In a recent article in the Haredi journal Tzarich Iyun, Rabbi Tzvi Vinter, in an article titled What They Call Love—Sexuality in Charedi Society, makes the argument that while the way Charedi society handles sexual abuse is bad and needs significant improvement, it’s good actually and miles ahead of what they goyim have. In the article he blames the hyperfocus on sexuality in secular society for the damage caused by sexual abuse, and then spends the latter half of his screed deflecting blame for society’s ills onto gay and trans people.
Writing an essay in response to this smorgasboard of stupidity would be a frustrating game of whack-a-mole with an inadequately sized mallet. Instead what this deserves is a good old fashioned fisking.
“Several sexual assault scandals within Charedi society, and specifically the Walder affair that left the community shellshocked, have led many to think we are now entering a “Charedi MeToo” era. On social media, at the very least, everyone seems to be bracing himself to see who will be outed next as a predator. The framing of the course correction on sexual assault as a “Charedi MeToo” may seem to be just trendy terminology; yet, words certainly matter, and they go a distance toward determining actual communal policy.”
The phrasing of his introductory paragraph foreshadows the attitude he’s about to present toward sexual abuse in the rest of his article. The idea that a mention of Chaim Walder and the idea that #MeToo has gone too far can exist in the same paragraph when to date there has yet to be systemic change of any kind to the Charedi approach to sexual abuse is tragic proof of the fact that those who bemoan #MeToo going too far generally bespeak the fact that it hasn’t gone far enough.
“The MeToo movement is a feminist social movement interested in changing how men and women interact with one another in western society. It emerged from within a broader ideological framework centered on human rights, especially the right to equality. The MeToo movement seeks to write a new, more egalitarian contract governing the social treatment of men and women, and, more specifically, how men treat women.”
Listen, if the idea that people (women in particular since women comprise the majority of victims of sexual violence) are fed up with being sexually harassed and assaulted and are finally reclaiming some of the power robbed of them by their abusers and harassers is what passes for a feminist agenda in Rabbi Vinter’s mind I’m curious to know what he thinks about women having bank accounts or the right to vote.
More to the point, if his idea of a social contract is that half the population docilely accept being potential victims of sexual harassment and assault, I’d ask what he’s offering in kind for such a concession.
Even more to the point, Chaim Walder was by far not the first high-profile Charedi leader publicly accused of sexual abuse. The ongoing case against Malka Leifer, a woman principal of a girls school accused of sexually abusing multiple students, as well as numerous cases, including notably the cases against Yiddy and Yossi Kolko, Avraham Mondrowitz, and the many, many Child Victims Act cases filed against male and female abusers of boys and girls starkly underscore the fact that #MeToo in the Charedi community is not a “women’s issue” or “feminist agenda” but an effort to prevent male and female sexual abusers from abusing boys and girls in the community and getting away with it.
“Moreover, supporters of the movement claim that supplementing the formal, stringent procedures of criminal trials with the tools of popular protest is essential for promoting the just cause of women. Such procedures are simply too gradual and demanding, and what’s needed is broader social change right now. In addition, when it comes to harassment, it’s often hard to obtain testimony that is admissible in court. And who says criminal justice is the only species of justice out there? Social justice matters, too, and the process of improving norms includes changing behavioral patterns for which the criminal justice system is not the appropriate tool.”
Yes. And we claim this because the prevalence of sexual abuse is staggering, both in secular society and in the Orthodox community. But what’s worse about the problem in the Charedi world, without speculating about whether the prevalence rates there are higher, is the fact that while in secular society abuse and coverups happen with alarming frequency, in the aftermath of their exposure there are many resources available to survivors, and many well-funded organizations available to provide support, public education, and advocacy on behalf of the victims That’s not the case in the Charedi world, or in fact the Orthodox world.
In my ten years of advocacy on behalf of frum survivors of sexual abuse I’ve never come across a case of a Charedi victim reporting to police or suing their abuser and people/entities that enabled the abuse in civil court where the victim was provided any support by the community. The most the community will do if the survivor is lucky is not retaliate against them. So no, Rabbi Vinter, when the courtroom doors are only accessible through a gauntlet of rabbonim and askanim calling those who report moisrim, destroying the parnassah of their families, expelling their children from yeshivos, and ostracizing them from the community, it’s not enough to just theoretically have access to the courts. More needs to be done.
