By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Kesubos 14 – Trauma Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Aim High
Today’s Daf begins and ends with an unfortunate maaseh sheh’hayah. Real situations that occurred with real people. Not just abstract discussions of hypothetical scenarios, but real live cases that actually took place. The first maaseh was that a girl got pregnant when she wasn’t supposed to. She was engaged (meaning, mekudeshes) but not yet fully married (meaning nisuin was not yet done). The second maaseh was that a single girl was violated. She was going on an errand that was simple enough; to draw water from the local water source. What could be more normal or safer than such an innocuous activity as drawing water from the town’s water spring?
But sometimes unhappy things can happen even in the least expected time and place. And to that girl’s misfortune, it did.
The question regarding the first maaseh was can we confer a kosher status upon the fetus and/or can we safely say that the betrothed has not become forbidden to her chassan? In the second scenario, there was no baby or chassan involved, so the only issue is whether or not this girl can one day marry a Kohein, or do we perhaps have to be concerned that the rapist was someone who disqualifies women from being able to marry a Kohein?
When you step back for a moment and try to think about these sordid events in real time, you cannot help but be struck by the forward-thinking orientation that is manifest as the sugyah’s response to these events. In the maaseh that begins today’s Daf, it was quite fortunate that the chassan admitted his part in the pregnancy, which more or less made it an open and shut case (although if you’ll take a look at how Tosafos contrasts this sugyah with the one we learned in Yevamos 69b, you’ll see that it is actually not so simple at all). In the latter scenario, though, the rapist did not come forward to admit his guilt or try to make amends.
And, yet, the whole mindset and outlook of the sugyah is “we’re shooting for the stars.” Let’s see if we can work out a sound heter to enable this girl to marry a Kohein! Although nowadays that may not sound so impressive, in the time of Chazal, the ability to marry a Kohein was the status symbol of being a fully kosher Jew, as we see from innumerable sugyos throughout Seider Nashim.
The fact that this girl is going to one day get married and have a family is taken for granted. That goes without saying and does not even need to be discussed. But that is not enough. We need to see if she can marry a Kohein, because maybe she’ll want to do that one day. If there is a firm heter to rely on, then rely on it we will because there is absolutely no excuse to arbitrarily limit the extent of greatness to which this girl can and should aspire.
From an ethical point of view, the whole underlying assumption of this sugyah is astoundingly refreshing. In our day and age, when our community – as a community – is just beginning to come to terms with the unfortunate reality that sexual abuse does in fact happen, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the world at large, we are for the most part totally bogged down with the oftentimes horrific psychological and sweeping religious implications that such abuse can wreak upon its victim.
And for good reason.
The fact is that there is an uncomfortably large amount of anecdotal evidence that indicates the truth of this monumental challenge. People, especially children, can in fact be severely traumatized by the occurrence of abuse. That trauma can undermine their sense of security in the world in which they live, and that can obviously have a whole range of deeply negative repercussions. So we are truly dealing with a situation in which we cannot just take it for granted that a victim of abuse will definitely one day go on to build a healthily functioning family or that the individual will even remain frum.
We therefore do need to take the steps necessary to perform “damage control” as much as we humanly can, and ensure that a supporting, rehabilitative process is afforded to victims of abuse so that they can regain their equilibrium.
With that, though, it is not incorrect to take a cue of positive inspiration from Chazal and the outlook they conveyed. Just because we may be dealing with a heavier extent of fallout than may have existed in previous eras does not mean that we have to sell ourselves short and only aim for the low bar. Not at all. Aim high. Real high.
In fact, someone who underwent a trauma such as abuse can rightfully aim higher than before. There’s no question about it that this is the type of challenge we hope and pray should never ever come upon us, our loved ones, or any Yid young or old; but if it has happened, the personal growth that one can shoot for by persevering through this challenge can rightfully surpass the peers and counterparts of the victim who didn’t have such a challenge to surmount.
To make the point abundantly clear: the goal in treating a victim of abuse should not be just to get them up to a point where they can basically be a functioning husband and father or wife and mother. That goal should be only the baseline because you are not dealing with hopelessly “damaged goods” that halevai will one day be able to hold down a family. The real goal ought to be the facilitation of the victim growing bigger than his mentors. Unless the mentor went through it also. Otherwise, though, if you are in a position to help a victim of abuse it behooves you to recognize that the challenge that he or she has to surmount and conquer affords him an opportunity for character greatness that is not available to anyone else.
To be knocked down – hard – and get up, brush off the dirt, and go right back to aiming as high as before, if not higher, demonstrates and manifests a strength of character that just does not otherwise exist.
Does this mean that we don’t need to be realistic about potential limitations that may persist as a result of the trauma? Of course not. Maturity mandates that one not engage in fantastic and illusionary expectations. From a halachik standpoint as well, it is important to be aware of the fact that not all stories have as easy an ending as the ones mentioned in our sugyah. Sometimes there can be real restrictions that arise that one cannot circumvent.
But that is a major part of it, for, you see, abiding by those restrictions is not a matter of submitting to a weak lowliness of spirit that was cruelly inflicted from without. Not at all. On the contrary, it is a demonstration of respecting and appreciating the fact that now this is the challenge meant to be dealt with. Grappling with and working through this hardship is the vehicle for the indescribable tikun that this individual was destined to bring to the world. Without necessarily understanding why.
So, yes, mature, down-to-earth realism is extremely important. Recognizing that regaining even the most basic modicum of emotional equilibrium cannot necessarily be taken for granted can be crucial to successful rehabilitation. But, at the same time, it is equally important to never sell a person short, no matter what he or she has been through. A person has every right to aim as high as possible, in many ways higher than before, irrespective of whatever travail befell them, or perhaps precisely because of it.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.