The Jewish Culture and Sex Abuse -Part 1 by Marcia Cohn Spiegel

Greetings, Everyone,

During April And He Restoreth My Soul Project focused on Sex and Human Trafficking. We salute the contributors for their service in Trafficking prevention and awareness industry.

April Contributors:

Kylla Lanier-Truckers Against Sex Trafficking, Tami Silverman, CEO Indiana Youth Institute, Deborah Howard Workforce Development/Continuing Education Instructor, and Kiricka Yarbough Smith Human Trafficking Consultant. Thank you!

Now and then, contributors and their articles from And He Restoreth My Soul are highlighted on the website. Today, we are highlighting Marcia Cohn Spiegel, M.A. and her article titled “Jewish Culture and Sex Abuse” if you have a copy of the book it is under Part Three -Cultural Insights when counseling Survivors. For you to get the most information from Marcia’s article, we will publish in two parts. Today is part 1, and part 2 will conclude with recovery prayers and rituals used throughout the healing process.

Marcia is a special woman in my life; she is one of those women who speaks life into the lives of others.


And He Restoreth My Soul Project is to Educate, Encourage, and Empower you. Thus arming you with the information, you may need.

If you have questions, please leave a comment, and I will respond as soon as possible.

Serving at the Pleasure of God!

Darlene J. Harris


Marcia Picture

Marcia Cohn Spiegel, M.A.

“Growing up as a Jew in a non-Jewish world, I was taught not to reveal problems, not to talk about the Ôbad things’ that happen. It was incumbent on each Jew to protect the community image because of the fear of anti-Semitism.” Ñ Marcia Spiegel, of the Jewish Task Force of the Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, lets the spiritual leader understand the baggage of refusal to disclose worn by Jewish people who have been sexually abused.

Marcia Cohn Spiegel lectures extensively in academic institutions, synagogues, centers, and spiritual retreats on violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish family.


The Jewish Culture and Sex Abuse -Part 1

by Marcia Cohn Spiegel


Jewish Women Healing Themselves

“In her heart she is a mourner for those who have not survived.
In her soul she is a warrior for those who are now as she was then.
In her life she is both celebrant and proof of woman’s capacity
and will to survive, to become, to act, to change self and society.
And each year she is stronger, and there are more of her.”
By Andrea Dworkinii

Writing this chapter feels like taking a very great risk, revealing secrets I was admonished all my life to conceal. But I take the risk because I am convinced that all cultures share similar experiences, some more overt, some more concealed. We will never solve the scourge of sexual and domestic violence until all of us face it together, learn from each other, and create a united force to combat it.

Growing up as a Jew in a non-Jewish world, I was taught not to reveal problems, not to talk about the “bad things” that happen. It was incumbent on each Jew to protect the community image because of the fear of anti-Semitism. When I was a child in the thirties, Jewish people were marginalized, not allowed entry to many colleges and universities, shut out of certain professions, and even from living in some communities. We learned to present our best face to the world to avoid further stigmatization.

As a small child, I never questioned my parents’ right to hit me. It never occurred to me, even as I got older and began to explore violence in the Jewish family, that hitting a 2-1/2-year-old with a belt-buckle was more than inappropriate punishment. My folks were pillars of the Jewish community, and I was a very naughty girl. Later, when I was married to an alcoholic, I sought help from my parents, my rabbi, and finally a psychotherapist. Each one assured me that it was my fault that he drank. If only I would change, things would be better. I suffered for many years before I reached the point of desperation which led me to join a Twelve Step program (a program that follows the 12 steps developed in Alcoholics Anonymous).

As a Jew, I was nervous and uncomfortable attending meetings in a church and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but the love and support of the other members of the program nurtured me in my pain and helped me to discover the importance of a Higher Power in my daily life, and my own strength to survive. Because of my strong cultural and ethnic feelings about Judaism, I could not turn my back on my religion, but rather was forced to embrace it, and to strive to find a way to make its beliefs work for me.

At the same time, I began to collect prayers and poems by Jewish women as part of a synagogue project.iv As I typed the words of Jewish women through the ages into my manuscript, I experienced their feelings, their pains, their hopes, and their faith, and I took their words into my heart and soul. I learned of the separation of women from the men’s prayer community, but I also learned of a special community of women supporting each other. I identified so strongly with their lives and experiences that I embarked on a journey to change their lives as well as my own.

The American Jewish community has maintained an image of being peaceful and non-violent. But the truth of this image was shattered when I read newspaper clippings which told stories of the murder of an Orthodox Jewish woman by her husband, the death of a child at the hands of his Orthodox mother, liberal rabbis who had perpetrated sexual abuse on students and congregants, a court battle for custody of a young Jewish incest victim in which full visitation rights were given to the perpetrator, and the shocking statistic that 70% of women rabbis have been sexually harassed by members of their congregations. Front page news was made when an Orthodox rabbi and his assistant were arrested for sexually molesting a teen-age girl. And who can forget the story in the Philadelphia Inquirer that told of a perfect Jewish husband who strangled his sweet Jewish wife to collect her insurance to pay the cost of his sex addiction.v

The community that presented itself as nonviolent believed it, even when confronted with harsh reality. No one protected the victims; too often they were blamed for their abuse. Each case was looked upon as an aberration. Each abused woman felt that she was alone and probably to blame for her abuse. The innocence of the perpetrators was often defended by their communities. These clippings brought up all of the denial that confronted me when I looked for help almost forty years ago.