“The MeToo movement has met with many successes in recent years, as well as occasional backlashes. It has led to a lively public discussion of sexual assault and the proper relations between the sexes, and its reach has now extended even to the relatively cloistered Charedi community. Charedi “social activists” have taken it upon themselves to be the bearers of the “Charedi MeToo” message and change attitudes towards sexuality in Charedi society.”
Well yes, because the last coordinated Charedi response to the problem of sexual abuse was Agudah’s 2011 psak requiring that people ask permission of rabbonim before reporting sexual abuse. I’d say an attitude toward sexuality that requires permission before complying with state law and reporting suspected child sexual abuse is desperately in need of change. More recently the most prominent public response in the American Charedi print media to the Chaim Walder scandal were two articles in Mishpacha articles proposing batei din as the solution to the problem of sexual abuse. The need for a Charedi #MeToo movement couldn’t be more pressing.
“Unsurprisingly, calls for greater transparency and external involvement in addressing sexual assault are coupled with attempts to undermine traditional authorities. Our present leaders, the critics believe, have simply failed at their basic responsibility to protect the vulnerable and redress the grievances of victims.”
This is undeniably true.
“In addition, critics seek to change how accused parties are treated. If until now things were often just “cleared up” by Charedi leaders with an offender, now there’s a demand for legal authorities to become involved, for the offender’s actions to be strongly, publicly condemned, and for the community to sanction offenders more seriously.”
Yes. Rabbis are not qualified to investigate, adjudicate, or penalize sexual abuse. That’s what law enforcement and the civil and criminal courts are for.
“The way in which society treats sexual injustices derives from prior assumptions about sexuality’s place in human life. The secular public handles sexual assault as it does because of the enormous place that sexuality plays in human life. The increased interest in sexual harassment in western society is but only one aspect of sexuality’s centrality to western life, which is expressed in education, cinema, literature, and music. A person’s “sexual identity” is seen as one of the core characteristics of their personality. Indeed, the very concept of “sexual identity” expresses this new status of sexuality: sexuality becomes “identity,” something that defines a person’s essence.”
No it doesn’t. It derives from the fact that we now recognize the significant, often deadly toll that sexual abuse takes on its victims. Victims of sexual abuse are at increased risk of depression, eating disorders, addiction, anxiety disorders, self harm, problems with relationships and intimacy, and suicidal ideation. The harm is often compounded by the secondary trauma of having disclosed either to community members or leaders or law enforcement and either being disbelieved or receiving backlash for having disclosed.
Secular society now recognizes that which is why so many well-funded organizations exist to assist survivors of sexual violence in the aftermath of being abused. It’s why state after state in the United States is passing legislation to extend or eliminate criminal and civil statutes of limitations and open retroactive windows during which cases previously barred by insufficient civil statutes of limitations can be revived and brought in court.
Moreover, while Rabbi Vinter began his article discussing sexual assault of children, he now shifts to sexual harassment of adults. To head off his minimization of the issue of sexual harassment later in the article let me say that sexual harassment is not remotely just a secular issue. Orthodox women, even Charedi women face sexual harassment in the workplace, and Orthodox men, even Charedim, commit it.
The effects of sexual harassment on women in the workforce isn’t a function of one’s “sexual identity.” It’s harmful because it’s violative of a person’s body autonomy and sense of self. It’s harmful because sexuality is one of the most deeply personal parts of ourselves and sexual harassment is the act of someone else forcibly taking ownership of another person’s sexuality, fundamentally demonstrating to the victim that what they want doesn’t matter if it gratifies their harasser. That violation is why sexual harassment is a problem that secular society is beginning to take seriously, not because of new ideas on “sexual identity.”
“A dialogue of the deaf results. On the one hand, we find activists leading a charge for mending our mishandling of assault cases, often driven by an enormous sense of urgency. On the other hand is the broader Charedi community, which does not always understand what all the fuss is about. The latter is worthy of condemnation in the eyes of the former for its indifference and ostrich-like behavior, while the former group is often seen as a “pursuer” (rodef) in the eyes of the latter, with its zeal for condemning Charedi society as negligent at best and abusive at worst.”
