Ecstasy, Frenzy, Domination, and Sexual Abuse in Spirit's Name

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Today (May 2006) as on some occasions before, we face the discovery that a respected teacher with great spiritual gifts has turned them to the service of sexual abuse.

We face the rediscovery that a spiritual teacher may think he is deepening a community into ecstasy when he is actually only stimulating it into frenzy, in which his own intensity domineers over the community's self-understanding.

And then he may use the frenzy to press his sexual desires on his students or other subordinates. Or he may create emotional and intellectual dependencies that are not quite physically sexual, but damaging all the same.

We face also the rediscovery that some in our community so deeply thirst for spiritual nurture that they find it hard to distinguish between being nurtured and being abused.

The danger that religious and spiritual leadership may slop over into sexual harassment and abuse seems to cut across all the boundaries of different religions and different forms of religious expression within each tradition.

In Jewish life, for example, whether we look at the most halakhically (legally) bound or the most free-spirit leadership, we find some who draw on the deep energies of Spirit and the honor due teachers of Torah, but cannot distinguish those energies and honor from an invitation to become sexual harassers and abusers.

There are great dangers in totally sundering spirituality and spiritual leadership from sexual energy, and there are great dangers in treating the two as if they were simply and totally identical. The sacred dance is to treat the two as intimately related but not identical.

For many of us -- not only in our own era and society, but for example among the Rabbis of the Talmud too -- the energies of Spirit and of sexuality are in truth intertwined, and need to flow together for either to be rich and full.

Look at the Song of Songs, which is clearly erotic and has been seen by many generations, using many different frameworks, as deeply spiritual. Look at the Rabbis who said that Torah study was like delicious love-making with a Partner whose sexual attractiveness never lessened.

I would not want to lose this intertwining. Indeed, I think that even in the aspects I have just named, some vitality was drained from Judaism when the rabbis utterly separated the Song of Songs from its erotic roots - forbidding it to be sung in wine-halls at the same moment they approved its canonization as a voicing of the Holy Spirit and a book of the Bible.

And I think the Rabbis also drained some life-juice from Judaism, as they themselves ruefully acknowledged, when they treated Torah-study as so erotically fulfilling that they would forget to go home to make love to their wives.

We have been addressing the danger of severing sexuality from spirituality, and the possibility of celebrating this sacred intertwining when it is best manifested in relationships other than marriage.

On the other hand, we must also address the dangers of treating spiritual and sexual energy as if they were simply and exactly the same, so that spiritual leadership might be taken as a warrant for sexual acting-out -- and in that light we may explore ways of celebrating this sacred intertwining while minimizing the chances of abuse.

Kabbalah warns that the different Sphirot (emanations or aspects of God) can become distorted and destructive. We are most used to manipulation and abuse that can flow from an overbearing overdose of the sphirah of Gevurah, Power and Strictness,

Of course Gevurah can inspire and teach. It may communicate clarity and focus to those whose feelings, minds, and spirits are scattered and dispersed. Yet there is danger in a teacher overmastered by Gevurah run amok: one who teaches through raging fear and anger or through lies and psychological manipulation.

And a teacher overmastered by Gevurah may turn students into submissive servants of his sexual will (far more rarely, hers).

We are less likely to notice the dangers of Gevurah's partner Chesed (Overflowing Lovingkindness), precisely because we are warmed by loving-kindness. But -- A spiritual leader may pour unceasing love into the world. May pour out unboundaried his money, his time, his attention, his love. For many of the community around them, this feels wonderful. It releases new hope, energy, freedom.

But it may also threaten and endanger. Even Chesed can run amok. A Chesed-freak may come late everywhere because he has promised to attend too many people. He may leave himself and his family penniless because he gave their money to everyone else. He may give to everyone the signals of a special love, and so make ordinary the special love he owes to some beloveds. And he may use Chesed to overwhelm the self-hood of those who love and follow him, and abuse them sexually.

Indeed, this misuse of Loving-kindness may lead to even deeper scars than naked Gevurah-dik coercion. For it leaves behind in its victims not only confusion between Spirit and Sexuality, but confusion between love and manipulation. That may make the regrowth of a healthy sexuality, a healthy spirituality, and a healthy sense of self more difficult.

When we learn that a revered, creative, and beloved teacher has let Chesed run away with him, and so has hurt and damaged other people, what can we do? First of all, what do we do about the fruits of Chesed that are indeed wonderful? ---We do not reject the gifts that flowed through an Abraham who was willing to kill or let die one wife and two sons; we do not reject the gifts that flowed through the ancient King Solomon who became a tyrant.

Certainly whoever among us have turned love and admiration of a teacher into adulation and idolatry need to learn to make their own boundaries, their own Gevurah. And we need to teach the teachers who might fall into this danger of Chesed-run-amok, challenging and guiding them, insisting and demanding that they achieve a healthier balance.

(I have found that some people respond to this analysis by thinking that to say one version of sexual abuse is an outgrowth of the perversion of Lovingkindness excuses the behavior. It does not. Like a diagnosis, it distinguishes this particular disease from others that may also become manifest as sexual abuse. Dealing with Chesed-run-amok is different from dealing with Gevurah-run-amok.

(As an analogy, think about diagnosing whther someone has the disease of syphilis or the disease of AIDS. Both are sexually transmitted, both are lethal unless treated, both are dangerous not only to the person infected but to the related community. Yet they are different, and must be treated differently. The disease of hyper-Chesed is different from the disease of hyper-Gevurah. Making this diagnosis does not excuse either carrier from seeking treatment and does not excuse the community from making sure the carrier does not damage others.)

Chesed needs to be balanced by Gevurah's Rigorous Boundary-making, and the two must reach not just toward balance but toward the synthesis of Tiferet or Rachamim, the sphirah of focused compassion -- traditionally connected with the heart-space.