The accumulation of these stories in major newspapers has forced the Jewish community to begin to face the truth. Our secret is out. We can no longer pretend that violence and abuse do not take place in Jewish homes. We have to confront this unpleasant reality, concealed for ages behind the idealization of the Jewish family, Shalom Bayit, peace in the house. The sages taught that God seeks peace in the heavens, between the nations on earth, and between husband and wife. They tell us that “the ultimate achievement of peace on earth depends upon its achievement in the smallest social unit―the family.” For centuries, Jews created a barrier between themselves and the hostile world around them by presenting the Jewish family as a loving, supportive, protective unit. Shalom Bayit, rather than the ideal toward which we strive, became the yardstick by which we measured ourselves.

This utopian image is inconsistent with stories in the Bible and Talmud, turn-of-the-century Yiddish fiction, or even letters from an old advice column in the Yiddish Daily Forward. Our heritage begins in Genesis with the murder of Abel by Cain, the incest of Lot and his daughters, and the violence perpetrated on Joseph by his brothers. In our holiest books we read about families in trouble, about rape and murder, abuse and violence.

Phyllis Trible calls these horror stories Texts of Terror. She describes the casting out of Hagar, the rape of Tamar, the rape and death of the unnamed woman from Bethlehem, and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter to her father’s pride and vanity. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 51a) explores the appropriate punishment for perpetrators of incest―stoning or burning. Establishing codes of law for how we treat each other, both Moses Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, and Joseph Caro in the Shulchan Aruch, invoke against wife-beating (except, of course, where the wife is not doing her work to the satisfaction of her husband or some equally justifiable cause). New stories of battery and violence are found not only in Jewish heterosexual couples but among lesbian and gay couples as well.

Community attitudes are slow to respond to new information that contradicts long-held beliefs. Although a rabbinic task force on abuse was convened to address the problem in Sydney, Australia, I was distressed to learn that an Orthodox rabbi who was present assured the others that if a Jewish man beat his wife, it was only because she deserved it. While most of those present gasped in dismay, there were many nods of agreement among the other rabbis.

For many centuries, women were silenced by belief in the reality of Shalom Bayit, peace in the house, suffering indignities without protest in order to protect the reputation of an abusive husband or father and to shield the Jewish community from shame. In poor communities where people lived in close proximity to each other, in tenements and in ghettoes, the truth could not be hidden from neighbors. It was not, however, a subject for open conversation. Women remained mute, not revealing what happened behind closed doors. With the advent of the feminist movement, however, a powerful message was given to us women―that we are fully human and entitled to be treated as such. The stories began to be told to close, trusted friends. Brave women spoke out to others who listened, who heard, and who gave support. We learned that we are not alone and that change is possible.

As recently as twenty years ago, Jewish social service agencies rarely saw a client who disclosed sexual or domestic violence. When rabbis, psychologists, or marriage counselors heard a story of abuse they were apt to say, “What are you doing to cause the problem? Jewish men don’t beat their wives . . . or children . . . or drink . . . or commit incest.” The victim was blamed for the behavior of the perpetrator. That response to her plea reinforced the idea that she was the only Jewish woman in such a situation. Not only did she feel responsible for what was happening to her, but she felt tremendous shame for her own condition and that of her family. After that, she might never risk telling her story to anyone else; she would continue to suffer silently and possibly, even, to die. Another woman might look for help outside the Jewish community, feeling guilty that she was sharing dirty secrets with non-Jews; still, another might become involved in a cult to find spiritual comfort and support. Some women left Judaism; some left home.

Some of us, however, decided to change Judaism to include us and our life experiences. We would do the work of repairing the world, Tikkun Olam. We began to band together to change existing religious institutions and community organizations; we created new organizations to reach out to others who have been abused; we created support networks; we told our stories to force the world to hear our voices. Our own healing is strengthened, and our lives made whole as we reach out to others.

In 1987, when Evelyn Torton Beck and I conducted a workshop on sexual abuse and domestic violence at a meeting attended by many Jewish women theologians, rabbis, philosophers, poets, and teachers, we were shocked that among the 23 women participating, 19 reported stories of abuse in their childhood. Since then I have found that whenever I lecture or facilitate workshops, leaders in the Jewish-feminist-spirituality movement tell me their stories of sexual abuse and physical violence. I am distressed by the stories, but I am no longer shocked. While I do not believe that everyone who is struggling to change the patriarchy has been physically or sexually abused, I do believe that many women engaged in the struggle to reshape Judaism have been abused.