First of all, many in the broader Charedi community do understand what all the fuss is about, they’re just so thoroughly disempowered by community leaders and rabbonim from doing anything about that they don’t bother trying. Secondly, of those who actually don’t understand what all the fuss is about, I would wager that the active fight against any kind of robust, best-practices based abuse prevention education curriculum in Charedi yeshivos, or even any direct and honest coverage of the issue in Charedi media outlets like Mishpacha, Ami, Hamodia, Yated, Binah, Zman, etc has something to do with it. Pointing to members of the Charedi community not understanding what the fuss is about as a reason to not challenge the Charedi approach to sexual abuse is like killing your parents and crying you’re an orphan.
Third, many rabbonim and gedolim have issued piskei halacha calling abuse pikuach nefesh and abusers rodfim and therefore allowing mesirah. Who is Rabbi Vinter to think he knows better?
“I do not claim here that Charedi handling of sexual assault is ideal. Far from it. Certainly, there is ample room for improving the handling of assault and our approach to sexuality in general.”
He could have stopped there, but there’s a ‘but’ coming.
Referring to the differences between secular and Charedi views on sexuality, Rabbi Vinter makes the case in the next few paragraphs that the primary difference between the two views is whether sexuality is viewed as something that is primarily serving an individual’s purpose and encouraged as a vehicle for personal fulfillment, or whether it is viewed as something driven by the evil inclination that is elevated by the limitations Charedi society places on it and the way it is instead focused externally on the building of a family and leading a spiritual and Halachic life.
“In western, secular society, a man whose life is filled and shaped by adapting to the norms of his family and whose success is constituted by forming a family as part of a community is engaging in self-denial for the sake of external social conventions. However, from the pre-modern perspective, which remains the situation even today for much of Charedi society, those conventions are part of what shapes a person’s “self.” Consideration of such matters is not a “sacrifice” for an external value and is obviously not a denial of our “self.” On the contrary, a person who leaves behind family and community norms in favor of an “inner authenticity” is considered a failure. The Charedi individual forms his sense of selfhood through affiliation with the community (among other things), an affiliation involving specific patterns of behavior and ways of life.”
He then lays out four main points on “liberal western society’s attitude to sexual assault:”
1) “The severity of the problem: There is a consensus that this is the most serious problem around, and that sexual assault, even when not amounting to rape, involves unbearable emotional harm with long-term consequences.”
Given how he’s framing this as a “western liberal” view vs a Charedi view, it’s baffling how this can be denied with a straight face. The effects of sexual assault of any kind, irrespective of whether or not it was penetrative, are well documented, both within and outside of the Charedi community. This misconception that penetration is somehow the dividing line between a legitimate trauma and an exaggerated overreaction worryingly pervades many modern halachic discussions regarding sexual assault.
On this point it’s important to understand that there is an important distinction between the actions of an abuser and the effect it has on the victim. Trauma responses are unpredictable. Some people are able to withstand years of horrific rape without later suffering debilitating psychological effects, and some people find themselves debilitated by PTSD in the aftermath of one assault, penetrative or not. That’s not a function of what precisely was done to the victim, there are many factors that comprise a person’s capacity for resilience following trauma. The “severity” of the act of abuse is rarely the determining factor in what the effect will be on the victim.
2) “The definition of the problem: The scope of what counts as sexual assault is constantly being expanded. Today people even speak of “retroactive” harm, an experience of harm that arises when the situation is reconstructed at some later date.”
Yes, the scope of what “counts” as sexual assault is constantly being expanded. In previous generations only penetrative sexual assault was considered serious enough to warrant action. These days secular society at least recognizes that non penetrative incidents of sexual assault can be equally harmful. We also recognize non-contact incidents as sexual assault, for example, showing a child pornography, or exposing oneself to someone else without their consent.
In each of these examples, whether penetrative or non-contact, what causes the trauma is not the “severity” of the act but the fundamental violation of the personhood of the victim that causes the trauma.
When referring to “retroactive harm” Rabbi Vinter is dismissing the lived experience of many survivors of abuse who despite living with the effects of what they experienced didn’t possess the language, either internally or externally, to name what happened to them. The reasons why survivors of abuse may not initially have the language to understand or explain what happened to them often stems from the fact that when the abuse happened they didn’t possess the language to describe what was happening. For example, children who don’t know what their or their abuser’s body parts are called or intended for may not be able to describe what happened to them, while still feeling and experiencing the effects of the violation entailed by the abuse.
