Ask The Rabbis | How Would You Counsel A Sexual Predator?
In every contact with serial bullies, victimizers or predators, we must carefully balance natural empathy for the person before us with solidarity and justice concerning the victims. Teshuvah (repentance) is always the goal, yet false expressions of remorse are an abuser’s modus operandi.
Many a predator and addict I work with has been helped by the mystical concepts of Kabbalah. Every one of us comes into this world with an emptiness born of a cosmic vacuum we glibly refer to as Genesis. Thus, you and I are children of the vacuum, and we endeavor throughout our lives to fill that void as best we can with meaningfulness. Some of us, however, try in vain to fill it with food, others with drugs or alcohol and yet others with sex, either at our own expense or that of others. But when we do so, our wellsprings only become drier and drier because, as the 16th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Luria reminded us, a vessel is capable of being filled only if it is also capable of decanting. Otherwise, it is like driving with a gaping hole in your gas tank. Refueling at every gas station along the way will not stop the leak. Likewise, trying to fill your void by throwing other people into it only deepens the chasm, and with each victim, you dig yourself another six feet under. So, I might ask a predator: Which way are you going—down or up?
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA
Judaism teaches a good line about repentance, but achieving sobriety is not a six-week project, and rectifying the injuries inflicted on others is no simple matter of asking for forgiveness. Besides ordination, I also have a degree in clinical social work and worked in an outpatient agency for many years. Among my clients were several men who presented with sexual acting-out behavior that included exhibitionism, frequenting prostitutes, and inappropriate if not dangerous liaisons in the mikveh and public cruising areas. It was clear to me that my training was inadequate to the task; one-on-one treatment without a supportive group would also fall short. The best I could hope for was short-term suppression of symptoms. So the simple answer is: Find an expert who will treat the person’s whole constellation of mental health issues, and get the person connected to a support network.
I worry, however, that this question focuses on the perpetrator of sexual harassment or violence and overlooks the target or victim. Other questions: How do we create a zero-tolerance work environment where reporting on a superior doesn’t put one’s job at risk? How do we counsel a person who fears stigmatization to speak up? How do we counsel people who feel ashamed and need reassurance that they can heal and restore their lives? And, finally, what can we do better as a Jewish community to address these issues as they inevitably occur in our midst?
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
Sexual predators’ lives crash in on them when they are discovered. Clergy counseling involves listening so these people are not alone. They may have addictions and severe psychiatric conditions and be in deep trouble. A clergy member’s role is also to hold open the possibility of treatment and rehabilitation, a path of goodness and healing in their futures—whether in prison or out. The name “HaShem—the Name” is a placeholder in Judaism for the four letters of the most sacred name of God—Yud, Hey, Vav, Hey—formed out of the letters for the words “is,” “was” and “will be,” pointing to God as the Infinite Potential for Change.
We support them to recognize, accept and admit their addictions, compulsions and crimes. We accurately reflect back their words about their losses—who they once were, trust, jobs, positions, freedom, relationships, etc. We help them cry out in honest pain and despair as denial abates, and with them pray for their victims’ recovery. Some will be beyond treatment, but future research may help. And we pray that the day may come when they are able and ready to do deep teshuvah—spiritual relationship repair—perhaps using the principles of restorative justice, which seeks to repair the harm caused by crimes. We also pray that their Jewish communities, families and workplaces will put the policies and procedures in place to safely reintegrate them, if and when that is appropriate.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram
The Reclaiming Judaism Institute
When we think most clearly, we put values at the center. Here, key values to maintain include humility and balance. Most rabbis are woefully unprepared for situations like counseling sexual predators, which—given high recidivism, frequent narcissism, dubious effectiveness of treatments and more—is complicated and controversial even for mental health clinicians. Rabbis may often sound and act like therapists, but we’re not. We all must sometimes say, “This is out of my league; I could do more harm than good; it hurts, but I oughtn’t bring my usual empathic presence to this encounter.”
Maimonides taught the shvil ha’zahav (golden mean), which is all about maintaining balance. In every contact with serial bullies, victimizers or predators, we must carefully balance natural empathy for the person before us with solidarity and justice concerning the victims. Teshuvah (repentance) is always the goal, yet false expressions of remorse are an abuser’s modus operandi. As the #MeToo movement shows, predators too often get away with it, get ahead or get elected. Rabbis may not be qualified counselors, but we can be opinion-shapers, continually reinforcing Judaism’s timeless values: restraint of our impulses, women’s rights, justice and solidarity, balance and humility.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
What kind of counsel does this individual seek? If a person is looking for psychological help, it is my ethical obligation to direct that person to a trained professional. Not all clergy are qualified therapists. Is this an individual who hits on others in inappropriate ways or tells sexist, objectifying jokes? Is this an admitted rapist? An admitted pedophile? Counsel in these situations would look very different; it ranges from making recommendations for sensitivity training to deeper psychological counseling or even reporting a crime. (Clergy are generally considered mandated reporters.)
