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Rabbinic abuse: 26 power & control tactics

Manipulative behaviors can be hard to see when they pile on, fast -- and you're the mark
Handwritten cards received from a rabbi who has since been Suspended for sexual misconduct. The cards offer a glimpse into the tangible "beauty" of the more pleasant phases of the abuse cycle.
Handwritten cards received from a rabbi who has since been Suspended for sexual misconduct. The cards offer a glimpse into the tangible "beauty" of the more pleasant phases of the abuse cycle.

Introduction

Below are some of the tactics that I witnessed in my own experience of clergy abuse. I give specific examples as often as possible to help others [to] see themselves in these stories.

The problem is not in a single instance of any one of these tactics; it is the combination of these tactics over a period of time that renders them so overpowering. For instance, I can recall that at least 10 of these tactics were used on me during the same ~14 day period, in rapid rotation, sometimes simultaneously. That is why it is so difficult to see it when you are in it; it is all happening all at once — and fast.

Just because you do not see these tactics in action does not mean that the clergy person in question is not an abuser. These tactics may only be used on a select group of people, such as close family members or targets for exploitation. Around other people, the rabbi may appear completely normal. The abuse that victims face is covert, difficult to articulate, and leaves the victim feeling crazy.

“Covert Primary Abuse is considered one of the most destructive forms of abuse, second only to life-threatening battery.” — The Mend Project

I counted at least 26 covert manipulation tactics that were used on me in an 11 month period.

Imposed Generosity, Mixed With Glibness, Charm

One of the first things that I noticed was his language. In his first sentence to me, he used the word “desiderata.” Who talks like that? Everything about his [written] presentation was eerily smooth. I could hardly believe that he was a real person. I thought he was a cartoon character, or just an incredibly unusual person. Indeed, it was too good to be true.

He began to write me every single day. I felt flattered. I could not fathom why a man of his level of power and reputation would spend so much time thinking about me, writing me, and initiating daily conversation with me (see flattery). He took such a strong interest in a friendship with me that it was dreamlike. He invited me to his home for dinner to meet his family. Dinner at the rabbi’s house with his family! What an honor, right? He offered to write me recommendation letters even though I was not in need of any. He was so eager to provide things for me, and to flatter me, that it was imposing. I did not have to do anything but exist. He made me feel so safe and like he was just a really nice guy.

I did not think of his hyper-generosity and the openness of his family and quick bonding as a red flag since he was a pulpit rabbi. I figured that it was all part of the job — the living out of religious ideals. Clergy are supposed to be super friendly, right?

Glibness, charm, and intrusive generosity work so well because people tend to feel bad for setting firm boundaries around people who are super friendly. Kindness, believe it or not, can be a power and control tactic. It is the start of the grooming process.

Abusers depend on people dissociating from their own intuition; they want us to listen to them instead of to our own gut instincts. The first instinct we often mute in cases of human exploitation is the instinct to be wary of the intrusively generous stranger. Listen to this attempted human trafficking story involving an FBI wanted trafficker, for a solid example of this set of tactics in action.

  • Does s/he barely know you, but send you smiley faces, good morning messages, or act inappropriately familiar (as if you already have an established, intimate friendship)?
  • Does s/he behave as if you ought to trust them because of who they are? Or just because s/he’s nice to you?
  • Does s/he speak in flowery language, commanding language (or tone), or both?
  • Does s/he come across as wounded and in need of sympathy, or overly soft and giving? Does this alternate with coming across as being in complete control?

Targeting, Selection

There just might be a woman who seems to be aching for something in her soul. She is devoted, loyal, religious, and deeply spiritual. He will go for her. Every time. I guarantee it.

A number of stories that I’ve read/heard involved the clergy member suddenly kissing the congregant at her father’s funeral. Other times, the women are vulnerable because they were struggling in a marital plateau, marital difficulties, marital distance, loneliness, overcoming drug addiction, on the verge of a major life transition involving school or work, religious conversion, and more. Every single story that I’ve come across begins with a woman who is highly trusting of clergy and going through a special time in her life. Every. Single. One.

Too often, the perpetrator initiates the sexual relationship in the same encounter as (or soon after) the victim’s vulnerable moment of disclosure about a personal trauma.

