This week, history was made when lawmakers in Albany finally agreed to loosen New York state’s statute of limitations for molestation survivors, known as the Child Victim Act. This breakthrough came about after a long and arduous battle by child sex abuse survivors and their advocates, going up against a state with one of the most prohibitive laws for victims seeking retribution against their tormentors and the institutions that protected them.
While some in the religious Jewish world have opposed this policy, I believe this change is a wonderful turn of events for both the Orthodox Jewish community and everyone in New York state. Why? Because the Torah commands us “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Righteousness, you shall surely pursue.) Yes, there may be some large payouts that come about when the survivors get their day in court, and yes, those payouts could end up being the end of some institutions. But Jews were not put on earth to keep institutions open. We were put here and commanded by God to surely pursue justice and make the world a better place, and if a few institutions shut down in the pursuit of justice, so be it.
There is an entire tractate in the Talmud called Neizikin which means “damages.” Pages and pages are devoted to discussing what happens if your ox gores your neighbor or some other wrong is committed. What is the appropriate monetary payment in such cases? Our sages painstakingly went through the many different scenarios to work out what would be the correct compensation.
Well, what about the children whose souls were murdered? Shells of human beings? Walking dead? These are how so many child sex abuse victims live the rest of their lives. What are the damages that they should expect to collect? What is the dollar amount for ruining someone’s life? How much does years of therapy cost? What is the price tag for breaking an addiction when a survivor has been numbing his pain for so long, trying to forget the horror that was done to him? There is no statute of limitations in Jewish law when it comes to damages. The Child Victims Act means that those who were wronged can finally get what is owed to them according to the Torah.
Yes – EVERY community failed children in regards to sex abuse. Yes, EVERY community covered it up. But don’t we hold ourselves to a higher standard? What is the point of being a religious Jew if you are not protecting the innocent and stopping the bad guys? Our community had a responsibility to be better. We have a responsibility to do better.
Perhaps, you can argue, that people didn’t know 20, 30 years ago what damage was being done. Perhaps that’s correct. But now that we know, we can’t just apologize and be done. We can’t only try to do better moving forward (which we are doing and need to do more of). We need to help broken human beings become whole again, and that’s a long and painful and expensive process.
If my tone sounds extreme, it’s because this cause has become personal due to our work with many members of Project Makom. We have a high percentage of trauma survivors and among them, child sex abuse victims coming to us. It is an overwhelming feeling when you think you’ve heard the worst story ever and then you speak to someone else and their story is even more horrifying. This regularly happens as new members join. How can I not advocate for them??
Yes, there will be a reckoning when old cases are opened up, and the community may experience some pain with this process. But it is nothing compared to what the survivors are living through, and we should be rejoicing when justice is served. Because I believe God will be.