Sunday, November 9, 2008

Child Abuse & Chazal - Where is the victim?

Guest post by Dr. Baruch Shulem

In modern English the concept "victim" means or implies an overtone of “injustice”. Something that shouldn’t have happened did in fact happen. The emotional response is one of sorrow and/or moral indignation. Such is the case in our society about child abuse - injustice and moral indignation. Yet we are often taken aback by some of our community Rabbis that do not respond in a similar fashion.

I would like to describe a possible source to their less then sensitive response to what we call today “the victim”. Chazal and the responsa literature describe in great detail the forbidden behavior of the perpetrator of abuse, his legal status, and punishment. There is considerable discussion about how why and when you can kill him and what will happen to him in the next world. There is no parallel dialogue about the injured (abused) person. This seemingly insensitivity reaches a high point when the Shulchan Aruch (C.M. 425:3) states that if the perpetrator has begun the abuse (in this case rape of a betrothed women) he no longer has the status of Rodef (liable for death) and can “only” be brought to court. And the abused girl? No comment. No mention of emotional suffering, social repercussions, or suicide or a long list of laws violated.

Compare abuse to the modern Halacha pertaining to Lashon Hara. A simple word used inappropriately, correct information given without proper permission - and worlds are destroyed. People who are not even present become victims of unguarded speech. Something like 55 violations of Halacha, Torah, and Hashkafa are identified. This is a total response of Law, communities (teach ins, etc.), and Rabbonim to an infraction of the law.

And abuse? I want to propose two issues which might throw some light on the status of abuse in the time of the Gemora and today. First is the significance of the term victim and the second is the evolution of Pasak over time and in different communities. The term victim is a modern Latin/Christian term with all the baggage that it implies. Chazal do not relate to ‘victimization’. This difference can be attributed to a clear purposeful hashkafa that reflects Chazals’ understanding of all events in the world of flesh and blood: all events are direct product of God’s will, He and He alone determines what will happen and to whom. This is din emet. Within this approach there is no ‘injustice’, no ‘victim’ in the modern western (Christian) sense. No mistakes made, only things that we don’t and can’t understand. Halacha deals not with Hashkafa but rather damage, retribution, and compensation. The damaged person can receive payment for some act, but there is no moral judgment only civil suit.

These damages include elements of boshet (embarrassment) and Tzar (pain) which are measured in normative ways. I propose that this psychological artifact has evolved into a significant – almost dominant place in “new” halachic understanding of damage. This reflects the modern western fascination or obsession with emotions in general. Chazal generally do not dwell on emotions but clearly say that emotions – when they exist – should always be under the total control of Da’at. This supports, I believe my first assertion that Hashkafa determines judicial reasoning – as Daat does to emotions.

The conceptualization presented here in short can raise a number of questions:

1. How and when did emotions like boshet become so powerful as to be equated today as Pekuach Nefesh? And if the damage only appears years later is it still PN now? If it only happens in a certain percentage of cases?

2. How, when, and IF we should raise the Hashkafa issue in therapy with the child?

3. What are the positive side of ‘victim’ in these issues and are there also negative sides? Emotion or law should rule? Are Western ideas ‘better’ than Chazal when dealing with emotions?


  1. As I understand it, in order to maintain law and order, in the absence of solid halachic proof, Chazal used the prison process and/or were able to. Correct?

    Ascribing a western overtone to Chazal's actions or intentions (as in the concept of a prison) would seem to be misplaced. Why would this be extra-halachic? The absence of explicit discussion of the victim may in no way be indicative of normative practice, rather, it may be a reflection of a previous society that often preferred to sweep issues under the carpet for obvious reasons. As times change, so does the halachic interpretation of such events. This doesn't make those interpretations outside of normative halacha?

    Poskim allow birth control when/if a woman claims she couldn't cope psychologically with a child at a given moment of her life. That psychology is real. It's part and parcel of the way people feel in the current world that we live in. I'm not sure Chazal would say, "well, people coped years ago with this problem, so should you" in the face of a woman who was experiencing tangible difficulties?

    I don't think I'd call these issues a fascination or an obsession. I'd call them today's reality. Such a reality is part and parcel of the halachic process. If it wasn't, then Poskim would not need to know/see the person asking for a Psak. It's not a frozen world of absolutes.

    Do you contend that if someone's emotions are not under the "total control" of Da'as, that Chazal/Poskim "blame" them for this and ignore the resulting boshes etc

    You seem to be arguing that Hakol Biydei Shomayim Chutz Mitzinim uPachim means that we are all simply marionettes in Chazal's eyes, implying that the result of our actions is not necessarily something Chazal/Poskim should be concerned about.

    Unless I have misread your intention, I can't understand your bow.

  2. Dr. Shalem writes:

    "How and when did emotions like boshet become so powerful as to be equated today as Pekuach Nefesh? And if the damage only appears years later is it still PN now? If it only happens in a certain percentage of cases?"

    The Talmud states that someone who shames a person is considered as if he killed him.

  3. etty said...

    Dr. Shalem writes:

    The Talmud states that someone who shames a person is considered as if he killed him.
    If this was meant literally than it would be permitted to kill someone to prevent them embarrassing another?!
    Do you agree?


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