Many were already sexually traumatized earlier in life, and had disclosed this to the clergy member at some point in time. Too often, the perpetrator initiates the sexual relationship in the same encounter as (or soon after) the victim’s vulnerable moment of disclosure about a personal trauma (e.g., child sexual abuse, a suicide attempt, etc.). The first sexual advance will come as a shock or surprise, as it will seem remarkably out of context, unanticipated, uninvited, no warning signs or “mood.” This happened to me.

Note that screening and selection of targets can take place outside of the synagogue. Ever receive an unsolicited friend request from a popular rabbi in your community? Ever find it interesting that in the rabbi’s facebook profile you cannot see much about their personal struggles or interests, and yet, as your new “friend” they have access to all of yours? Ever consider the fact that the rabbi might spend a great deal of time reading and studying the social media profiles of select women — from community laity to colleagues — and that that rabbi might use all available information to advance his cause, and that his cause might be sexual exploitation? Well, it happens.

Mirroring

It goes like this: (1) Get her to talk about herself and to tell you as much about herself as possible, (2) Excitedly tell her about all the ways that you are alike, pulling stories from your own and others’ lives to amplify her sense that you are alike and ‘bonded,’ and “so lucky to have found each other,” (3) Tell her things that she probably wants to hear even if they are not true, (4) Declare love and “soulmate” status quickly, and manufacture a dreamlike, synthetic relationship in which all of her best qualities are mirrored by you — even though you do not possess those qualities by a long shot.

Bonus: Don’t forget to use the words “we,” “us,” and “special” a lot! Do everything you can to choose words and phrases that create a sense of alignment and merging. Do this as soon as you first meet! If she resists, just keep doing it. She’ll get used to it eventually and begin to accept it as reality.

Repetition

If the target does not accept your advances, or simply resists the imposition of your agenda, just repeat yourself until she is too tired to resist anymore. “We are so lucky to have found one another. We are so much alike. I am wrapped around your finger. We work so well together. You are the only one who understands me. We are definitely soulmates.” 

This came in the form of messages on my phone throughout the day, and in-person conversations (see synthetic intimacy trance). I was somewhat skeptical and resistant at first. Eventually I just accepted it as truth, in large part because of the other tactics that were used along with it, and a sense of being worn down that I did not even understand until later. I did not detect that I was feeling worn down, as I was busy keeping up with all of the other tactics. My own feelings and intuition became buried — drowned out by constant communication (see constant communication).

Grooming

This term is frequently used in the setting of child molestation. Grooming can involve several tactics on this list, such as mirroring and flattery and love-bombing. It can involve pushing sexual and/or personal boundaries, testing limits, or even pairing boundary-pushing with candy. For adults, “candy” might be spiritual teaching, mentorship, love, attention, a home cooked meal, and other “nice,” “feel good” dialogue or gifts. Some predatory clergy prey in a team with other members of clergy or even their own spouses. They can groom as a team. Often an individual member of clergy will groom an entire family or community. The victim and community may even begin to feel dependent upon the clergy/abusers because of all of the small kindnesses they give, and intermittent large kindnesses.

Because of all of this grooming, the victim feels conflicted and does not say anything about troubling incidents. After all, the abuser is so nice — perhaps it was a misunderstanding, or is forgivable. “How could I be angry? They just spent so much money on me. They are so generous. Perhaps this makes up for it? I don’t want to be difficult. I won’t complain.” The victim begins to cooperate with his or her own objectification — sometimes not by just one man but by a team of individuals who sexually exploit the victim together. For example, I was sexually battered or assaulted (definitions vary by state) while medically incapacitated, but they brought me such a nice and expensive breakfast in bed the next morning and were otherwise such nice people (see generosity) that I [felt that I] could not express my anger. They were also my only option for getting home safely and quickly from the town that they had taken me to. So I shoved it all down and cooperated and fawned. I did not want to end up stranded in a far away town, while sick. I figured it could be worse and that this was the optimal situation. After all, they were being so nice to me otherwise. It was confusing to say the least. This is but one example of many unexpected incidents of maltreatment that I experienced that were sandwiched between positive reinforcements.

The victim begins to cooperate with her own objectification…

Grooming might involve entire families and communities. The rabbi must ingratiate the target’s family and surrounding community so that they will not view his actions as abusive or believe the victim(s) if they come forward. He must be very good at his job, so that the community will prioritize keeping him and will readily overlook any victims that come forward. This is why we so often hear, “But he is such a nice guy! He would never do something like that.” 

Of course he’s a nice guy; he had to be.

