth of that emptiness, no matter what. The truth has to be more important than any narrative, any romance, any illusion, any words, any hopes, any dreams. The truth is what breaks the trance.

I have to face the empty.

And so, over the past week, I have sat in my home in tears, saying to myself, “He didn’t love me. He was never my friend, my ally, my soulmate. It was all empty.” It tears though my heart.

And yet it is the absolute truth — the truth of the empty. The truth that there was no spiritual connection. The truth that he showed me neither loyalty nor courage in all the years we knew each other. The truth that none of it — not a moment of it — had anything to do with love for me or the will of God.

But somehow, as I face the empty, I find it transformed into a spaciousness I can fill with joy. I cannot explain how it has happened, except to say that dispelling every illusion has created room for life and possibility to grow. Perhaps this is how we heal: we face the empty, and instead of being paralyzed by it, we fill it to overflowing with our own goodness, our own truth, our own commitment to doing what is just and right.

And in this, we are never alone. We have one another. Together, we can transform the empty places into spacious halls of love, and light, and joy. We can let go of what we thought we knew. And we can learn to embrace what comes.

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu (www.shemakoleinu.net), an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. She is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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