January 07, 2005

When trust is abused


By Eli Somer

Part horrifying personal memoir, part research survey, this book reveals how rabbis violate the trust placed in them by female followers

"Sex, Lies and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust" by Charlotte Rolnick Schwab, Bloomington: 1st Books Library, 277 pages, $14.95

The analogy between a religious leader and a shepherd (reflected in the double meaning of the English word "pastor"), and between his parishioners and a flock of sheep, illustrates the relations of power and authority that exist between the two sides. The rabbi, qadi, sheikh or minister are the leaders of a community of believers, who come to them for counseling and advice.

But unlike as in the therapeutic professions, where the percentage of female practitioners is greater than the percentage of women in the general population, the religious doctrine of most faiths precludes women from holding sacred office. The right to mediate between God and his followers is usually the exclusive privilege of men. Thus, the relationship between rabbis and their female congregants becomes, potentially at least, another site for women's oppression by a dominant male class.

The idea that a rabbi might sexually harm someone who believes in him, respects his authority and desires his blessing is almost as abhorrent as the notion that a father can molest a daughter. Unfortunately, just as incest is a fact of life (including within the religious community), so sexual exploitation by rabbis is a widespread phenomenon, one that the religious community seeks to keep out of the public eye. The world press has reported at length on the sexual exploitation of Catholic believers, especially altar boys and choir boys, by their priests, and courts in the United States have forced the Catholic Church to pay the victims hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.

Posted by kshaw at January 7, 2005 05:37 AM