An open letter written by Woody Allen’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, in the New York Times has reopened a very public discussion about sexual abuse, its abusers, its victims, and our reactions.
In the letter, Farrow speaks out publically for the first time about the sexual abuse she allegedly suffered when she was seven years old. Allen has, in the past, denied the claim, but has not yet responded publicly to Farrow’s open letter.
Those of us who have been advocating on behalf of sex abuse victims in the Orthodox Jewish community are quite familiar with the ensuing firestorm. Absent of hard facts, people take sides in the dispute. Allen has supporters calling Farrow’s allegations opportunistic and specious. Supporters of Farrow are pretty sure that Allen is guilty. This is the pattern of abuse allegations in the Orthodox Jewish community, too. A larger-than-life figure like a rabbi or parent is accused of abusing a student or a child. Defenders of the accused demonize the victim. Supporters of the victim accept the claim and are convinced that the accused is a demon.
Sex abuse is not explicitly prohibited in Jewish law. There is no sex abuse statute. However, Jewish law prohibits any act that causes physical, emotional, psychological, or economic harm to another. All damages are to be compensated with financial remuneration. Jewish law takes a very serious stance of harming another. It is pretty clear that sex abuse has no place in a law-abiding Jewish community.
Matters become muddied when we consider that, practically speaking, very few cases have sufficient evidence to prove a sex abuse allegation. As the Farrow-Allen case demonstrates, we rarely have facts to support either side. Most cases of abuse do not take place in public view, with witnesses, or with forensic evidence.
The victim has a right - and perhaps even an obligation - to make an accusation, and when an accusation is levied, we are obligated to investigate. If we have a suspicion that the accused is a danger to others, we have an obligation to separate the accused from other potential victims. Secular authorities should be alerted to the accusation and they should make an independent investigation. Witnesses are permitted, maybe even obligated, to testify at a trial. Sometimes abuse cases are resolved in this manner. Sometimes they are not.
The social implications of sex abuse accusations and their inherent ambiguity are worthy of analysis and discussion. People prefer certainty. We want to know. Things seem simpler when we have answers to our questions. But the world operates in a place of doubt. We really don’t know everything.
This is why reactions mean so much. Without certainty, we are forced to either choose a side or choose neither side. Choosing sides has a tendency to stifle debate and devolve into argument.
It is possible to choose all sides. We can feel empathy for Farrow and the pain she endures daily. We can also advocate that, absent of proof or conviction in a court of law, Allen has the right to carry on in his daily affairs. Some people might choose to avoid supporting his productions because they would rather err on the side of caution and not support a sex abuse suspect.
The most important thing we can do is to provide victims of abuse the opportunity to be heard. We cannot silence them. We cannot proclaim that they are opportunistic. We need to hear them and deal with their pain. This is the most important thing – even more important than the truth.
Further, by taking all claims seriously, we are telling future victims that we will take their claims seriously too. Nothing in the sex abuse discussion is more important than that.
Finally, those of us who are critical of the stereotypical lackadaisical approach to sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community are reminded that some of our problems extend beyond our four cubits. There are larger-than-life figures in the secular world that may also seem to be given a free pass on abuse. Their accusers are also silenced. We all have a lot to learn in handling allegations of abuse. One thing is certain, we need to work on improving the way we handle ambiguity. We are stuck with it.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or email. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com.
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