Rabbi, Why Are the Classical Sources Quiet on Child Abuse?

A friend who read my article last week, on the subject of social and sexual pathologies in the Jewish community and the tendency to try and hide them, sent me an e-mail that could not conceal his frustration. Why is it, he asked, that given the rather brutal treatment that a number of children receive in the book of Genesis, the Torah itself does not address the issue of child abuse?

Think about it. Isaac (the Akedah/Binding of Isaac) is nearly slaughtered by his father. Ishmael (expelled from his father Abraham’s house with his mother Hagar) is exiled from his birth family and sent off into the wilderness. Esau (deprived of his special blessing) is played for a fool by his mother and brother. Children, particularly first-born sons, suffer a lot in Genesis. The Torah talks a great deal about compassion and caring. Those qualities seem disturbingly absent with regard to the aforementioned children.

This is not an easy question at all, and any answer is likely to leave some people unhappy. But it seems to me that there are two ways to address the issue.

The first answer is an historical one. It can fairly be said that the dominant and recurring theme of Genesis centers on procuring the choice blessings of the male first-born. As an ancient text, Genesis is unique in that it repeatedly subverts what was a given in its time. The male first born received a double share of inheritance, and the much-coveted choicest spiritual blessing of the father. Again and again, Genesis tramples on that convention, and introduces the idea that the most worthy child- or, to put it differently, the more appropriate child- receives the blessing, and not because of an accident of birth order.

Two of the previously mentioned characters, Ishmael and Esau, were displaced first-borns. The other, Isaac, receives the choice blessing, but he, too, suffers greatly for his father’s willingness to stretch his faith to its outer limits. To put it in contemporary terms, the pain of those involved in the story turning out as it should (has to?) might best be understood as “collateral damage.” People get hurt in the process of the stories resolving properly, and that is damage that the Torah, and its subsequent classical commentators, regard as acceptable.

The rabbis of the Midrash deal with this issue by retroactively projecting on to the characters negative qualities that are not immediately discernible in the texts themselves. I have always understood these commentaries as their way of justifying the collateral damage. In essence, what they are saying is “they deserved it.” Ishmael mocked Isaac, and Sarah. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. How could he receive such an important legacy blessing? He obviously was not equipped to handle it. Maybe so-–but still, to be plotted against by your own mother and brother?

The second answer is, I will admit, more conjecture on my part than anything else. I can’t know for sure if it’s true; perhaps scholars whose specialty is cultures of the ancient world would be able to attest to its veracity or lack thereof. But I base this on many years of studying ancient Jewish texts, and appreciating the window that they open on the ancient world.

Simply put, I’m not at all sure that our contemporary understandings of social pathologies were at all a part of the ancient consciousness, whether within the Jewish world or outside of it.

Our Torah and its subsequent commentaries have strict guidelines about what is considered to be acceptable sexual behavior, both within families and outside of them. There is no question about that. But I don’t know of texts that deal with people who repeatedly violate those norms–particularly sexual norms– because of compulsions that they have no control over. I have to imagine that those kinds of compulsions existed thousands of years ago, but recording them, and thinking about them in any kind of systematic way is, I think, a reflection of modern understandings of human psychology. It does not appear to have been on their agenda long ago.

That said, there are those times when we might wish for the voices of those treated harshly to be heard more powerfully. I rarely read the story of the Binding of Isaac without lamenting the fact that Isaac is so silent in his acquiescence to his father’s mission, or, for that matter, that the same Abraham who argued for Sodom is so mute when it comes to sacrificing his own son. Similarly, I can only imagine that the atmosphere was tense and chilly in Abraham and Sarah’s tent after Abraham sent his first-born son and mistress off into the desert with but a flask of water. One longs for a more expansive dialogue that the one with which we are provided…

But on that score, I would suggest to my questioner that the rabbis of the midrash were not completely without compassion for those who were clearly not the favored child. Ishmael was saved and allowed to become a great nation, even though his descendants would become adversaries of Isaac’s. The reason, a midrash teaches, is because, when he was expelled from his home, he was blameless, and therefore was judged according to who and what he was when he was at his most vulnerable. Many commentaries point out that Jacob suffers all his life from the deceit of others, just as he deceived his father. As a religious tradition, Judaism is not incapable of hearing the cry of the distressed. There is a larger sense of equity and fairness.

In ways often more subtle than overt, our tradition teaches accountability for our actions. Expecting an ancient tradition to have contemporary sensibilities is not realistic. But that is why we continue to study Torah, constantly expanding its teachings and moral power even into the twenty-first century. Within the context of today’s understandings of family and children, there can be no excuse to do otherwise.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.