Additionally, many survivors hear and see people around them dismissing experiences like theirs, blaming the victims, or minimizing the severity of it, and tell themselves that the pain they feel is the result of something wrong about themselves rather than the result of the sexual abuse they experienced.
3) “Level of containment: Sexual assault is considered a crime that cannot be contained. Any means necessary must be deployed against offenders to prevent them from causing future harm, including harming their livelihood, name, and family. A sex offender receives the least forgiveness and empathy of any criminal, even murderers.”
Yes. The damage they cause is actually tremendous, not just to the victims but to the communities and families around them. In many cases the damage spans generations with the trauma of a parent who was abused as a child manifests in the raising of their own children. Furthermore, sexual abusers often have dozens of victims over the course of their lives and the devastation caused both directly and indirectly ripples throughout the community.
4) “Intensity of the struggle: In light of the above, the common approach is that an uncompromising war must be fought against sexual crimes, even at high costs. The morality against sex crimes is a morality of war that justifies such collateral casualties as family members, mistaken identification, and so on.”
This is a common weapon employed against those seeking justice for survivors of abuse, that in doing so we unfairly damage the families of abusers who shouldn’t be collectively punished for the actions of one person. In employing this argument against survivors and advocates working on their behalf Rabbi Vinter is attempting to shift blame from where it belongs to the people working to solve the problem.
Sexual abuse is a crime which affects not only the victim but their family, friends, loved ones, and community. The blame for that damage lies squarely at the feet of the abuser and nobody else. Similarly, the families of abusers suffer as a result of the actions of the abuser. The blame for that also lies squarely at the feet of the abuser. In committing an act of abuse they not only harm the victim and all the people in their sphere, they harm their own families. The idea that we should allow abusers to avoid justice by using their families as human shields is despicable.
He then slips in a mention of “mistaken identities” as though this is a common problem. It’s not, and I would defy Rabbi Vinter to publicly identify 3 examples of this happening. “Mistaken identity” is a euphemism for false report. False reports are exceedingly rare. It’s even rarer for a false report to progress to the point of arrest or filing of a civil case. It’s even rarer for a false report to result in a conviction or judgment, and I would defy Rabbi Vinter to publicly identify 3 examples of false reports.
Charedi leaders often point to the trumped up idea of false reports when discussing sexual abuse because it allows them the latitude they need to deny the validity of any individual case. This is a problem I often refer to as Schrodinger’s Sexual Abuse: Sexual abuse is simultaneously a very serious problem that happens alarmingly often and that we therefore need to take serious measures to prevent and address, and also a problem that seemingly doesn’t exist because this case is a lie because the victim suffers from drug addiction, and this case is a lie because the girl was promiscuous, and this case is a lie because the abuser is prominent, and so on.
As long as the community can perpetuate the idea that false cases are common they can get away with labelling every case they’d prefer to ignore as false. To hear them tell it the incidence rate of false reports would be 95%.
“Halachic requirements alone require concealment of sexuality and its restriction to very limited times and places. For a person living a life of holiness and purity, following all rules and strictures of halacha, sexuality will necessarily occupy a limited part of his life. Sexuality is thus seen as something that should not be neglected, but not as critical to a person’s basic personality. As noted, this is not due to a neglect of the “good life” but rather a different understanding of personhood, in which sexuality occupies a much less important place in the formation of the self.
The attitude toward sexual assault in the Charedi space derives from the Charedi approach to sexuality outlined above.”
Oh really!? Then why does my organization regularly receive calls from Charedim who were sexually abused asking us for help finding inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment for trauma? And why do we get calls from Charedi women asking us for help after being raped by their husbands? And why is the demand for funding for trauma therapy so much higher than the funding available? Why do we have support groups full of Charedi men and women who were sexually abused and for years haven’t been able to heal from the trauma? If the outlook on sexuality in the Charedi community is so much more suited to helping survivors recover from the trauma of sexual abuse, why do we consistently find that the Charedi cases we handle are often more emergent that cases from more leftward sects or denominations?
