Sanctuary for the Abused

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cry of the Oppressed

by Alison Iser

This monthly reflection is about the cry of the oppressed found in Exodus 22:20-23. This passage is found in a section of Torah known as Mishpatim, or Judgments. According to Sorel Goldberg Loeb and Barbara Binder Kadden in their book Teaching Torah, mishpatim are those laws in Torah which could be arrived at by human reason.

20You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. This does seem like common sense. We experienced oppression. We know how awful it is. We shouldn't treat anyone else that way.

21You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
If we shouldn't treat strangers badly, we certainly shouldn't treat those who live amongst us badly, particularly if they are already in a difficult situation.

22If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me.
Well, we all want to believe that God hears our cries.

23And My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
God takes oppression so seriously that he will kill oppressors and make those closest to them vulnerable to the same oppression perpetrated by their husband or father.

This portion of mishpatim seems pretty straightforward. I was interested in exploring this portion because of the work that I do. My work used to be focused on answering the cry of the oppressed, quite literally on a crisis line for victims of domestic violence. Now, my work focuses on equipping rabbis and other Jewish leaders to answer the cry of the oppressed, or hopefully to prevent the oppression.

So many rabbis do act on behalf of the oppressed, but sadly, sometimes it is a rabbi who is causing the cries. Recently I received an email stating that yet another rabbi, a leader in his community, had used his position to prey on others. I don't know if the women he sexually and spiritually abused are widows or orphans, like those mentioned in verse 21. It doesn't matter to me.

According to Nehama Leibowitz in her book, Studies in Shemot, it shouldn't matter to anyone because the prohibition to oppress wasn't meant to be limited to strangers or to widows or orphans. According to Nehama, Rashi said the same applies to all persons, but the text spoke of what is usual, since widows and orphans are weak and abuse of them is common.

It is interesting that the text points out who is usually the target of oppression, but does not point out who usually is the oppressor. If it is the vulnerable in society who are the easiest prey for mistreatment, then one may surmise that it is those who have power and privilege who can most easily become oppressors.

What makes the news of another rabbi who is a sexual predator so disturbing and seemingly not so commonplace is that we expect our rabbis to be better than that. We expect them to use their power and privilege to fight oppression, not to perpetrate it.

We expect the abusers to be found amongst those who are not observing mitzvot, those who lack the discipline of devout observance, those who do not have a clear spiritual path. We expect our rabbinic leaders to be answering the cries of the oppressed, as partners with God, not causing the tears. Sadly, this is not always the case.

Interestingly, the commentators I read seemed more realistic about their expectations. They did not believe that our experiences with being oppressed would stop us from being oppressors. They saw the reminder about being strangers in Egypt not as a call for empathy, as I thought, but as a warning about the consequences of mistreating strangers a warning we're reminded of 36 times in the Torah.

According to Harvey Fields in A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Nachmanides saw the repeated reminder as a warning about how God works on behalf of the oppressed and is clearly on their side.

This seems on target because sure enough this portion of mishpatim is clearly a warning as it includes the threat of death. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this harsh warning is not preventing oppression, even by those who clearly know better.

This makes me wonder about the part of the text that reads I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me. Perhaps what we are really being told is that we need to emulate God. We need to listen. We are told three times in Genesis that we are made in the image of God. (1:27, 5:1, and 9:6). If this is the case, then perhaps it is the aspect in each of us that mirrors God that needs to hear the cry of the oppressed.

As soon as they cry out to Me... It's so easy for us to make that a capital "M" and wash our hands of the responsibility. What if we choose to make that a lower case "m"? As soon as they cry out to me... It's no surprise that a common thread amongst predators is that they demand silence and secrecy from those they oppress. They rely on the oppressed not to cry out. This was the case with the rabbi mentioned earlier. He demanded secrecy from the women he abused. The women cooperated initially, but recently came forward with their stories. The ironic part is that predators don�t have to demand silence and secrecy from the rest of us. The community often remains silent without ever being asked by the abuser. That deafening silence is one of the reasons why it is so shocking to hear that a rabbi is a sexual predator. When crying out is unwelcome, the oppressed get the message. If and when we do finally hear, it is shocking because it seems so rare, so unlikely.

However, we have learned throughout history that silence does not protect us. In this passage, the threat of punishment isn't just directed at the person who directly treated others badly. According to Ibn Ezra, the verb "ill-treat" is plural those who see the ill-treatment and are silent receive the same punishment as the one who performs it.

The Stone Edition of the Torah explains the logic behind this group punishment by stating the very fact that a community permits individual members to persecute the helpless is in itself a crowning insult. It shows the downtrodden that even those who do not actively taunt them do not care about them. Again, this logic seems simple enough to reach through basic human reason.

Yet so many of us who believe that it is wrong to oppress others and who would refuse to directly mistreat the stranger, the widow, or the orphan, stand passively by when our leaders do so. We stand by even though we too are culpable for these crimes. Is it because we don't hear the cries of the oppressed? I think that is true sometimes. Sometimes we want so badly to believe that this doesn't happen, that we encourage silence.

Or do we stand idly by because we hear so very many cries? It is easy in this world to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of pain and misery and oppression. It can be easier to tune it all out or to address one piece and not the others. That is an understandable response.

Of course, I don't have any easy answers to offer you about this, but here are my thoughts...When it comes to the issue of sexual abuse by clergy, we need to make it easier for the oppressed to cry out. We need to heed their cries when they do. That means we need to believe them.

We need to be careful stewards of the power and status we grant to others knowing that it can be used for great good or for great harm. When it is used for great harm, we need to remember our responsibility.

As soon as they cry out to God, to me, to any of us. For we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Alison Iser, M.A. is the Director of the Jewish Program at FaithTrust Institute. Alison has extensive experience as a community educator, trainer, and advocate for both secular and Jewish domestic violence programs. She is a contributor to JWI Resource Guide on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community and is one of the editors of a "A Journey Towards Freedom: A Haggadah for Women Who Have Experienced Domestic Violence."


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