Sin and Subtext
“New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women” read the subheader of a New York Jewish Week article on October 26. The study found nothing of the sort.
Based on a self-selected sample — women who chose to fill out a survey offered on Jewish websites and in newspaper advertisements, synagogue bulletins, doctors’ offices and through other means — the study, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could not and did not make any claim about the relative prevalence of abuse in the Orthodox and general American communities. Randomized studies, like those that have focused on abuse in the general American population, yield reasonable estimations of the behaviors of their foci. Self-selected surveys of the same populations, however, can easily yield data that diverge substantially from the reality in those groups.
Thus, the study’s authors themselves responsibly cautioned that “those who chose to participate may not be representative of the [Orthodox] population,” and noted that the unfeasibility of obtaining a representative sample constituted a “major limitation of this study.” The study also notes that “there was a high proportion of subjects [51% — AS] receiving mental health treatment in this group [the sample recruited for the study],” further suggesting that the respondents were not representative of the larger Orthodox population (victims of abuse are, of course, more likely than others to seek counseling).
And so, by comparing the 25%-27% figure for American women claiming (in randomized surveys) to have suffered abuse at some point in their lives with the 26% figure yielded by the recent (self-selected) study of Orthodox women, and concluding that “Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much [abuse] as other American women,” the Jewish Week writer was comparing apples and tractors. If anything, the similar percentages arguably indicate a lower rate of abuse in the Orthodox community. After all, if 26% of a group likely to contain a disproportionate number of abuse victims report they were abused, one would expect a much lower percentage of a randomly selected group from the same population.
Abuse, of course, is a serious sin and a serious problem and, tragically, it exists in every community, including the Orthodox. That is bad enough. What is also lamentable, though, is that its existence — to whatever extent — in the Orthodox world provides fodder for those who are always at the ready to pounce on the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence to “expose” what they believe are the moral shortcomings of Orthodox life.
Last year, an article appeared in New York magazine that told the tawdry tale of an alleged serial Orthodox child abuser.
The New York writer did more than salaciously detail an alleged victim’s accusations. He went on to share with readers his own consideration of the prospect that such ugly behavior is “more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere.”
“There are no reliable statistics,” he admitted, “… but there’s reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes.”
The “reason to believe” turned out to be the report of another writer who had explored the world of once-Chassidic people who turned their backs on their communities and found it “shocking” to hear how “so many boys [emphasis hers] have had this experience [of abuse].”
Now, abuse, tragically, may well have been a factor in the trajectory of those disheartened Jews’ lives. And if it was, our hearts must ache with the anguish of the victims. But to consider their agonizing experience as somehow emblematic of Chassidic life, much less broader Orthodox life, is like deciding there must be a national epidemic of broken bones after visiting a hospital and seeing “so many” patients in casts.
Employing the trusty journalistic tool of ascribing unfounded speculations to anonymous sources, the New York writer went on to reveal that “There are some who believe” that “the repression in the ultra-Orthodox community can foster abuse.” By “the repression,” he helpfully explained, he meant things like the strict forbiddance of sexual relations before marriage and the Jewish family purity laws that regulate when married couples may and may not engage in intimacy. The “few outlets for an Orthodox man with compulsions,” those unnamed “some” believe, create “a fertile environment for deviance.”
Those comments go to the crux of the matter of why Orthodox Jews should care about any of this. After all, why not just ignore it all? Just as unfounded negative assumptions about Jews in general are popular in much of the non-Jewish world, so are Orthodox Jews unfairly maligned in the larger Jewish one. Do we really have to make a fuss?
Well, I believe we do. Because there is a subtext here. The maligning is not of Orthodox Jews alone; it is a maligning of mitzvot, of modesty, of Torah. It is a claim, in effect, that dedication to Torah doesn’t help prevent sin, that it even leads to it.
I believe – and it is Judaism’s belief – that Torah is transformative, that human inclinations are harnessed and controlled by Torah-life and Torah-study. To be sure, there are Jews who lead publicly observant lives yet who are not truly committed to Torah, who have not internalized “fear of Heaven.” And so, there will always be anecdotal evidence of Orthodox wrongdoings of many sorts, with perpetrators identifiable, and duly identified, as Orthodox.
But the vast majority of observant Jews take Torah seriously. And it does elevate them, and empowers them to live exemplary lives. That is part of why the Torah-observant population is greatly underrepresented in the realms of societal ills like rape, AIDS, prostitution and marital infidelity that affect their less “repressed” neighbors. Although it is certainly possible that rates of child or spouse abuse in the Orthodox world are equal to those of general American society, I would expect a similar underrepresentation in those realms as well.
I cannot know that my expectation reflects reality; there are no meaningful statistical data to mine at present. But neither are there any to support the assumptions and speculations of writers like those cited above.
One thing I do know, though, is that my expectation is based on the quintessential Jewish idea that the study and practice of Torah create more refined human beings. And the others’ assumption is based on their conviction – fueled, perhaps, by wishful thinking – that it does not.
The writers are entitled to their cynicism. But all Jews who respect Torah are entitled – I believe obligated – to expose it, along with offerings of unfounded, bias-born speculations as facts.