Thursday, February 09, 2012

Cult of Personality & Female Abusers

As the issue of emotional abuse by a particular rabbi has been tackled by The Jewish Week, different thoughts have been running through my mind. The two most frequent: 1) We have created a cult of personality that leads to people in positions of power taking advantage of our children. 2) Every article or book currently out in the Orthodox world addresses the issue of male (usually rabbinic) abuse. Why have the female abusers not been mentioned?

With regard to the cult of personality, I think this is part and parcel with the points made in Dr. Hayyim Soloveichik's 'Rupture and Reconstruction.' He talks about our preference for texts and textual sources post-Holocaust. Well, post-Holocaust our veneration for those who are intimately versed in those texts has also grown. In order to rejuvenate Jewry, different strategies came into place. One of these was the creation of informal education youth groups such as NCSY and the other was the creation of the post-high school gap year at a yeshiva or seminary in Israel.

Everyone knows about the potential for the power wielded by the charismatic kiruv rebbe to be abused (see Baruch Lanner). But though we joke about the seminary/ yeshiva flip out reactions, until this article in The Jewish Week, I don't think people viewed the fact that we relinquish our students into the care of people we don't know in Israel as problematic. I have personally always felt distaste for this system and the amount of (disturbing) power wielded by these seminary rabbis and morahs. I have seen students at Stern who would call these people to discuss relationships, engagements and dates and who had these people veto or advocate for prospective suitors. I think the fact that students have created a culture of giving their brain over to these morahs/ rabbis is really disturbing. There are some decisions you really ought to have autonomy over and your seminary rabbi who you had a crush on has no business interfering.

Books that have explored the year in Israel phenomenon say that often the students grow because they feel like they are finally experiencing authentic Judaism. They meet people who can serve as their role models. And yet these same role models sometimes advocate for the children to stay a second year in Israel against their parents' wishes, give up their college aspirations, go to kollel rather than work a job etc. I do not think disturbing peace between family members and students should be the role of a rabbi. A rabbi and a guide needs to be a responsible person. You need to use texts responsibly, teach responsibly and meddle in family politics (if you feel it's your place to meddle) responsibly. Fervent zealotry has its place, but that place is not working with impressionable teenagers.

Aside from the issue of the cult of personality that we have fostered within Judaism, there is the issue of who exactly we are reaming out as abusers. I am glad that we are speaking openly about the flaws within the system, but not once (not once!) have I read an article talking about a woman who is abusive. Now, it's possible that most women within our community aren't slapping the teenage girls under their care, but they come up with more insidious ways to abuse them. The worst is what I call religious abuse. They use religion as an abuse textbook. They say things like, "Sweetie, I'm just worried about your neshama. You used to be so tznius. What happened? Is it those friends of yours? I just feel like you're slipping. I'm always available to help, you know, if you want to talk to me." The school that I went to included a teacher who was totally unsuitable. She was verbally abusive to me and others. Why is it that she and people like her get a free pass? Why are we focusing specifically on the men? There are women who have ruined the lives of many Bais Yaakov girls. When will we comment on the impact that they are having, the fact that they rip their students' self-esteem to shreds and pit them against each other for their approval?


JTD said...

Good point, great post. I never thought about this.

It is possible that men abusers are more common, and thus more likely to be discovered. Also, the fact that female abusers are less aggressive and more passive-aggressive means that it would be harder to prove or pinpoint a case against a woman abuser.

Also, what books that you have read are you talking about?

Beelzebub said...

Two possible theories with regard to your second point would go as follows:
1) In the frum world, there are more men teaching, because they can teach at boys', girls', and mixed schools. However, women typically teach at only girls' and mixed schools. Therefore, there would likely be more male abusers in the population.
2) Following up on 1, perhaps the boys have more courage to 'out' their abusers. Assuming a minimal amount of mixed schools in the frum world, and that girls would feel more violated by a male abuser, you have boys reporting men and girls reporting men, yet girls are perhaps a bit too timid to go the extra step to reporting women.

Anonymous said...

There was a rebbetzin abuser in Australia who was reported to the authority. I suppose at least as far as flagrant sexual abuse against minors, I suspect it is more common coming from men.
From a specific Jewish perspective, as far as psychological abuse goes, I suspect that many of the female teachers are also taught to subordinate themselves to the rebbeim, and thus don't take the active role themselves a la Aryeh Binah.

Charlie Hall said...

"they feel like they are finally experiencing authentic Judaism"

Authentic Judaism is not the isolation of a year in seminary, it is living a life of Torah and mitzvot in the real world.

That we "feel" differently is a manifestation of non-Jewish influence -- Judaism was never, at least until very recent times, been an isolationist religions.

Philo said...

"I do not think disturbing peace between family members and students should be the role of a rabbi."


Philo said...

Regarding female abusers, from a recent interview with Deborah Feldman:

My principal would walk by and slap me on the ass and be like, “Your skirt shows too much.”

(note: I have issues with the interview and the way she portrays things, and I'm not endorsing her book, I'm just quoting a relevant line.)

frum single female said...

though emotional abuse by teachers is not right, i think that right now they are concentrating on stopping physical and sexual abuse of children by rabbis. its not that only a man could do these things , but that there are known men who are doing these things and that they need to be stopped.

male 1150 said...

there are plenty of female abusers - most people call them shadchans

Beth Frank-Backman said...

On a practical level the way modesty is often taught doesn't help. Note: I say the way it is taught, not the actual concept of tzinut.

Judaism has a lot of other principles - like not being silent when others are hurt. But in certain schools these take a back seat to the overwhelming message "Thou shalt be modest" and the particular way it is defined for women.

Girls are told not only that they must cover up, but also that they must not make a fuss. All around them, people who do are called provocateurs. Add that to the fact that the abusive teacher says she has God on her side and that you lack faith if you aren't being modest according to her definition.

In short, speaking up means one is a faithless, arrogant, unfeminine person who only wants to stir up pain for others.

What would facilitate speaking up in such a context?

That's not just a rhetorical question by the way. Noting a problem is fine, but if one wants to go beyond upset and worry it is important to start thinking about solutions.

Scraps said...

As a lot of other people have said, I think it's easier to make a case against the male abusers because it is often much more obvious and flagrant. Physical and sexual abuse are much easier to pinpoint and say - *this* behavior is abusive and must be stopped. Women tend to be more subtle, more insidious in their abuse, especially if it's something going on in public. And I agree with Beth - the female teacher who uses religion/tzniut as an abusive mechanism claims G-d on her side, and it's much harder to speak up when you're getting the message that if you do you're not just questioning a teacher but G-d Himself. It is far harder to rebel against abuse when it is a) so hard to prove and b) there is that religious element tied into it.

The interesting thing about the Rav Bina articles is that it seems that, while certainly far more extreme than most women might act in public, the allegations against him are also overwhelmingly of emotional abuse. There are some elements of physical as well, but most of the behaviors and incidents seem to involve public humiliation, controlling, being verbally ripped to shreds, etc. If this is taken seriously, perhaps that will open a door to girls who feel they are being emotionally abused, by either male or female teachers.

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