Imposing

If a random stranger came up to you in the middle of the street and told you that they had just committed a murder and then walked away before you could respond, how would you feel? Should you say something to the police? Was it a joke? Should you let it go? Suddenly your conscience is burdened. A predatory rabbi is selfish, and as such he simply tells you his secret and then says “thank you for your discretion” and walks away, leaving you overwhelmed. It took me about a year to look at our transcripts and notice that he placed many burdens upon me without my permission.

In addition to imposing generosity, described earlier, the rabbi might impose secrets (which helps to create the illusion of a “special bond”) — and even sex.

In every single case that I have read/heard about, regardless of religion, the clergy member’s sexual and romantic advances were a shock and surprise to the woman. Women report being unexpectedly kissed, with tongue, in the context of funerals, spiritual counseling sessions, or other vulnerable moments. Too often they report being raped, although they do not always identify what happened as rape or report it as such. Suddenly the victim is burdened with a huge secret — she is now suddenly in an unexpected sexual relationship with the rabbi (see isolation and secrecy). I felt confused, intimidated, and shocked. “Should I feel lucky? Flattered? Annoyed? Scared? Angry? What does one feel in a situation like this? Does his wife know? Do I tell her? Should I report him somewhere? But where?” 

Another form of imposition worth noting is how he just started calling me his “girlfriend” without a dialogue about it first. Or how he left a newly purchased toothbrush and fennel toothpaste in my home in the first weeks of knowing me, without asking me. Who did he think he was? The rabbi. Rabbis can get away with quite a lot.

Constant Unsolicited Communication

Another form of imposition were the unsolicited messages constantly throughout the day, including messages sent first thing in the morning. The messages employed the tactics on the first half of this list. I couldn’t fathom why a man of this caliber (an accomplished, well-connected rabbi of nearly 20 years) was so interested in me — I was “just” a twenty-something graduate student after all. It was odd but I could accept that this man was interested in my “friendship” and “spiritual and intellectual companionship” because he said we had “so much in common” (see mirroring) and that he seemed so vulnerable (see feigning vulnerability). He glibly asked me to start messaging him, since I seldom initiated conversation in the beginning as I found it awkward as he was an authority figure. I was always so surprised to hear from him. Eventually I became used to hearing from him multiple times per day, every day. Further, I felt I had to respond to these messages because he was an authority figure in my community. I felt that I had to respond because he was a good guy according to all the news articles celebrating his contributions to the Jewish community. I felt that I was lucky to have his focused attention. I found it humbling. This is how power differentials work, ladies and gentlemen.

Eventually the man was taking up about 20 hours per week of my life in an ordinary week, and had added one or two phone calls per day to the mix, and was spending one to two regular nights per week in my home. I was not the one to initiate these routines. He led the relationship, chose nearly every activity of every moment, and I felt invisible or like I must not matter.

For the duration of the relationship, he would message me almost immediately whenever I made a facebook post. He would never like or comment on my posts, instead writing me directly, privately, with little jokes or flattery. I began to feel like he was watching me all of the time. And this was part of the trance.

Wake up: text message from rabbi. Put on makeup: phone call from rabbi. Commute to work: follow-up texts from rabbi. Afternoon break: texts from rabbi. Evening: phone call and/or visit from rabbi. Sleep: sometimes next to rabbi. Wake up: text from rabbi. Put on makeup: phone call from rabbi. Commute to work: follow-up text from rabbi. Afternoon break: texts from rabbi. Make a facebook post: immediate message from rabbi. Evening: phone call and/or visit from rabbi. And so on… Can you see how there is no time for the target to feel their own feelings? Can you see how this might induce dependency?

Intense Focus & Synthetic Intimacy Trance

Whenever I spent any time with him in person in the beginning, it felt like I would forget everything else about my life. He focused on me so intensely in the beginning that I was completely absorbed by his attention. The first time I met him in person, I felt like I had been on some kind of hypnotic drug. He was just so interested in everything I had to say, and I mean everything. I felt that this was eerie, but he sent me a poem saying that “one who does not run towards the allure of love walks a road where nothing lives.” Slowly, I felt foolish for not running towards him and his “love” and I gave him the time of day.

