Shabbat Shalom. I will be reading today from the portion in Leviticus called Achrei-Mot/K’Doshim. When I first read the portion, chapter 18, verses 6 to 17 struck me: Not only did they talk about forbidden marriages within families, but forbidden sexual relations in families, or what we more commonly know today as incest. Some of these relationships would now also be considered sexual abuse. It felt important to me read, but at the time not important enough to talk about. I also wasn't very interested in studying it.
But during a session with my tutor, Sue Harris, I came to realize that if these verses are important enough to be read, shouldn’t they also be important enough to talk about? Incest and sexual abuse are going on in the world, after all. I decided to talk about sexual abuse.
This is a wake-up call. Many people don’t know sexual abuse in families is happening. But, yes, it did happen in the time of the Torah, and still does. During a session with Rabbi Lippmann, we talked about boundaries. Later I thought about how this portion talks about boundaries between family members. You can love your father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (the list goes on and on), but there are restrictions to this love. Meaning, sex shouldn’t be a way to show love to family members. And over time, if boundaries break down it could lead to sexual abuse. In a book I’ve read, Identical, by Ellen Hopkins, a character named Kaeleigh was sexually abused by her father. Her father asked her to “show me how much you love me.” This isn’t love, but abuse.
When I decided to talk about sexual abuse, Sue asked if there was a specific message that I wanted heard. And there is: When the love boundary between family members is crossed, the “abusee” could be hurt. Physically, and also emotionally.
Many people don’t like to talk about sexual abuse. It can be uncomfortable, because it’s not usually addressed in today’s society. People who are abused and the ones doing the abusing usually pretend it’s not happening. But the Torah is, in a way, demanding our attention. It's there, isn't it? Sexual abuse and incest are part of the Holiness Code.
What could abusees be feeling as they hear these verses read? They could be feeling relieved, upset, betrayed, or angry. They could feel relieved it’s in the Torah. It’s there, God must know it’s happening. Yet, it seems like God is letting it happen. This is where upset, anger, and betrayal come into play. The abusee wants to say, “God, You don’t want something to happen; yet You’re letting it? That seems a little…hypocritical. Do You want Your People to lose faith in You? Do You want Your People to feel betrayed?”
During the Holocaust, many Jews in the concentration camps lost faith in God. Elie Wiesel, for example, didn’t understand how the Jews in the concentration camps could pray to God when it was God who created those camps, who created the ovens in which the Jews burned. But was it really God, or God who created the people who created the camps? The same is true of God creating the person who abuses someone. So God isn’t a hypocrite, God’s giving us choices. God lets us choose who we become. Therefore, it is the actions and the choices of people who are inflicting pain, or bringing happiness, that we want to pay attention to. God really isn't to blame. It is people we have to blame, and their choices. God still cares.
So let us get back on the subject of sexual abuse. What are the abusers feeling? What do people want them to feel? Some abusers could feel ashamed. If they believe in God, they could want to be forgiven, so they repent. They could feel they have wronged God. But what about the abusers who don’t believe in God? They might feel indifferent. They might not care that because their actions are in the Torah (and, more directly, said by God) they should repent. They could think it doesn’t matter! There are other levels of belief, as well. Some might believe in the words of Torah but not in God, and vice versa. Or others might believe in forgiveness, and that repenting can clean the soul of guilt.
What about the majority of the people who are sitting in this room, who were not abused and are not abusers, who may have respectful and loving relationships? You could want to take action, want to comfort the ones who have been abused. You want to shed more light on the subject, to coax it out of the dark. Some might want the abusers to feel guilty. I, personally, would want them to feel guilty. I would want them to apologize, to understand what they did, to not do it again. Sadly, though, these people cannot always be stopped.
What makes an apology? I thought about a fight I had with a friend. After my friend and I had finished snapping at each other, I looked back at what I said to him (we were texting, yea, I know, lame) and thought about what I made him feel. I could tell I hurt him, and hurting people is generally not my favorite activity. I took the time to try to feel the way he felt, and was upset because of what I did. I understood that what I did was wrong, and didn’t want to do that to him again. I called him the next day to apologize to him, and he, for the most part (I think), understood. So the equation I came up with for an apology was apology= understanding + empathy + not wanting to do that again. Apparently, that is also Rambam’s (or, Maimonides’) equation for apologies and repentance, or, in Hebrew, teshuva. Yes, this apology I made to my friend is almost nothing compared to the depth of apology sexual abusers needs to express their feelings (given that they want to apologize) but it’s what they need in the apology.
What, exactly does it mean to forgive? Some people believe it is understanding that the other is sincere about his/her apology. But there are times apology cannot be accepted and a person cannot be forgiven. In the book, The Sunflower, by Simon Weisenthal, a Nazi soldier asks a Jew who was in a concentration camp to forgive him for the horrible acts he has done to the Jewish community. The Jew decided to walk out of the room. The Jew could not forgive the Nazi for things he had done to others simply because he was not the one who those things were done to. You can only forgive those who have wronged you, and hurt you in any way, shape, or form.
When you forgive, you should be feeling peaceful. Marcia Cohn
Spiegel discusses the concept of Shlemut, a feeling of wholeness, of peace with one's self. You shouldn't regret the forgiveness. Because if you regret it, you aren't at peace with yourself; you aren't whole.
Should you forgive and forget? It's a common saying, but is it one that should be said when we are talking about sex abuse? Should you forget the things that have happened to you when you forgive someone for the acts they have done against you? If you forget, how are you to be sure that you won’t do it to someone else? You might be losing knowledge of the pain that was inflicted upon you. How are you supposed to remember what it was like to be abused, and expect yourself to comfort others who were the same situation? Forgetting can be like losing a piece of you. Even the bad parts.
Soon, I will be reading the verses I have addressed here. As I read, and when you go home today, think about this: For the people who have known abuse, you are not alone. There are other people out there who have known abuse and may be able to help. Or you can talk to someone, a doctor, a therapist, a social worker, a rabbi, someone who has studied abuse or known abusers and abusees for years. To the abusers, what you are doing is causing a lot of pain. Think about it this way: How would you feel if it was done to you? You, too might want to tell someone what you are doing and why it is you are doing the abusing, and get some help. You should also be thinking about apology and repentance. And to the ones who have neither been abused nor are the abusers, be the helpers. Be the ones who shed light on this dark part of society. Talk to friends, family, or even write a D'var like this one. Make people accept the fact that abuse happens, that talking can help heal the problem. Thank you.