In the wake of yet another scandal involving a therapist abusing his clients, it is time to reassert the importance of yichud, the prohibition of unrelated individuals of opposite genders being alone together. This is true not only as a matter of halacha; Jewish law has always required adherence to this principle, even if it has been disgracefully disregarded.
What is further necessary here is a reassertion of the value of yichud, an understanding and clear application of its underlying concepts and messages. The point here is not merely to advocate for practical compliance, as crucial as that is, but also to fully internalize and institutionalize what yichud represents.
To be perfectly clear at the outset, nothing here is meant to imply, chas v’shalom, that had the victims of abuse been more careful about yichud, then they would not have been victimized. The duty to ensure that abuse is not even a remote possibility is on the therapist, and certainly not on the therapist’s vulnerable patient.
At first glance, yichud is a safeguard, a protective measure to prevent forbidden physical relationships from taking place, uninhibited by the presence of uninvolved parties. Safeguards are common in Jewish law, mandated by the Torah and the Talmud (See Pirkei Avot 1:1, and the Gemara in Yevamot 21a). They are a frequent function of rabbinic legislation, and are even present among Torah prohibitions as well.
While many of the laws of yichud are quite complex and detailed – and beyond the scope of this brief essay – the basic concept is intuitive, and has indeed been independently adopted by those unversed in Torah law, and unconnected to Judaism. In the twentieth century, the evangelical pastor Billy Graham has had a policy of not spending time alone with a woman other than his wife attributed to him, and more recently the practice has been associated with former Vice President Mike Pence.
However, there are opinions that yichud is more than a safeguard, that it constitutes an inherent transgression, separate and apart from the likelihood that it may lead one to further sin. While this may be a minority opinion, it is reflective of a possibility that yichud contains elements that set it apart from other safeguards, even in the area of forbidden relationships.
One distinction of yichud, both in the eyes of halacha and of society, is that it has the power to confer suspicion upon its violators, even if in actuality, no further transgression took place. Jewish law incorporates this fact into the ritual of the Sotah, the possibly adulterous wife, who is only considered sufficiently mistrusted to undergo the process once she has been established to have secluded with an identified man other than her husband.
Further, yichud may be, as implied by the Talmud and accepted by some rabbinic authorities, not only a rabbinically mandated safeguard, but one ordained by the Torah itself. In numerous places in the rabbinic texts, yichud is associated with an unexpected verse, one seemingly unrelated in context. This verse (Devarim 13:7), deals with one who entices another to worship idols, known as a meisit, and the highlighted words are “Ki yesit’cha achicha ben imecha – when your brother, the son of your mother…shall entice you secretly…”
Whether or not this constitutes a genuine source for a Torah prohibition; it is noteworthy that the Talmud refers to it as remez, a hint or allusion. If it is not a direct source, at a minimum it bears some thematic relevance, and it seems reasonable to assume that there is additional significance in associating yichud with the enticer to idolatry. Yichud is, in many ways, fundamentally different than other safeguards against forbidden relationships. Other prohibitions, such as affectionate contact or overly familiar interactions, are problematic because of the temptations they magnify or the slippery slope they represent. Yichud is that and more. At the outset, it establishes a sinister tone, similar to that of the inciter. The door that shuts out observers declares that judgment and the standards of society may be left outside as well.
It is noteworthy that during the times that a married couple is prohibited to each other, there are safeguards imposed upon them that exceed those applied to an unmarried pair. They are, however, permitted to be alone together. Yichud generally does not apply to those whose cohabitation is innocent, even if physical intimacy is prohibited between them. The application of yichud to a relationship is meant to automatically convey that seclusion is inherently inappropriate and transmits a tone of lawlessness.
In the context of a therapeutic relationship, this takes on greater significance. The therapist is there to assist. Certainly, there is a dynamic of inequality, one which may inhibit the client from resisting or even objecting to any inappropriate advance. More egregious, still, is the inversion of the purpose of the relationship. A therapist who locks the door, who secludes with a vulnerable client, is transmitting the message that in the place of facilitating emotional stability, he is creating a context of added vulnerability for the client, conveying a disregard for communal standards, announcing that – should the client’s trust be broken – no one will be able to come to the rescue. Further, to the extent he bears any moral authority, he is instilling a fundamental confusion as to the basic principles of right and wrong, and the rule of religious law. It is a devastating form of moral gaslighting.
In that vein, there is an additional symbolism being conveyed by linking the secluder to the inciter of idolatry. R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his HaKetav V’HaKaballah, notes that there is a specific meaning to the root of the word meisit. It is distinct from the word mefateh, which denotes seducer. The seducer accomplishes his goals by convincing his target of the great pleasure or personal benefit that comes from the transgression. By contrast, the meisit convinces his target that the act is not merely desirable, but that it is ethically correct. It is a nefarious act of moral manipulation. Linking this status to that of the secluder sheds light on the particular damage that can occur when the one closing the door carries any veneer of religious authority or influence.
Of course, the therapist must create a “safe space” for the client to speak openly and with the necessary guarantee of confidentiality. Nonetheless, there can be no safety of this type in a space that is, at the same time, in any number of ways, horribly unsafe.
While the halachic responsibility in the area of yichud is bilateral, the moral weight is on the therapist, who creates the environment and controls the expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable. To hold the client responsible to serve as the voice of propriety in this dependent situation is to add another layer of victimization.
The neglect of yichud in therapeutic or mentorship contexts has always been an unacceptable halachic violation. It is increasingly clear, moreover, that the themes and messages embedded within yichud and its sources are instructive as to what is necessary to create a supportive environment, and, conversely, what destroys one. One who would purport to heal must make unquestionably clear that first, he intends no harm.