A couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic ran an article written by the loving wife of a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The article is difficult to read yet doubly rewarding. First, the appreciation for the challenges abuse victims encounter and how they affect those who love them and second, the very sweet end of the article nearly outweighs the darkness of the rest of the article.
I have often (naively) said that if the gedolim would really understand the way abuse affects its victims, it they would really comprehend the trauma and horrors of abuse they would not hesitate to report abuse to the police. I’ve been told that the gedolim have been made aware of the severity of abuse and to no avail. This article would be part of that presentation that I naively think would change their minds on abuse. In a very direct and practical way, this article demonstrates just how deeply the victim of abuse feels their pain. Further, it illustrates how far reaching the trauma of abuse can be. It affects so many people beyond the initial victim.
For that reason alone I recommend reading the article.
But there is so much more. In a large portion of the orthodox Jewish world, young men and women meet upon the approval of their parents. Mothers and fathers vet possible date prospects for their children. They rarely know these prospective mates personally. Rather, resumes are distributed and phone calls are placed to common friends and beyond. Parents are often overwhelmed with suggestions. It’s easy enough to eliminate the damaged goods before even embarking on a thorough investigation.But unfortunately there is a negative consequence to this kind of education in the orthodox Jewish community. Because victims of abuse are dealing with so much in their lives, they can be stigmatized and shunned as potential spouses.
Divorced parents? No thanks. Brother is no longer frum? No thanks. Sister didn’t go to seminary? No thanks. He’s in college? No way. She’s in law school? No thanks. Baal Teshuva? No thanks. At risk teen who figured things out at around 20 years old? No thanks.
Superficial details that have almost zero value in determining the true nature of the prospect can eliminate the prospect from contention very early on in the process. This results in a haves and have nots environment.
Organic dating avoids this issue. Boys meets girl, they get on well, they get to know each other, they develop feelings for one another, and then the superficial details emerge. By that time, very few sane people would toss out a relationship because his parents are divorced or she has a brother who is not frum. The relationship is more important than those petty details.
On the other hand, organic dating has its own set of problems that the shidduch system can help avoid. I am not arguing in favor or against shidduch dating in this post. It’s just the reality of the shidduch scene that this is what happens.
According to my anecdotal, non-scientific research and basic reasoning skills, one of the greatest fears that frum abuse victims have is that they will be branded as damaged goods and find themselves at the bottom of the shidduch Totem pole. It is a legitimate fear. It’s stupid, but it is probably what would to happen. If parents hear a potential shidduch candidate was abused it makes sense within the misplaced priorities and confines of the shidduch system that they would just eliminate that person from consideration immediately.
By contrast, the first thing you learn about someone after meeting them is usually not whether they were abused. Obviously. In a good relationship, eventually it is likely to be disclosed and discovered and most probably dealt with together. So the abuse issue only arises once there is a couple with an existing relationship. If the abuse creates an unhealthy environment for a relationship that might doom the couple. But the information alone does not torpedo the relationship like it can within the shidduch system.
Thus, as much as we need to educate ourselves and our communities about the horrors of abuse, we also need to be careful not to allow ourselves to think that abuse victims are damaged goods who should be placed on the bottom of the deck when it comes to shidduchim. It’s a very difficult and narrow path to navigate but it is a necessary one. One solution to this problem might be jettisoning the shidduch system. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Instead, I think we will need to make a conscious effort to walk this tightrope. Let victims know that we empathize with their pain and their struggles. But we also are careful to make sure that victims know that we believe in them and in their ability to lead proud, confident, and successful lives. We all have challenges in life. Victims of abuse may have struggles that are more public than others, but we all have our struggles and no one group should have their struggles written off as inferior or that their struggles should automatically disqualify them from living orthodox Jewish life at its fullest.