Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors

Image: A siddur (prayer book) and tallis (prayer shawl) are tools that have helped me.

Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am HaShem. – Leviticus 19:16

The hashtag #WhyIDidntReport has been all over Twitter for the last few days. It is a response to the treatment of the women reporting Judge Brett Kavanaugh for sexual misconduct.

The public pillory of these women sickens me. They are not doing this frivolously. They have received death threats and their names will forever be associated with the horrible stories they have to tell. They knew that before they spoke up.

They are giving a warning about a danger of which they have personal knowledge. Such a warning is not only permitted by Jewish tradition, it is considered a good deed, since it may save others from harm. This man, if appointed by the President, will have tremendous power over the lives of many women now and in the future.

I decided that it was useful to add my name to the people protesting the mistreatment of these women with my own truth:

I am not posting this for sympathy. I am posting it as information. Yes, it is common for a person to keep quiet about a sexual attack, or series of attacks, because they believe that nothing good will come of reporting. We come out and tell our truths when we believe that it is important to do so, that it matters, that it is not “talebearing” but “truth telling.”

I posted because I felt strongly that to do so at this time was to help to make the point that the number of sexual abuse survivors is vast and we have many disencentives to report. I did not want to stand by while such damage was being done to these women. They spoke up because a man they knew to be of bad character was nearing appointment to the highest court in the land.

If you are or you know a survivor, here are resources in and outside the Jewish tradition I have found useful in my own recovery.