Hours after our first meeting (which we spent talking about my family, Jewish heritage, and my conversion journey), I was still feeling hypnotized and “out of it.” I took a shower and went to shave my legs, and I was so absent-minded that the razor slipped, and I cut through one of my fingernails and deep into my finger. I thought to myself “perhaps this is a sign that this person is not good company” but I laughed it off as a coincidence and assumed that I was just tired that day. But the trance like feeling occurred again and even more rapidly the second time we met.

I call this “synthetic intimacy trance” because it is not true intimacy. It is a one-sided game in which the rabbi draws you out and makes you feel seen and appreciated in ways that your own family and close friends don’t see or appreciate you. This is not because your friends and family are bad; it’s because it’s unnatural for anybody to put you under such a microscope. It felt like G-d was in the room because only G-d would notice all of my intricacies in that way. I think this might be why some victims say that they melded their abusers with G-d Himself in their minds. I honestly don’t know what stopped me from doing so.

His intense focus also involved social media and text messages, and continued this way between meetings. It was, well, intense. Within weeks he knew all of my friend’s names, understood dynamics in my relationship with my parents and my spouse, and more, and much of it from social media and just lots of time and attention. Had he not been the rabbi, I would have been scared. But this way of making people feel appreciated was just a talent, one of those qualities that makes a good pulpit rabbi, right?

Flattery & Ingratiation

I noticed that he would say over the top things about me, like that I was “brilliant” or going to win a Nobel Prize (I tried to explain to him that my discipline does not lend itself to Nobel Prizes). He often implied that I had a level of talent or accomplishment that I simply did not possess. Flattery was constant in the first half of the relationship, and it would follow a specific pattern: he would pile it on whenever he was in fear that I would lose interest. Early in the relationship [if you can call it that], after an incident in which he [likely] realized that he might have made a misstep, he followed up with, “You are so amazing. I don’t think I’ve said that today.” I responded, “Doesn’t need recited daily, but thanks!” He wrote, “I don’t say it for your benefit, but for mine.” 

Feigning Vulnerability/Sympathy Seeking

This is such an important red flag, and one that Martha Stout writes about in The Sociopath Next Door. Too often women are lured by the arm-sling-wearing Ted Bundys of the world and effectively murdered by their own empathy. From our earliest communications, he was spinning stories that made him sound so vulnerable, so in need of companionship, so wonderfully needy and that I had some special ingredient that could help him. At various points in the relationship, he told me things like, “sometimes, you’re my rabbi” or used me as a voice of reason and made me feel like a maternal figure or “teacher.” He loved to point out that I was teaching him. While I never had equal power or respect in the dynamic, I was allowed to play teacher, if that makes sense.

Too often women are effectively murdered by their own empathy.

When explaining why he was forced to resign from his prior congregation, he expressed that a political opponent from within his sexual circle had outed him to his board of directors, describing himself as a victim and as simply living an offbeat sexual lifestyle for which he was villainized. From what I’ve heard, he is telling the same story about me, except that it is not a political disagreement but a romantic one that he insists caused me to become so “vindictive.” As a result, many in my community still believe him to be “misunderstood” and people in the congregation think that I am the problem and are angry at me for “causing” them to lose their rabbi (even though the cause of his trouble is his own repeated sexual misconduct behavior which has now caused him to lose two pulpits in two states).

His last words to me? “You have destroyed my career, and my life.”

Decision Fatigue or “Burning Through The Whole Matchbook”

Overwhelm the target so that their intuition is drowned out by the speeding of their minds. If you are putting her through a rapid series of small decisions, no matter how innocuous, you can insert more serious decisions into the mix so that she will “consent” to things she might not otherwise consent to, or so that you can commit crimes in plain sight without her noticing. By the time she understands what has happened, you will be long gone.

Love Bombing

Love bombing is employed in religious cults and abusive relationships. It is performed for prospective and new members or partners. Within weeks of meeting me, my abuser  showered me with beautiful personalized gifts, handwritten cards (pictured below), and offered me a surrogate “family.” One handwritten card professed love after knowing me for less than a month! The first half of the relationship was colored by fun and interesting trips, special family events (that I felt weird being invited to), surprises, and declarations and professions of “love” and “soulmate” status. After knowing me for only a few months, he professed, “I could not see myself falling out of love with you in 100 lifetimes!” Whenever I started to pull away or express discontent, he would remind me that I was his “chavruta” a “friend for a higher purpose,” that his children “idolized” me or needed me somehow, that our connection was so special, so mystical, and partially “where the erotic manifests” and more. It was overwhelming and extremely effective, as I was extremely vulnerable at that time in my life and just “couldn’t afford” to not accept love from such a seemingly innocuous rabbi, no matter how fabricated. He also sent songs, poems, and things that discussed Jewish mysticism and romance and sexuality.

