The Last Taboo – Dare We Speak About Incest?

“I’ve never been able to tell this to anyone,” they always begin. “I have to tell you my story.”

For over twenty years, I have been speaking out on problems of alcohol and drug dependency in the Jewish community. These diseases strike regardless of ethnicity, religious practice or belief. If, as we’ve been told by the media, our mothers, and society as a whole, “there are no Jewish alcoholics,” then the Jew who is alcoholic considers him/herself outside of the group.

And just as there are Jewish alcoholics and Jewish drug addicts, there are also violence and sexual abuse in normative Jewish homes.

 At a weekend workshop that I ran, one of the women bragged about her wonderful Jewish matriarchal home; she described life in which her grandmother and aunts ran successful real estate ventures, a life full of rowdy and loving family events. That was what she said at the first meeting.

By the end of the weekend, this same woman had risen to face me and tell me the rest of her story. She took off her blouse and turned to show her back slashed with scars. “When I was seven, my mother caught my father in bed with me,” she said. “My wonderful matriarchal mother beat me every day of my life until I was old enough to run away from home.”

The first public acknowledgment of incest that I witnessed occurred at the Jewish Feminist Conference at Berkeley several years ago. I had expected about 25 women at a workshop; to my surprise, 150 showed up, eager to share their pain with others who, like them, had been battered, molested, denied.

It was clear that I could no longer assume that the stories of incest in the Jewish community were isolated incidents, or that their tellers were secular, unidentified Jews outside of the community. They are not: these women are leaders, they are students. They are young and old. They are not the “other.” They are us.

In 1987, I arranged a model meeting of “L’Chaim Drug and Alcohol Workshop: A Twelve Step Approach to Recovery” at the national conference of a large Jewish organization. Several of those who shared their stories told of sexual abuse as well; here, for the first time, I heard a tale of mother-daughter incest.

The connection between substance abuse and sexual abuse was becoming clearer. It seemed to me that those who abuse alcohol or drugs do so because, to some degree, they feel powerless. How better to gain power than by abusing someone with even less power? Furthermore, if an adult suffers from guilt and shame because of his/her drug or alcohol abuse, how likely it must be for a child to become the target of physical or sexual abuse as a release from the parent’s guilt. Then, to relieve the guilt and shame, a parent turns to more numbing alcohol or drugs. The cycle is vicious.

Something in the safety of a shared, closed conference environment gave people the courage to speak up. Perhaps it was the feeling of shared pain that precluded judgment and enabled them to take the risk of speaking out.

Among the participants in these workshops were the spiritual and political leaders of American Jewry. And many of them had come out of severely dysfunctional homes, but homes that were not seen as aberrant by the community. Many of their parents and grandparents have names that would be instantly recognized by the readers of any Jewish periodical. They are our philanthropists, board members, religious leaders. One of them comes from a religious dynasty — a dynasty of rabbis and scholars and incest.

I do not, however, mean to imply that all of our young leaders come from dysfunctional families. Rather, I am impressed with the numbers of people who do come from such families who choose to use the pain of their past in positive ways to perform tikun olam, repairing the world as they repair their own souls. I am struck by the fact that many of those who had been abused had gone on to reach out to change the world, to do teshuvah (repentance) and use their pain to make our world better.

I have begun to speculate on how our growing need to change the language of worship, the nature of patriarchy and the very theological underpinnings of Judaism are related to our own understanding of family relationships and the extent to which Judaism reflects that family.

“The Jokes We Tell and What They Tell About Us” is a workshop in which my students delineate the stereotype of both the Jewish mother and the Jewish princess. The increasing popularity of these negative images also sheds some light on the origins of one type of woman who is victimized by her father. Raised to be her father’s “princess,” she is also raised to be passive-dependent, without personal growth or self-esteem, a woman-child whose sense of approval comes from daddy, a girl who cannot turn away from daddy’s love, for with it comes daddy’s approval.

The problem comes when daddy’s attentions take the form of sexual or physical abuse. Who is this daddy? What kind of a monster would perpetrate such an act on a little girl? The frightening truth is that these men are very ordinary yet what happens at home behind closed doors is another story.