“I do not deny that there are shameful coverups and improperly handled cases, and these need addressing.”
There’s another ‘but’ coming.
“But it is essential, even in considering how to address the severe issues that require attention, to understand the underlying attitude, which derives from the fact that sexuality lacks a formative role in shaping us. Even sexual crimes are not seen as something special. I believe this is why sexual crimes are not seen as being more heinous than other severe injustices, and why dealing with them is not considered a top social priority.”
Perhaps sexual crimes aren’t seen as “special” (read: not worthy of taking seriously) to Rabbi Vinter’s mind, but speaking as someone born, raised, and sexually abused in Boro Park, the fact that I and my family were Charedi didn’t lessen the damage my abuser caused me. The PTSD I experience wasn’t lessened by the fact that the people around me had a pre-modern approach to sexuality. I was a child and had no concept of sexuality, liberal Western or premodern, and I still managed to be hurt by the abuse I experienced.
Rabbi Vinter can believe whatever he wants, but his opinions are based not in fact but in ignorance. Sexual abuse isn’t harmful because of a Western liberal sexual ethic, it’s harmful because violating another person—especially a child—sexually is harmful. Rabbi Vinter also admits more than perhaps he realizes when he concedes that dealing with sexual crimes isn’t considered a top social priority. His ignorance, which is alarmingly common in the Charedi community, is an outgrowth not of the fact that sexuality and everything connected to it isn’t actually important to Charedim, but because Charedi leadership actively prevents any public discussion about sexual abuse from taking place in its press, and any best practices based education about sexual abuse and child safety from being taught in the community.
He is a perfect exemplar of the problem he thinks doesn’t exist, a pristine demonstration of the Dunning-Kreuger effect in action. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know because his community has kept the relevant information from him.
“The existing consensus in the west regarding the severity, the urgency, and the importance of handling sexual assault does not exist among Charedim.”
Too true, unfortunately.
“This is not because Charedim don’t care about women or are insensitive to the suffering of the weak, but because sexuality has traditionally been somewhere on the spectrum between a “human necessity” and a “low and base necessity.”’
He had it half right in the first clause of that sentence, but not for the reason he cites. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Charedim don’t care about women or the suffering of the weak, but I think it’s pretty obvious that in a community where it’s taboo to even name the problem of sexual abuse it’s going to be very difficult to get people to take the issue seriously.
“As such, sexual assault is not considered a special attack on human dignity but is instead akin to other forms of cruelty.”
But it is, and it should be considered a special attack on human dignity. There’s a reason, for example, that rape as a weapon of war is considered more of a crime than collateral damage. It’s because the weaponization of sexuality to violate victims actually causes more harm than physical injury. But what’s even more shocking is the fact that he in the same breath flippantly dismisses other forms of cruelty. If sexual abuse is considered akin to other forms of cruelty either Rabbi Vinter is admitting that he doesn’t care about those either, or that sexual abuse should be taken very seriously.
“The different conception of the severity of sexual assault leads to a relative diminishment of the sanctions applied to perpetrators. Charedim do not view sexual crimes as uniquely reprehensible, and so are not willing to pay uniquely high costs to redress them.”
The fact that he readily admits that out loud is more damning than he realizes, and the fact that he isn’t embarrassed to do that is alarming. The fact that an article with such a shocking admission was published reflects very poorly on this publication and on the community he claims to represent. He should be denounced by Charedi leadership if for no other reason than the fact that it makes them seem monstrous.
“In the struggle against sexual assault, broader considerations are made of the costs of punishing offenders (innocent accused parties are likely to be caught up), of preventing future harm (trusting relationships are harder to form if people are taught to see themselves foremost as potential victims), of sex education (which can undermine accepted modesty standards), and so on.”
Rabbi Vinter should call any of the nonprofit leaders who serve survivors of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community and ask them how many survivors they know who have died by suicide or who struggle every day to stay alive as a result of their trauma. Perhaps then he’d appreciate the fact that sexual abuse is pikuach nefesh. Hashem gave us the Torah and in it 613 mitzvos, and commanded us to violate 610 of them to preserve life. Rabbi Vinter is apparently frummer than Hashem himself.
“Moreover, sexual assault is not automatically considered justification for destroying a person’s public standing.”