If this person is seeking spiritual support, then I would create space for conversations about spiritual and theological questions. We would explore the process of teshuvah (repentance) needed, how to go about doing it, and what to take into account in order to be successful.
Regardless of the predatory nature of such individuals’ behavior, as their rabbi I would feel the obligation to remain a source of spiritual guidance as they learn, grow and possibly change their ways. We are not rabbis only to the healthy and ethical members of our communities. We must be there for those who have lost their way and seek to return to a life guided by Jewish values.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
The best counsel I could offer a sexual predator, or the victim of a sexual predator, would be a referral to a professional counselor. As a pulpit rabbi, I do not have the skills to offer serious counsel. But a question I can answer is this: How might Jewish wisdom guide our own behavior when we are dealing with an accused sexual predator? How should we protect ourselves? What about the right of a suspect to be presumed innocent until proven guilty? We are placed on a delicate precipice.
The rules of lashon hara (derogatory speech) can be instructive. The Torah teaches, “You shall not go as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). Jewish law is aware that lives can be destroyed by the spreading of falsehoods. But the verse also calls upon us to protect the lives of our neighbors.
The master of these laws, the Chofetz Chaim, explains that where there is a suspicion that someone will cause damage to someone else, we are permitted to give warning. Under normal circumstances, we are not allowed to hear slanderous words; in this case it is permitted. The halacha gives us the subtle and oh-so-important warning that although we must be careful around the accused, we are not allowed to believe that the accused person is actually guilty. We must be cautious, but we are forbidden to assume guilt. This is a difficult expectation.
The tradition strikes a balance. We must protect both the suspect and potential new victims.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
If the predator came to me to get help to overcome his abusive pattern, I would urge him to get professional help. Also, he should take immediate steps to remove temptation—such as no more scheduling of one-on-one meetings in private homes or isolated hotels, keeping an open door during private office meetings, etc. I would point out that I believe there has been a cultural turning point in attitudes and that such behavior is more likely to become known and far more likely to be punished than in the past.
Long-term, the key step to a cure—if one is possible—is to deal with the feelings of inadequacy (be they sexual or personal) that lead such people to use the imbalance of power to abuse their subordinates and thus get a pseudo-fix for their feelings of inadequacy and failure.
If the person is unrepentant or willfully continuing the pattern, I would hope that the predator’s power, standing or money would not hold me back from reporting the behavior to the authorities (be they governmental, communal or institutional) that can punish or stop it.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Predatory sexual misconduct is associated with a number of psychological disorders. It takes many forms, ranging from pedophilia to stalking, voyeurism and rape. Unlike other compulsive behaviors, it stimulates the offender, and it controls and harms his or her victims. It is for the latter reason that it is a criminal offense.
The Torah and later halachic and ethics codes articulate the same three dimensions as do contemporary clinical and legal standards: prevention, protection and treatment. The Torah charged those who can prevent an assault with the mandate to do so, and this extends to sexual threat as well as to physical attack. Intervention and prevention of harmful behavior is viewed as a means both of safeguarding victims and of promoting the moral integrity of communities. Talmudic law warned against inflicting terror on others. Victims of stalking and of voyeurism, even in the absence of abject danger, are “endangered” because one has the right to live free of distracting worry and fear.
Halacha recognizes the need, at times, to restrict and incarcerate those who pose risk and anguish to the public. Whereas the actual treatment of offenders was not well defined in earlier Torah sources, contemporary halacha recognizes that expert treatment is, ultimately, part of prevention. Not to require treatment keeps victims at risk and diminishes the mental hygiene and spiritual potential of the community. In every instance, when in a position of counseling the predator, the clergy member or clinician must be in compliance with the law.
Rabbi Dr. David Fox
Director, Crisis and Trauma Department
Chai Lifeline International
Beverly Hills, CA
Although I have served as a rabbi for many years, counseled people on a range of issues and read extensively on psychology and sociology, I don’t think that I am qualified to counsel a sexual predator. I don’t think that I could counsel a victim either. My role in such cases would be to offer support and trust and direct the victim to a professional, as well as to raise community awareness and take preventive measures. As to the predator, if I had to talk to him, I would try to bring him to see the pain he had inflicted upon his victims. In Maimonides’ terminology, repentance is impossible without recognition of the sin, and as long as the perpetrator cannot identify with or at least acknowledge the pain of the victims, there is no way to make progress. Once that recognition is achieved, I would try to study with that person biblical narratives which have a connection to his act—I could use the stories of Shechem and Dinah, Yehudah and Tamar, Amnon and Tamar, David and Bathsheba, all of which involve sexual assaults, and the narrative of David as an ostracized and neglected child—and see which one speaks to him. Reading a story about a remote figure in ancient times might help the perpetrator lower his defense mechanisms and open up for a more honest conversation.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation