Q&A : Abuse – January 2009 – “Jewish Life” magazine
Do you think the issue of abuse needs to be given more prominence in South African Jewish community – is it often underreported, even unacknowledged?
Firstly, compliments to JL on confronting this subject, from which yes, we often shy away. I don’t think there is a conscious intention to hide it, but a natural tendency to avoid any unpleasant topic; people like to deny nasty truths. But we have to confront them. South Africa as a country has shown that when society and its leadership do not face truths, no matter how unpleasant, enormous damage can be caused.
Many people are shocked to hear that it happens in our community…
Denial can be on a macro-level (the problem doesn’t exist) or on a micro-level, where one sees clear signs of abuse and ignores it because it is too unpleasant to get involved. We are all human beings. Whatever afflicts the human race afflicts the Jews as well. The Talmud says that G-d specifically created all human beings from one part of another, which means that we are all part of one family. The mitigating factor is that, as Jews, we have the tradition of the Torah, which is G-d given, which teaches us the importance of human dignity, kindness, compassion, menschlikeit, and decency – and abuse goes against all of these.
So why is there a perversion of these Torah ideals?
The Torah teaches that every person has a ‘yetzer tov’, the inclination to do good, and a ‘yetzer rah’, the potential to do evil. There is a constant war between these forces within us, and Judaism highlights the ease with which a person can slip. We constantly have to be on guard against our evil inclination. Focusing on ‘good character’ is paramount.
What are our responsibilities – on a communal level but also as individuals?
As a society, we have to be on the constant lookout for signs of abuse. Healthcare professionals, rabbis, and teachers need to look out for any signs of problems. We need to create a vigilant society where people are made aware of these problems – they do exist, that help is out there. The worst things happen when problems are ignored.
Is it more than just awareness?
Victims need to be made aware that they can come forward for help, that there are community organisations that will help them, and how to contact them. We must also focus on the abuser as well, who also needs to feel that they can come forward, to rehabilitate. The public needs to know the steps to take if they believe abuse to be happening, but to do so in a sensitive matter, so it never becomes a witch-hunt. Part of the rehabilitation of an abusive relationship has to be in the context of a healthy community. So, the community has to play a role in being supportive and to creating a healthy environment for those involved to rise above it and to integrate into society again.
On a personal level, how do we create a healthy environment for ourselves?
The book of Tehillim says: Depart from evil and do good. There are two approaches when dealing with problems. One is to tackle the evil head on and to find ways of dealing with it. So in the context of abuse, that is recognising it, protecting the victim, finding them a safe place, and then dealing with the multiple consequences that arise, be they legal, financial, or psychological. As a society, we cannot flinch. The other is to do good. As individuals, we need, proactively and pre-emptively, to create an environment of goodness that will hopefully prevent the slide toward abuse.
How do we do the latter?
We must constantly nurture the fundamental values of Judaism – most of all, good character. Part of the education of our children should be that to be a good Jew not only means maintaining religious responsibilities. It also means to be a good person. Good character is the building block for healthy human beings, healthy families, and healthy societies – it forms the bedrock of what Judaism is all about.
But how is this being a good Jew, rather than just a good person?
Judaism has some mitzvot we do for Hashem, and others apply for our behaviour toward our fellow human beings. But they are connected, because every human being is created in the image of Hashem. A crime against a fellow human being is a crime against G-d, and so too with positive actions. Hashem is reflected in everyone, and we need to recognise that divinity shining from every person’s face.