Losing Sight of the Victimized, Again

One of the great challenges of our tradition is relating ancient sacred texts to present day. We’re told that the Torah contains wisdom applicable to every situation, but sometimes we have to “stretch” the letters of the text in order to hang our interpretations and solutions on them.

Look no further than the Pennsylvania congregation that decided to retain their rabbi, who last fall was suspended for two years from the Rabbinical Assembly for inappropriate sexual communication with a long-time congregant. As a friend of the victim was quoted by the Forward, “The rabbi, they decided, was more important than that member of the congregation and all the other members that chose to leave.”

Where does the Torah speak to this very episode? In Genesis, Chapter 21, after the birth of Isaac, we learn:

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham: “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.

But as is so often the case, the translation is misleading. In Hebrew, the word “mocking” is “Mitzachek” (from which the name “Yitzchak” or Isaac is derived) and has a secondary (and possibly primary) meaning of “sexual foreplay.” Although the translations attempt to sanitize the episode, we cannot ignore that Ishmael (the son of the Egyptian woman) was engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with the child Isaac.

Sarah wants Ishmael out of the camp — he is abusing Isaac! But rather than “suspend” his “son” Ishmael and perhaps his enabler (Hagar), Abraham seemingly ignores Sarah’s complaints. That is, until God enters the conversation.

It’s God who tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. It’s God who tells Abraham to expel Ishmael from the camp. It’s God who saves Isaac. And it’s God who teaches Abraham that the rights of the victim should take precedence over the rights of the perpetrator.

In my second congregation, the president was accused of skimming cash off the top of our fundraisers. If true, he took almost $50,000 over a three-year period. When the board was confronted with the evidence, they reasoned that because in the same time period he had brought over $200,000 to the congregation, and because he was the most prolific fundraiser in the congregation — they could live with the loss.

I, however, was fired (after resigning) because I insisted on a full audit.

So I guess we can also understand the decision of the Pennsylvania synagogue’s leadership to keep the rabbi. No one can accuse the rabbi or the leadership of wrongdoing — they are just using Abraham as a role model. And after all, God didn’t come down to defend the victim there.

We have seen recent reports condemning the Rabbinical associations in every sect or movement on issues of sexual predation — but they are not the only actors in this drama nor should any future reckoning ignore the enablers.

Meanwhile, a victim learns just how much support she has in her chosen community … and I find myself yearning for the coming of the Messiah.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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