Why there? The heart is a tough enclosing muscle that pours life-energy into the bloodstream. If the muscle were to go soft and sloppy, or be perforated by holes, it could no longer squeeze the blood into the arteries. If the blood were to harden and become Rigid, it could not flow where it is needed. In the same way, Rechem -- the womb -- (the word is at the root of Rachamim) is a tough enclosed space that pours a new life into the world.

Chesed alone, Gevurah alone, bear special dangers. Even so, each of them remains part of the truth, the need, and the value of God and human beings.

Perhaps the character orientation most likely to encourage a teacher's ability to pour out spiritual, intellectual, and emotional warmth without turning that into sexual manipulation is a character centered on Tiferet/ Rachamim.

Finally, we must deal with the danger that a teacher's "shaping-power" may turn into domination. When a teacher channels either Chesed or Gevurah into the notion that the teacher OWNS this power -- is not, one might say, one of God's "temporary tenants" of this loving or awesome property but is its Owner -- then this invites among the students first submissiveness; and then it invites, creates, and enforces idolatry.

A teacher who invites this idolatry is an idol-maker -- far more responsible for it than the student who may thus be tricked into idol worship.

There are two ways to prevent this kind of idolatry, this transmutation of spiritual energy into abusive behavior. One way is to limit the power-holder's actions. The other way is to empower the one who feels weak.

Both are necessary.

To be a "rebbe" is to live in the vertical as well as horizontal dimension -- to draw not only on the strength of friends, community, but also on the strength that is both deep within and high above. No one is a rebbe all the time, and everyone should be a rebbe some of the time.

This is not at all the same as simply saying that all of us are Rebbes, stamm -- even just part of the time. All of us are potential "part-time" Rebbes -- if we choose to reflect on our highest, deepest selves. And that means we are less likely to surrender our souls and bodies to someone else. A true Rebbe, it seems to me, is one who encourages everyone to find this inner spark and nurse it into flame. But we have all bumped into people who act as if they are the flame, while others are but dead kindling-wood.

To say that any one of us is empty of the Spark is to deny God's presence in the world. To arrogate the Spark to one's own self alone is to make an idol of one's ego.

More institutionally, what this means is that we must explicitly say to teachers, davvening leaders, healers -- that they not use the power of their position to overawe their congregants or students into entering sexual relationships. That they not turn the spiritual and emotional comfort due the shattered mourner of a just-dead spouse into sexual seduction. That they not turn the excitement of profound Torah or deep davvening into the incitement of sexual need.

And that we also counsel congregants, students, clients to strengthen the aspect of their Self that is one flame of God; that they not try to gain confidence by subjugating their own sense of self to someone else; that they choose a sexual relationship out of strength, not weakness.

The movement for Jewish renewal chose ten years ago to make this clear through an ethical code that prohibits any teacher or other spiritual leader from using that position during a class or a Kallah or similar event to initiate a sexual relationship with a student or learner.

Even more important, this ethical code was publicly announced to and discussed by all teachers, leaders, and other participants -- so the discussion taught a deeper lesson, one that could last beyond the immediate situation into the longer future.

In this way we can embody the hope that two people have in truth a deep connection with a holy root -- for if so, it will last long enough to be pursued when the two stand much more nearly on a firm and equal footing.

And we can also embody the wisdom that true spiritual leaders and true spiritual learners can approach each other not bound in a knot of manipulation with obeisance, but with mutual respect.

Indeed, if we intend to require our teachers to refrain from sexual abuse, then we must also encourage the balanced expression of a sexuality that is ethically, spiritually rooted. We must seek new ways of making sure that our teachers find others of the same depth and intensity to become their partners.

This would be sexuality filled with Kavod: the kind of honor that radiates from each partner because it is God's radiance within.

To summarize:

Clarifying the dance of sexuality and Spirit without sundering them;

Giving content to old and little-used aspects of halakha and/ or shaping new aspects of halakha so as to give down-to-earth shape, ethics, liturgical focus, and spiritual meaning to more than one form of sacred sexual relationship;

Encouraging in spiritual leaders (and in us all) the balance between Chesed and Gevurah and even more their synthesis in Tiferet/ Rachamin;

Empowering students and congregants while limiting the power of leaders;

---- Those are the four steps we need to take if our teachers and our students are to fulfill God's vision for us all in soul, mind, heart, and body.

For me, there has been a crystallization of these teachings in one practice that i have seen and lived into: On the eve of shabbat and festivals when B'nai Or/ P'nai Or used to celebrate together, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi would gather us in what at first seemed the classic hassidic pattern:

In that pattern, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would sit in a specially ornamented chair, and all the (male) chassidim would cluster 'round the table -- the Tisch -- to learn Torah. For hour upon hour they would drink in the Rebbe's words.

So Zaalman would gather us at a Tisch -- women and men (and perhaps that already signalled part oppf the fidderence) and he would siut in the Rebbe's special chair. Then, after twenty minutes or so, he would stand up and ask us all to stand. He would move one chair to the left, and he would ask everyone to move one chair to the left.

Now someone new was sitting in the Rebbe's chair. Zalman would say to that person, "Go within. Look for the rebbe-spark within yoiu. When you find it, teach us Torah."

And it almost always worked. Almost everyone would find something deep to teach. And in the teaching, each would teach his, her, own self that there IS a rebbe-spark within. That we did not have to hang lifeless onto the life-giving rebbe who was someone else.

This practice was self-limiting and other-empowering. Think about how to do this in a myriad different settings, and we will have gone a long way to making abuse less possible -- by the person who might fall into becoming an abuser, and upon the less learned, less charismatic, less skilled who might fall into becoming abusees.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: