Monday, December 17, 2012

Really? / Vayigash

Yet another despicable case of child sexual abuse in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community (in this case, the Satmars of Brooklyn). Nechemya Weberman is charged with 88 count of sexual abuse and misconduct for forcing a girl, who came to him for spiritual counseling, into engaging in oral sex and acting out porn films. The abuse began when the girl was 12 years old. This case features the usual disgraceful and shameful features we have come to recognize among such obsessively insular groups: the community harassed and threatened the victim’s family when they reported the abuse to civil authorities, the father’s business went under, and the family was shunned.  The community threw the full weight of its support in favor of Weberman, even raised funds for his defense.

We’ve heard this trop before. This much is repugnant enough. As the commercials say, “But wait, there’s more!” Weberman’s defense attorneys have spun the story to paint Weberman the victim, and the girl an angry, vindictive child who is furious because Weberman told her parents she had a boyfriend when she was 15. Defense Attorney George Farkas is reported in the Washington Post as saying, “There was only one answer [to explain why the girl accused Weberman of sexual abuse]. Vengeance and revenge against Nechemya Weberman, and through this, to bring down the entire community.”

Really? A young girl — raised in a nearly hermetically sealed environment — seeks vengeance against not only one man, but an entire community, not because she was sexually molested, of course (since the defendant denies he is guilty) but because he told her parents she had a boyfriend. Really?

Prof. Ian McKee is a social psychologist at Adelaide University in Australia. He asked: Why do some people seek revenge while others do not? It turns out, not so surprisingly, that our social attitudes determine our vengeful tendencies.[1] He tells us, “People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status. They don’t want to lose face… [they] tend to be less forgiving, less benevolent and less focused on universal-connectedness-type values.”

“Motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status.” Does that sound like an apt description of this young girl? Hardly. She and her family took an enormous risk in reporting the abuse to the civil authorities, and they have suffered as they must have realized they would.

Let’s consider now Joseph, who is in a situation that could entail seeking revenge. This week’s parashah opens with an impassioned speech by Judah, imploring his brother Joseph not to extract revenge on the brothers by imprisoning their youngest brother, Benjamin, because that would break their father, Jacob’s, heart. In 17 verses, Judah mentions their “father” no fewer than 14 times. When Judah stops talking, Joseph is speechless.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph does an immediate about-face. Realizing that the imprisonment he has visualized for Benjamin is little different from what his brothers did to him in throwing him in the pit, he changes course. Remember what Prof. McKee said? Vengeful people tend to be “motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status.” Joseph — not the girl in Brooklyn — fits this model. Yet Joseph forgives his brothers:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, the ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4-5, 7)

Why does Joseph drop his sweet dream of revenge? What’s going on here? After all, research scientists Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and Brian Knutson of Stanford University have demonstrated, using PET scans that measure blood flow through the brain, that people experience satisfaction, and even greater degrees of cooperation with others, when they mete out “altruistic revenge.”[2] And perhaps there is a sweet taste, but it is transitory.

In the longer term — beyond the immediate moment of revenge — does extracting revenge make us feel better? If the goal is catharsis, revenge is a dead end. Dr. Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate University, along with Daniel Gilbert of Harvard and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia concocted a game in which groups of people were convinced to invest in something equally, but the secret experimenter in each group defected and earned nearly twice the amount everyone else in the group did.[3] Some groups were given the opportunity to spend money to take revenge against the defector and virtually everyone offered the opportunity for revenge took it. After all was said and done, the feelings of all the participants were surveyed and the results may surprise you. Here it is in a nutshell, and it’s fascinating: those who had engaged in punishing revenge felt worse, although they had expected to feel better; those who hadn’t engaged in revenge thought they would have felt better had they been given the opportunity for revenge, but ended up happier than their revenge-taking peers.

Dr. Carlsmith suggests that what’s at play is how we spin the importance of the initial event that inspired thoughts of revenge. If we cannot take revenge, we devalue the significance of the triggering event. (Remember Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes?) However, if we do take revenge, the importance of the event becomes inflated in our minds and, as Carlsmith put it, “Rather than providing closure, [revenge] does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh.” Or, as John Milton (1608-1674) expressed it: “He that studieth revenge keepeth his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.”

Perhaps Joseph encapsulates the wisdom of the 19th century humorist, Henry Wheeler Shaw, who quipped, “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”

So the next time we are provoked into contemplating revenge, we might do well to remember Joseph and Kevin Carlsmith and Henry Wheeler Shaw: In the short term revenge may be sweet, but in the long term it leaves a pretty sour aftertaste. Want revenge? Go ahead and forgive; you’ll have the upper hand.

But what about the girl in Brooklyn? She is now married and turned 18 this month. Clearly, when the accusation was made to the authorities, she had neither the profile of one who seeks revenge, nor the means to revenge. She had everything to lose and nothing to win. George Farkas’ contention that she seeks revenge against Weberman and the entire community is ludicrous. Really.

But if Shaw and Milton are correct, should she forgive the man she says abused her repeatedly over several years? Given that he is in denial, expresses no remorse, and has not offered an apology, forgiveness is not now on the table. This is a different case. Joseph was in a position of safety and strength; she is most decidedly not. Given that, it appears that the defendant’s attorney’s attempt to present the accused as the victim, and the child as the vengeful fabulist, is pathetic and contemptible. If the court sees fit to vindicate the girl and send Weberman to jail, we can rejoice that he will no longer be able to molest children. But that’s not vengeance. That’s justice. Really.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Social Justice Research, vol. 138, no. 2, May 2008.
[2] Science, August 2004.
[3] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no. 6., May 2008.

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