Welcome to the February edition of Mind Body & Soul, themed Relationships in Crisis. This issue examines crises - situations that threaten the status quo - through the lenses of multiple relationships, ranging from marriage, to caregiving, to sober living. In addition, it pays special attention to a crisis that recently erupted into the consciousness of the Jewish community – that of child sexual abuse.
In particular, Alan Singer tracks the various ways that COVID has disrupted the natural rhythms of couples. Simcha Feuerman asks whether one’s spouse should be their best friend; Moshe Norman addresses what happens when one’s spouse is not the friend they had imagined.
Douglas Balin attends to the crisis that occurs when a family member enters long term care. Baruch Lytle, staff writer, portrays how recovering addicts can safely emerge from long-term, structured care.
Regarding abuse and its prevention, Shani Verschleiser focuses on the importance of modeling physical and emotional boundaries for children. Sara Teichman provides parents with tools for the early detection of boundary violations and abuse.
Drs. Verschleiser and Teichman are, unfortunately, writing in response to the multiple credible allegations of abuse that emerged, regarding popular children’s author, Chaim Walder, who ultimately took his own life. I’d like to share my own thoughts, particularly as they relate to our efforts to identify and shore up the systemic weaknesses uncovered by Walder’s malfeasance.
Many of us have debated the wisdom of keeping the books of Chaim Walder on our shelves. Perhaps, we are missing out on a more pressing question: Might we, as a community, still be sinking the hooks of Walder into ourselves and our children? By “hooks”, I mean the problematic interpersonal dynamics that immobilize us and our children, in situations that approximate abuse.
In particular, there is an interlocking system of three well-intentioned, albeit problematic, communal norms that render our children unnecessarily vulnerable to abuse.
Part B: As parents, we might convey the message that our child’s personal choices (e.g., not to uphold a family standard of Mitzvah observance) would likely lead to our becoming physically ill or worse.
Each of these practices is problematic in and of itself. The first one denies children access to their budding capacity for wisdom; it stunts their growth,
in their role as decision makers. The second creates an impossible bind for children whose families don’t abide by the tech rule, but who can’t imagine not attending their preferred school; their being obliged to sign a false affirmation drives home the lesson that truth can and should be sacrificed in the service of fitting in. The third set of practices is a form of manipulation.
In each case, an adult is coercing a child to behave in a certain way, by convincing the child that non-compliance weakens their relationship or even threatens the adult’s wellbeing.
In particular, these beliefs and practices erode the strength and resolve of children who are, G-d forbid, on the cusp of being abused:
Whether or not we keep Walder’s books on our shelves, we do have the ability to remove his hooks from ourselves and our children. It is possible for us to instill an appreciation for Da’as Torah, without eradicating our children’s capacity for intuition. It’s possible for our schools to communicate their recommendations and expectations about technology, without cornering parents and students into a lie. It’s possible for us to encourage Tzniyus (modesty) and Mitzvah observance, without threatening our relationship with our children.
I sense that we, as a community, can safeguard our children’s intuition and their growing capacity to make autonomous decisions. I sense that we, as a community, can protect the space in which the values of genuineness and integrity can flourish. When we do so, we increase the likelihood that, if G-d forbid, our children become objects of predation, they recognize the unwholesomeness of the situation and they reach out, sooner or later, to an adult who can lead them toward safety.