Office of the Chief Rabbi

Op-Ed: Sexual violence and abuse are among the most insidious of evils

Writing in the Jewish News for Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week, the Chief Rabbi condemns a blight on our society, drawing on the Torah’s teachings to stress that silence, if contributing to an individual’s suffering, can have an impact as devastating as harmful speech.  

‘I salute the bravery of sexual abuse victims who speak out’

“IT’S SEXUAL abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week across the UK – the first of its kind, aiming to generate a frank and necessary public conversation about a crime as old as the taboo that has, shamefully, protected it. It is a poor reflection on our society that such an awareness week is necessary. Sadly, it is.

Sexual violence and abuse are among the most insidious of evils, with devastating lifelong consequences.

Let there be no illusions – the campaign to end the scourge of sexual abuse is as pertinent for the Jewish community as it is within all of our society.

 The Torah links the way we speak to others, to the prohibition of being an inactive bystander: “You may not go about as a talebearer among your people; neither may you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Leviticus 19:16).

The inference here is that just as harmful speech can sometimes be a killer, so too can silence. If keeping quiet has the effect of allowing others to be victims of cruelty, there is an obligation to speak out against a perpetrator, regardless of the implications on his or her reputation.

‘Just as harmful speech can sometimes be a killer, so too can silence’

The Talmud, based on this verse, defines the role of the bystander in the following way: “One may not stand idly by while others are in danger. One should exhaust all means to rescue people from rape, drowning, attack by criminals or attacks by animals. Until the victim has been fully extricated from the dangerous predicament, the obligation still obtains.” (Sanhedrin 73a). There is no doubt that this unequivocally denotes a responsibility to prevent a child abuser from destroying lives, now and in the future.

Our sages further teach us that in such a situation, one should not wait until summoned. Rather, if one is in possession of relevant evidence one must come forward voluntarily in order to “destroy the evil from your midst”.

In recent years, we have achieved a great deal. Debate about whether to involve statutory authorities where cases of abuse are identified, is all but over.

Support is now readily available for victims of abuse. Training for rabbis and rebbetzens, certainly for United Synagogue communities, is better than it has ever been and our procedures and policy documents are constantly under review. Yet, there is still so much more work to do.

Our community is blessed with countless rabbis, teachers, leaders, parents and family members who epitomise all that is good about Judaism and are forever deserving of our reverence and veneration.

But in this context, when we encounter shameful exceptions to the rule, we have a responsibility to recognise how difficult it can be for victims of abuse to come forward and share their experiences.

While all around you are conferring praise and respect upon someone in (or close to) the family or a prominent member of the community, how can you possibly even begin to report them for committing such a terrible crime? Even if you try to speak up, will anyone really be inclined to hear your story?

‘We have a responsibility to recognise how difficult it can be for victims of abuse to come forward’

Let the message go out that we will receive victims of abuse with warmth and sensitivity and create a culture of support for them right across our communities. Neither stature nor reputation should be a barrier to our willingness to report or comprehensive investigation. Perpetrators of these crimes, particularly those who have sought to hide within the infrastructure of the Jewish community, have desecrated the name of God and destroyed lives. Their actions often steal innocence and betray trust and are among the very worst crimes that can be committed.

I salute the bravery of those victims who have found the courage to speak out and hope that their example might give others the strength to do the same.

Many campaigners have made it their life’s mission to tackle this problem and we are indebted to them for that invaluable work.

We must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbours.”