Take a deep breath. It is time for the second half of the relationship. This is the portion that is too often more than half. I was quick to escape and so it ended up being about 50/50. Many women stay for years or even decades chasing what they experienced in the first half until it becomes the first 40%, 30%, 10%, 1%… Some women die chasing it. It was never real, though. What’s really the man you are with is what you are about to read.

Triangulation

A man invites two female extramarital lovers to the same town for the same weekend trip, without telling either of them that he was sleeping with the other (see lying by omission). He had each woman under the impression that she was the only one. He watches them as they figure it out over dinner. Then he enjoys the chaos that follows.

Sometimes men, for whatever reason, enjoy dangling women in front of each other to elicit jealousy. Perhaps it boosts their ego (it should do the opposite for the lack of character it reveals). Too often, the women, each already deep into her own synthetic “bond” with him, will react by becoming even more committed, loyal, and competitive for his affection. Each woman may feel so invested in the relationship due to his other tactics that leaving feels unthinkable, and she will stay despite the detrimental effects to her self respect and self concept.

Other times, triangles happen when there is tension in the home and there is one child in the home with the parents and the child ends up having the marital conflict pass through them, or the parents take sides alternatively with each other or with the child against the other. Sometimes an extramarital partner who is sleeping with both spouses can end up in this position. In a triangle, someone is always the outsider, the scapegoat that the other two devalue. Often it is used along with gaslighting (see below).

In yet another form, the abuser will use stories about his “crazy” ex(es) to imply to his new victim how she ought not to behave. The woman hears the stories and thinks “oh, I better not do anything that makes me seem petty, possessive, or unstable like that other woman.” In the first part of the relationship I was constantly compared favorably to other women. In the final weeks, as I began to stand up for myself and others more, I was suddenly compared to those same women in an unfavorable way. What is interesting about this control tactic is that it continues the objectification of prior exploits by invoking them as tools during the manipulation of later exploits. In this way, the exploitation never ends, as the abuser moves on to add you to his bank of comparisons to control future woman.

Sometimes the abuser will intentionally create conflicts between women. It is disgusting and sadistic to pit women [or victims of any gender] against each other. And that was where I drew the line. Such behavior is Machiavellian if ever there was such a thing. The rumbles of my conscience erupted from underneath thick layers of psychological manipulation and I finally started to wake up — and remember who I am.

It is disgusting and sadistic to pit women [or victims of any gender] against each other.

Lying & Lying By Omission

My experience with this rabbi was how I discovered that there are people who will argue that lies of omission are not lies. They are just omissions. The man in the story in the first paragraph about Triangulation? He insisted that he did not lie to either woman. He said that he told them about each other, he just left out the fact that he was sleeping with woman A when describing her to woman B and vice versa! I found myself in a relationship with such a person for 11 months and it did a real number on me.

I also discovered that more people than I would like to think actually feel comfortable saying whatever they need to say to get their way. Just because a man is a rabbi does not mean that what he is telling you about himself, about his day, about anything, is true. Some people say whatever they need to say to make themselves look good, and because they are lacking in conscience, are not at all disturbed by it. And because you are not looking for it and do not suspect it, you will just buy what they say, no matter how obvious the lie, because it would be unthinkable for someone to lie so terrifically about something so obvious — or to lie for no discernible reason at all.

Gaslighting

This is when another person denies or distorts your reality or perception of reality, and causes you to question yourself and feel that you are going crazy. Gaslighting destabilizes the victim and surely makes the abuser feel powerful and in control.

It most often takes the form of “I never said that!” or perhaps telling the victim that she enjoys a sexual activity that she had stated many times that she is not open to. It can involve projection, e.g., repeatedly telling the victim that she is the one who is controlling and possessive. The thing is, if you tell somebody something about themselves often enough, no matter how untrue, if they feel trapped enough, they will start to believe it. I’ve come across too many abuse survivors who were “bipolar” during their abuse and miraculously cured upon leaving their abusers.

