Spiritual abuse can be dressed up as halacha and guidance
‘A position of trust’ is a legal term which refers to a person who holds authority over another person and uses that position to harm or commit a crime against another.
When we hear about abuse perpetrated by someone in a position of trust, whether a teacher, a doctor, or a police officer we find ourselves reacting in a different way than if the offender was someone close to the victim, or a member of their family. It will always evoke a gut reaction of horror and fear, because at one point or another we have all developed an attitude of safety around people in these roles; society tells us when we are children that these are caring roles, and this went unchallenged.
In 2022, the government added sports coaches and religious leaders to the position of trust category, acknowledging that these settings can be used to manipulate and abuse vulnerable young people.
If we consider rabbis, they are higher up in our communal structure and hold power and influence. They hold leadership roles in our shuls and lead the local community in a range of life matters, beyond shul participation.
For births and deaths, for charity and goodwill and even visiting those who are isolated due to age or illness. We have all heard an extraordinary rabbi story where they went the extra mile for someone. By default, a feeling of safety developed around the rabbinical role, they embody our religious practices and model cultural norms.
Spiritual abuse is a separate form of abuse to emotional, sexual, or physical abuse as the abusive acts impair a person’s third self, their spiritual life and spiritual self.
Over time rabbis establish their skill set and this makes them stand out as experts in certain areas. While some do undertake training to further enhance their skills, it would be presumptuous to assume all those with a ‘speciality’ have undertaken further training, let alone qualified.
Yet this doesn’t prevent rabbis holding specialist roles in which members of the wider community are sent to them for ‘expert’ guidance and advice. Some are deemed experts in chinuch, or parenting challenges, medical ethics, marital relationships, or handling cases of sexual abuse; often mediating between victim and offender and excluding any secular outside agency, either social services or the police.
A rabbi who behaves inappropriately with a Charedi woman is already impacting her spiritual self by talking about sexual acts.
For many Jews, spirituality is an integral and all-encompassing part of Jewish life. All materialistic and mundane tasks are elevated by carrying them out according to halacha. Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that can be characterised as a pattern of controlling or coercive behaviour within a religious context.
This is deeply damaging to those who live a religious lifestyle.
Spiritual abuse is a separate form of abuse to emotional, sexual, or physical abuse as the abusive acts impair a person’s third self, their spiritual life and spiritual self. A rabbi who behaves inappropriately with a Charedi woman is already impacting her spiritual self by talking about sexual acts.
The touch he wishes to enact on her will no doubt constitute spiritual abuse. When sexual abuse is alleged to have occurred, any manipulation, exploitation, and coercion through the use of religious or spiritual practices, such as mikvah rituals or niddah, constitutes spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse can be dressed up as halacha and spiritual guidance. Throughout my career of hearing disclosures, there have been several situations in which the alleged offender would schedule meetings for after the victim’s menstruation or mikveh immersion. In this twisted logic she was now permitted to him. The abuser that would use a cloth to demonstrate intimate acts, under the guise of helping improve her marital relationship. When this is perpetrated by a rabbi, deemed a ‘specialist’ in this area, these abusive acts become sanctioned by the community.
This week is the Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week. Together we can say not in our name, not in my community, #itsnotok.
Yehudis Goldsobel is the Founder of Migdal Emunah, the UK’s first support service for Jewish victims of sexual abuse. She is Chair of the Met Police Independent Advisory Group for Rape & Serious Sexual Offences and Founded the UK National Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week. Yehudis is currently completing her Masters at Goldsmiths University and the leading expert in VAWG within a Jewish context.