Again, this is a shocking and monstrous admission that should embarrass anyone in Charedi leadership who reads this.
“For many liberal outsiders of Charedi society, all of this is anathema.”
Oh yes, those immoral liberals and their caring about victims of sexual abuse.
“But for those on the inside, especially those who are older and less familiar with modern values, it is almost obvious.”
It’s not. They suffer silently because they know that if they dare to speak up people like Rabbi Vinter will punish them for doing so.
“But what of the victims? If we are a good society, how can we be so uncaring toward the suffering of victims of sexual assault?”
The fact that he’s self aware enough to ask this question makes this pile of drek so much worse.
“While I do not take this question lightly, and it is more than possible that some internal-Charedi reform is in order, I want to raise—with requisite caution—the following thought. It is possible that the centrality of sexual identity in liberal society raises the likelihood that victims will see themselves as defined by the experience of sexual assault. This, in turn, will also impact the level of pain and suffering, especially for cases of assault and harassment far from the extreme side of the spectrum, and will make the process of rehabilitation that much harder.”
This too is an unfortunately common misconception, that the suffering caused by sexual abuse is caused not by the abuse itself but from third parties telling victims that they should feel traumatized. Not a single person who works in survivor advocacy wants survivors to feel more traumatized. To the contrary, we spend a lot of time and money helping survivors overcome trauma and thrive in the aftermath of sexual abuse. This attitude is a dangerous canard employed cynically in an attempt to delegitimize therapy and best-practices based responses to sexual abuse.
We regularly receive calls from people who were sexually abused as children, never left the community, never told anybody, built lives for themselves with spouses and children, and are years later feeling the effects of the trauma they experienced forcing its way to the surface. Sexual abuse is harmful because sexual abuse is harmful, not because someone told the victim that they should feel harmed.
“We are used to the statement whereby “we are more aware today of the deep and unrepairable damage of sexual assault,” and there is room to ask: Is this only because of heightened awareness and sensitivity that our ancestors did not possess, or does our newly-found knowledge also derive from the modern emphasis on sexuality as defining to selfhood?”
This entire article is an exercise in begging the question.
“If less value is placed on sexuality, then less of a person’s inner self is perceived as having been injured by sexual assault, and the process of rehabilitation becomes, perhaps, somewhat less arduous.”
Reality doesn’t bear out this wild assumption.
“The takeaway from this article is that collectively accusing an entire public of being deniers and insensitive is not beneficial and, more importantly, is incorrect.”
No, Rabbi Vinter, you spent this whole article telling the world that Charedim don’t care. Don’t put that on those of us trying to fix the problem and help survivors.
“Moreover, adopting the language and form of liberal society’s handling of sexual assault involves the internalizing of western sexual mores and human self-conception, something which is not necessarily desirable within Charedi society.”
What he means to say here is that in order to properly address the issue of sexual abuse we need to frankly discuss the problem using correct terminology, and we need to educate children, parents, and teachers in children’s body autonomy, respecting children’s boundaries, believing them when they say that they feel unsafe, learning how to recognize the red flags indicating sexual abuse, and how to properly report it to the authorities, and that’s more than he can personally tolerate. Because of that he feels comfortable sacrificing however many children it takes to maintain this illusion of a community that doesn’t have a sexual abuse problem. Perhaps he should be compelled to visit the shivas of parents whose children have died by suicide and after sitting with enough of them and really listening perhaps he’ll regain his capacity for empathy.
“Proper handling of the issue of sexual assault within the community should be done out of an awareness and understanding of the Charedi conception of sexuality.”
No, Rabbi Vinter, it should be done in whatever way best protects children and saves lives.
“If we decide that we want to change our conception of sexuality itself, and accept the liberal understanding thereof, then we need to say so explicitly. If we respect the traditional Charedi approach and do not wish to dramatically change it, we need to accept that handling assault will be neither as totalizing nor as dramatic as it is among the general public.”
Finally, on this point we agree. The choice is this: Either the community and its leadership accept the fact that its handling of sexual abuse thus far is inadequate, harmful, and costs the lives of Charedi children, or Charedi leadership can continue covering up and enabling abuse, ostracizing victims, and supporting abusers, and sit upon the piles of dead Charedi children proudly patting each other on the back for at least not being liberal.