The abuser may literally tell the victim that she is crazy. The day before I ended the relationship, I was crying because of the way that he had been treating me. He gently rubbed my back, called me “unstable,” and compared me to one of his crazy exes (see triangulation). On the surface, his tone of voice sounded sweet (“you are very unstable right now, I am worried about you”), but what he was actually doing was evading accountability while denying my sense of reality and undermining my self-reliance. Other instances included being shown his messages with another woman (which I never asked to see) that were clearly flirtatious and implying a non-platonic relationship, and being told that there was nothing non-platonic about those messages, that it was all my own insecurity or imagination (masterfully combining triangulation and gaslighting). Most frequently, however, were the times that he denied having stated something that he most definitely said. I would stand my ground, and then he would admit that he had said it and then berate me, saying, “It’s not my fault you have the memory of an elephant” (see blame shifting). It is difficult to think of a moment when the gaslighting did not co-occur with another one of these tactics.

Passive Aggressive Jokes & Sexual Jokes

Like many women, the first time he made a joke at my expense, I did not complain because he was drinking and it was in front of his “friends” (two powerful men in the community). I let it go. Later in the relationship, I delivered my first international podium presentation (an important rite of passage for someone in my discipline). I found myself telling him about my working group’s initiative to score higher in abstract selection so that we could have more oral presentations at the conference in future years, and thus more visibility for our work. I described professional accomplishments and hard work. He simply wrote back, “I think more oral is always good.” This was disappointing to say the least. When I reprimanded him and asked for such jokes to not be made, he did not respond well (see blame shifting).

Some months later, I was preparing for a major surgery. There was evidence that the supposed tumor was in the parotid gland — the gland that makes saliva. I texted him on my way home from the hospital, shaken, and described this news and the implications of it. He texted back, “I shall offer up some extra prayers for your parotid gland – a part of your body in which I have a particularly keen interest ;)”  I was angry but felt too invested in and too stuck in the relationship to leave. And considering how he responded the last time I said that I was upset by a joke, it “wasn’t worth” bringing up again.

[These jokes were coming from the same person who was eagerly offering to write recommendations letters for me, and who had introduced himself to my parents, as my rabbi. Just let that sink in for a moment.]

Jokes like this degrade victim’s sense of self, are belittling and objectifying, and are part of how a rabbi-abuser maintains his sense of power and control. If a person makes a joke that objectifies or belittles you and then makes you feel bad for saying that you don’t like it, that is not a healthy relationship dynamic to be in.

Empty Words/Future Faking

This tactic can fall under lying, but I give it its own category because I found it helpful to read about “future faking” when I was struggling to free myself psychologically from the relationship. Future faking is essentially putting a stumbling block in front of a blind woman, causing her to become overly invested in a relationship that doesn’t exist, both sexually and emotionally. As soon as she becomes inconvenient or the time has come for those promises to be fulfilled, the abuser steps back and accuses her of being the “intense” one, or the one who is clingy. The future faker lies about the future to get what he wants in the present. If the character possesses no conscience, it will not bother him in the least to do so, and he will claim that it is not his behavior that is the problem, but the fact that the woman trusted him in the first place. I consider it a form of fraud and stealing. In a grand way, one might consider this rape by deceit, as the consent was not informed consent. While impossible to take through a courtroom, this is a highly damaging social problem that we somehow need to address.

Blame Shifting

Every time I informed my abuser of a way that he had hurt me, within 5 minutes I found myself apologizing to him. I didn’t even notice this pattern until it became, well, a pattern. It’s not just a thing he did to me, it’s something that I observed him doing as a mode of existence. There are innumerable, ordinary examples of this, but perhaps the ultimate expression of this tactic was when he blamed me for destroying his career and his life. A person with this habit of blame deflection is likely incapable of genuine remorse or teshuvah until he overcomes this habit.

Isolation and Secrecy

This is a widely described tactic of abusive partners. In the worst cases, a partner prevents their spouse from leaving the home entirely, or from having any contact with the outside world. In religious cults, this can take the form of telling followers that other streams of thought are inherently dangerous and that your leadership is the only leadership, etc. Some relationships are essentially a single person cult.

In rabbinic sexual abuse, it starts with keeping the rabbi’s secrets (see imposing). Once you are burdened with any of these secrets, the abuser will begin to keep tabs on who you affiliate with. He will ask you to keep things “discreet” or “private” and express worry or concern when you start to get close to anyone but him, as he is fearful of you telling the secret.

Whenever I would start to get close to anybody in the Jewish community, he would interrogate me with questions and remind me to “be very careful.” It stopped being worth it to get to know anybody. On one hand, he encouraged me to take a fellowship in the community (which I did), and on the other hand I could not really get too close to anyone. His double life became my double life. This only made me feel more deeply bonded to and dependent on him. It was a dark time.

His double life became my double life. This only made me feel more deeply bonded to and dependent on him.

I related the following in my initial complaint to CCAR:

I[t] felt quite strange being among the group of other young (20s and 30s) congregants seeing that this relationship was a major part of my life but a complete secret to the congregants. How could I make friends with other young Jewish people if I could not relate a significant aspect of my life?”

“When I was exchanging contact information with the leader of the 20s and 30s group, [the rabbi] kept glaring at me and seemed quite unsettled. At the time, I believed his explanation that he was just insecure and afraid of losing me. In retrospect, I think he was more concerned for his career.

Sexual abuse has a way of making victims feel perpetually different from other people. In the case of a 48 year old rabbi and his 29 year old “girlfriend” (see imposing), the dynamic is such that the 29 year old is made to feel precociousness and a sense of lost youth. While others are talking about starting their careers and families, the victim is feeling lost and unrelatable. Her “boyfriend” has children who are also in their 20s and could be a part of this group, after all, and he often makes her feel like she has some level of responsibility for them. Her “boyfriend” is planning his retirement while she is just starting her career. Her “boyfriend” is the person that the people in the group all look up to for support, and believe that she does too. If only they knew… Note that no caring man would put a woman, let alone a lover, in this social position. It is cruel.

Even after the relationship is over, how do you think it feels to attempt to re-enter a social circle full of people who are angry at you because their conversions and grieving processes were interrupted as they lost their rabbi “because” of you? Or who look up to a man who exploited you but you were too afraid to report?

After I left, but before I reported, I had reached out to people for emotional support, as I was greatly traumatized. I began to open up about the abuse and how hard it was to leave and to stay away. I was desperate for the world to make sense again. My heart sank as I received a message from the rabbi reminding me to keep “discretion” and to “try not to tell any more people” (loosely quoted from memory). Imagine how that feels for a second. You had been thoroughly used and exploited, finally got the strength and clarity to leave the dynamic, and are sent messages from your rapist/assaulter/abuser (definitions vary by state) reminding you not to tell anybody.

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is a reward system in which the reward does not happen in a predictable fashion. Sometimes good behavior elicits a positive response, and other times you are still maltreated. Like the rat pressing the lever for food out of desperation, you work even harder, investing even more of yourself in the relationship. The victim is catapulted into a state of chaos and cannot control anything in the relationship. Perhaps she develops a sense of learned helplessness after collapsing from the exhaustion.

Being in an abusive relationship…

It’s like being stuck in an elevator alone and chained to a slot machine, and believing that playing the slot machine is the only way to get out of the elevator — when all you had to do was press the button to open the door.

The abuser is the one who pulls all the strings, and the abused cannot even figure out how to get him to even provide small kindnesses. She cannot figure out why the usual, healthy patterns of relating are not producing the results she is looking for, the results that they should produce. None of the levers are calibrated to produce output every time they are pressed, and she cannot make sense of this person at all — and yet, because she has become so invested in the relationship, she feels trapped in it.

Silent Treatment And Negative Reinforcement

Silent treatment may be used as a misplaced punishment upon loved ones whenever a rabbi receives criticism from congregants or colleagues about his work, or simply feels underappreciated due to lack of adequate fawning from others. Silent treatment can feed negative reinforcement strategies (e.g., if you start doing this, I’ll stop doing that). It essentially says, “If you start flattering me more, or give me the sex I want, I will come out of silent mode.”

I witnessed a striking example of negative reinforcement in this sexual abuse circle, in which one abusive member of the sexual circle used this tactic against the other, in the following manner: “If you participate in the unwanted group sex with my boyfriends, I’ll stop withholding the threesomes with your girlfriend that you enjoy.” Sexual coercion from one abuser to another.

Scapegoating

See triangulation. For some victims, this part does not come until they are scapegoated by the entire congregation after the relationship is exposed. He or she may find themselves in a triangle with the abuser and the congregation and/or with the abuser and his other women or wife. When she begins to respond in a healthy way to the abuse by rejecting it and standing up for herself, she will inevitably become the family or community scapegoat. My perpetrator blamed me for the dissolution of his career and his whole life.

“It Could Be Worse”

Some abusers will constantly point out to you all of the ways that their mistreatment is not as bad as it could be. “Well, it’s not like I hit you. It was just one small push. It could be worse.” This rationalization ignores and minimizes the feelings and reality of the victim so that the perpetrator can maintain his sense of guiltless goodness. “I’m a good guy. Really. I never beat my wife. I hold a decent job. I spend time with my kids.” Don’t look at the man behind the curtain. “Well yeah I lied about the several other women I was seeing, but it’s not like I gave you an STD or anything serious happened.” 

The Double Bind

A double bind is more than merely two conflicting demands. It is a nightmare of a situation. Clergy sexual abuse is a double bind for the victim. I cannot emphasize this enough. Abusive relationships in and of themselves are full of double binds.

My abuser demanded, “Never question my love for you.” He imposed many things upon me that I could not tell anybody about, including his wife. His wife once said to me, “What calendar are you talking about?” I could not tell her that her husband had given me access to his full calendar, including what congregants he was seeing when, for many reasons (including his triangulation). The example I gave earlier about grooming and feeling stuck with a sexual assault sandwiched between acts of kindness while feeling dependent upon the perpetrator for my survival, was also experienced as a double bind. Above all else, my abuser told me that he only wanted me to be in the relationship and to do things willingly, while imposing himself upon me, coercing me, and abusing me.

Spiritual Bypass

The first sermon my abuser gave after I ended the relationship was about forgiveness. It was apparently alright for Joseph’s brothers to do to him what they did because it all worked out for the better in the end, and was in G-d’s plan. How convenient.

One might argue that the abuse was a good thing because I am writing this blog, have done a tremendous amount of healing and have learned a lot along the way. But that does not make it okay. I am okay, but that does not make what he did okay. Not by a long shot. 

I view the CCAR’s code of ethics as a major form of spiritual bypass. CCAR’s CEO Rabbi Steven A. Fox describes what happens to rabbis who are Suspended for sexual misconduct here (note that Fink was NOT my abuser): “[CCAR’s] system of teshuvah, rehabilitation and counseling is designed for a rabbi’s possible return to health and wholeness, and we hope to rabbinic service.” According to the code of ethics, the teshuvah, rehabilitation and counseling (TRaC) team consists of “at least two rabbinic colleagues.” Given the behaviors described in this blog post, do you really think that two rabbis are going to be enough heavy artillery to heal such a perpetrator? I think not. All this does is encourage spiritual bypassing — where we misapply spiritual truths in order to render ourselves less accountable.

My abuser’s entire strategy of calling me his “soulmate” and “chavruta” and saying that the sex was “pure” etc. was one giant spiritual bypass out of experiencing any guilt for exploiting me (if he believed it) — and for a while, these spiritual concepts served as a bypass that protected me from the pain of understanding what he was doing.

Two Consenting Adults/Vindictive Woman Spin

I was psychologically trapped in the relationship. It took me a long time to break free and then to gain enough clarity to honestly and fully report the events that occurred (which were much more severe than anything publicly reported, as is often the case). The fact that it takes so long to break free, and that women do not report the abuse until after it was endured for a long time, makes it easy for the member of clergy to accuse the woman of being vindictive and responding to romantic rejection — even in cases where the woman was the one to end the relationship. People want to believe this “vindictive woman” spin, as it allows them to keep their sense of safety in the world and their trust in the clergy intact. Meanwhile, the victim struggles to articulate her experience as people believe what is easier to believe and what those in power tell them to believe.

The fact that it takes so long to break free, and that women do not report the abuse until after it was endured for a long time, makes it easy for the member of clergy to accuse the woman of being vindictive and responding to romantic rejection.

This tactic is the final cut, the kicking her when she is already down just as she is starting to get up and find her strength and her value, stepping on her so that you can lift yourself up, cherry on top. And when the victim sees this, it is the gory finale, the most vile and deepest possible objectification of her humanity. She did not even ask for the relationship. She didn’t even want the sex the first time(s). She has no idea how all of this was so quickly imposed on her and how she became psychologically enslaved. And now… now she is blamed for her own dehumanization and exploitation, and is marginalized, and vilified. And this is the ultimate tragedy, perhaps more so than the abuse itself — the fact that we do not listen to such women when they try to warn us.

About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from a sexually exploitative relationship with a pulpit rabbi. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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