Surprisingly most often the abused daughters with whom I have spoken are angry at their mothers. Their mothers should have known; their mothers should have acted; their mothers should have taken care of them. While they may be deeply ashamed of what went on with their fathers, these abused women still see it as an act of love and caring.

The counterpart of the Jewish princess is the boy whose parents pin all their hopes for success in America on him. He feels tremendous pressure to succeed and always secretly suspects that he is a failure. Perhaps he marries the daughter whose role in family success is to marry well. He perceives in his wife the very attitudes of his mother, and his anger is projected on her. His unhappiness and tension lead to seeking comfort in pills or alcohol, further compounding his loss of self-esteem and increasing his anger. In this environment, his daughter, the little princess, may become the object of his inappropriate love.

Consider another scenario: the man who lives at a hectic pace and uses cocaine to sustain himself. He soon feels tremendous shame at his loss of control and his young daughter becomes the bearer of his anger, shame, and loss of control.

It is nearly always the female — the wife or daughter — who suffers the man’s wrath and shame. She has been raised to marry well, to marry up, to marry a man who has been taught to be her counterpart. He has a goal to succeed, and she creates the ideal home. Her husband may abuse her, but since she has been trained to please daddy, she passively accepts his anger; she doesn’t want to lose his love. Even if she does go home to her parents the first time he hits her, they assure her that she’s lucky to be married to such a paragon and can’t imagine what she could be doing to make him beat her. She learns quickly not to ask for their help again; she does not want their rejection on top of her husband’s.

Being raised to have daddy’s love at all costs is the perfect set-up for incest. A daughter who has been so much at the mercy of her father for her self-esteem will not have the assertiveness skills and sense of autonomy needed to protect herself from violence even as an adult. Over and over I have heard from women that speaking out against abuse would have been a sure way to anger their fathers or husbands, and thus lose their love.

The Torah (Leviticus 13:6 and 7) forbids intercourse with close kin, with father or mother. While it does not specifically name daughter or son as a forbidden relationship, that taboo is clearly implicit. While it is allowed to break most laws in order to preserve a life, one is not permitted to commit incest, idolatry or murder under any circumstances.

In the last ten years, the Jewish community has begun to face the fact that while we aspire to high ideals in family relations, we are not perfect. Behaviors that we acknowledged when we lived in the closed environs of the shtetl or ghetto were buried in the closet as we moved upward to American middle and upper classes. We pretended they didn’t exist.

We can no longer play “Let’s pretend.”

Jews manifest all of the same behaviors as the community at large, and there are not enough Jews in this world for us to turn our backs on any part of our group. We must reach out our hands in encouragement and stop denying. As long as we deny the existence of a behavior, we deny the Jewishness of that person. If we say that Jews do not commit incest, then the child victim doesn’t exist as a person or as a Jew.

We must begin by acknowledging without judgment, accepting without shame. We begin by allowing each of us to own our own lives without apologizing or covering up. We begin by understanding that none of us is perfect. We begin with prayer for strength and healing.

Marcia Cohn Spiegel is on the faculty of the University of Judaism, School of Continuing Education, a frequent lecturer and workshop leader, and a participating founder of Alcoholism Advisory Board of Jewish Family Service, and L’Chaim Workshop.


Transition Center, P.O.B 629, Far Rockaway
NY 11691, (718) 520-8045, Kosher
facilities available. Hotline open 7:30 a.m. to 11,-30 p.m.

Sanctuary for Families, P.O.B. 413,
Times Square Station, New York, NY
10108, (212) 582-2091, Provides shelter, counseling, support groups and children’s legal services.

Shalva, (800) 248-1818, Serves the metropolitan Chicago area, providing counseling and shelter as well as legal services.

Haven Hills, (818) 887-6589. Serves the San Fernando Valley, California area. Kosher kitchens available. Also maintains outreach programs, counseling and a 24-hour hotline.

North York Women’s Shelter, 
(416) 635-9630, Serves the Toronto, Ontario area. Kosher meals available. Maintains a 24-hour hotline.

Northaid Victim Center, (305) 758-2545.
serves the Miami, Florida area. Provides services to victims of violent crimes, domestic violence and incest. Counseling and financial assistance available.