  1. Therapy: Say what you want about Sigmund Freud and his bad attitude about sexual abuse, therapy is an invaluable tool for recovery. I have been in therapy for 36 years and would not be here today without it. Find a therapist with expertise with sexual abuse recovery, if you able. Unfortunately access to therapy is a matter of financial privilege.
  2. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline for the United States is 1-800-273-8255. You are a good and valuable human being, even if you don’t feel like it, even if someone has told you otherwise. Call the line; friendly voices are waiting.
  3. Medication: There is no shame or failure in taking medication, whether anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds or whatever it is you need. I and many others have found them useful. Some don’t find them useful, true, but do your own research and do what works for you.
  4. Teshuvah (Repentance): The person who needs to make teshuvah is the perpetrator. Teshuvah isn’t just an apology. It is taking responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences of those actions. It may involve restitution (e.g, money for medical care or therapy), and repairing other damage (e.g.to the victim’s reputation or career.) Few perpetrators of sexual violence make genuine teshuvah, but when they do it has the power to heal all parties and their community as well.
  5. Teshuvah (“Forgiveness”): The flip side of teshuvah is the role of the person who has been wronged. No matter how badly others may want them to forgive (aka “stop talking about it”) forgiveness is required only when there is teshuvah. Even then, “I forgive” doesn’t mean “it never happened” or “Now I have to trust you again.” It just means, “I acknowledge that you have paid your debt to me.” One may choose not to carry the burden of anger around, but that kind of forgiveness is up to the individual.
  6. Tefillah (Prayer): I’ve found these four prayers very helpful. If you click on the link to the prayer, it will take you to an article about it, the words of the prayer and some alternatives.
    1. Elohai neshamah reminds me that my soul is pure, no matter what has been done to me. It is a gift of the Holy One and it is mine. The alternative translation, Thanks for Life and Breath, is a prayer that may be helpful if breath is particularly significant for you.
    2. El nah, refanah la is the simplest prayer for healing, taught to us by Moses.
    3. Asher Yatzar  is a prayer for the body, giving thanks for what works. Traditionally it was said after going to the bathroom. For many of us survivors, our relationship with our own bodies is fraught with difficulty. Our bodies carry our experiences even when we deny them. I have found that wrestling with Asher Yatzar, finding the words I want it to say, is a healing exercise I return to periodically.
    4. Rofeh HaCholim (Healer of the sick) is often referred to as Mishebeirach (May the one who blessed.) This particular version of the prayer is a petition for the healing of a sick person to refuah shleimah, a complete healing. It also reminds me that I am not alone: that there are other people with my history, and other Jews who are suffering.
    5. The specifically Jewish manner of prayer has been very helpful to me. I feel safe wrapped tightly in my tallit (prayer shawl.)  I like wearing tefillin, although I know for some survivors they are not helpful. Pay attention to how different postures and practices affect you, what works, what doesn’t. Find what comforts and supports you. Jews pray as free adults: you do not have to do anything just because someone else says it is the “right way.”
  7. Tzedakah (Charity) – How can giving money away help with recovery? Sexual abuse is a crime of power. In a capitalist society, money is power. Giving tzedakah, giving money to correct injustice, to relieve someone else’s suffering, can be a very empowering experience. The amount matters less than the fact of giving. When I look for someone less fortunate than myself and I contribute to their well-being, when I relieve some part of their suffering, I exercise my power in the world. I remind myself that I can do good, no matter what bad has been done to me. For more about tzedakah, see Nine Facts About Tzedakah.
  8. Psalms – Yes, these ancient prayers are in the Bible but I give them their own category. The Psalms are powerful, both bringing up emotion and expressing it. I recommend some of the newer translations; the ones below are less expressive to a modern ear.
    1. Psalm 6 “I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears.” This psalmist complains to God about insomnia, anxiety and depression. At the end, they express their hope that better times lie ahead.
    2. Psalm 22 The psalmist wants to know why God doesn’t seem to be listening to them. They feel abandoned and lost in a world full of terrors. The language is vivid: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
      my heart is become like wax; it is melted in mine inmost parts.” At the end, they envision the world they wish for, the world that God surely intends.
    3. Psalm 23 This is the famous “the Lord is my shepherd” psalm. Remember that in Biblical times a shepherd was a fighter who could defend the sheep from wolves if need be!
    4. Psalm 55 expresses the psalmist’s frustration at people who say ugly things and spread evil tales. They writes about their heart “writhing within” and of a horror that overwhelms. They wish bad things to happen to their enemies, but they don’t seek to revenge themselves; they leave revenge to God.
    5. Psalm 126. The most famous line of this little psalm is “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” It is a song about healing and wholeness, an arrival in better days. Debbie Friedman set that line to music, and it is powerful.
  9. Tanakh (Bible): 
    1. Some stories and books in Tanakh (the Bible) may be triggering to abuse survivors. If something is upsetting, wait and study it with a teacher. A good teacher can help you find your way through a difficult text. It’s also OK to say, “I don’t want to study that text now.” There is no shame in knowing what you can and cannot handle at a given time.
    2. Genesis 1 is a story about Creation. God creates the world by separating light from dark, dry land from the sea, etc. It is an orderly world, a peaceful world, and at the end, God looks at the world and says that it is “very good.” I like to read this chapter and remind myself that the Jewish vision of the world is of a good world, and I am a good person in that world.
    3. Genesis 21:1-20 is one of the ugliest parts of the Abraham narrative, but it ends with mercy from God. Hagar is Sarah’s handmaiden, and she is made to bear a son for Abraham. Then, when Sarah has her own son, Sarah takes a dislike to Hagar and her son, and demands that Abraham put them out in the desert. However, God hears Hagar’s prayers – not only do she and her son Ishmael survive, he becomes the father of a great nation, too.
    4. Genesis 38 Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah. When his first two sons (married to her) die, he stalls about marrying her to the third. It is her right to be married to him, so that she will have children, for without children women are destitute in this society. Tamar takes matters into her own hands: she tricks Judah into having sex with her, by disguising herself as a prostitute. Then when she is pregnant, she comes to claim her rightful place in the family. Judah is shocked, but he admits that he wronged her.
    5. Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code. This chapter, at the very heart of the Torah, specifies that abuse of vulnerable people is always wrong. There are specific verses that protect the disabled, women, and children. Even strangers must be treated fairly and well.
    6. Esther is a short book about a heroic woman. Early in the book, she seems to be at the mercy of men: her uncle, the eunuch in the harem, the king. When a crisis arises she owns her power and she does so not exactly as Uncle Mordecai told her, and not to please the king. She does what she thinks is right.
    7. The book of Ruth begins with misfortune. Ruth’s husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law die. She follows her beloved mother-in-law back to Israel where women of her nationality are not seen respectfully. Still, by means of her virtue and some stubbornness, she finds a home in this new place and in the end has a very special place in its history.
  10. And now, for a more difficult item: Exodus 20:11. It is usually translated “Honor your father and mother.” It gives some of us a lot of grief, because it may have been used against us. The word in Hebrew that people translate as “honor” is kabeyd, “give weight to.” It means to treat parents with respect, and not leave them destitute. However, we may not obey a parent who tells us to sin or to break the law (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Siman 240:15.) We can distance ourselves from a parent who persists in lewd speech or behavior towards us, or who is a threat to our children. It is forbidden for a parent to abuse a child by citing the commandment.

These are things that I have found helpful. I may write another article in future when I think of other resources.

I am not going to enable comments on this post – I really do not want to discuss the self-revelation I made in the beginning. If family wants to talk, you know how to reach me. Otherwise, I hope that what I have provided is useful.

Ruthat3
“O God, the soul you have placed within me is pure.”

 

 

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.