Penn State – What can we learn?

Since last November 11th  I have watched as the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State unfolded. My interest was personal. For over 20 years I worked as a psychotherapist with adults who were sexually abused when they were young. Just as with the young men who testified against Jerry Sandusky, my clients were singled out because of their vulnerability; like the young men Sandusky abused, my clients did not have an adult who could protect them against a powerful predator.

Many people have expressed shock about what happened at Penn State. I was not one of them. I’m not shocked that Sandusky did it or that the Penn State officials covered it up. I am shocked that so many people didn’t believe this could happen at such a prestigious university, by men who were revered by the entire community.

As soon as the news broke, I thought about my clients who told me the same stories these young men were telling; about trusted adults who used and abused them. For some it was a family member, for others a teacher or coach, a member of the clergy, a beloved baby sitter.

One of the main reasons I believed Sandusky’s victims was because I know that often institutions are valued more than people. In this case the Penn State officials valued the football program more than the boys who were being victimized by one of its coaches.

In its 267 pages the Freeh Report, authorized by the University to investigate what really happened, accuses at least 4 Penn State officials, including idolized coach, Joe Paterno, of knowing that Sandusky was abusing children on the campus. They knew that going to the police would compromised their football program and they chose football over the children.

Since these revelations came to light, some justice has been done. Eight of Sandusky’s victims have testified at his trial. They faced their abuser and told everybody what happened. This is one of the most difficult but empowering acts for one who has been abused and these young men deserve to be honored for doing this. Jerry Sandusky is in prison for the rest of his life. The officials who engaged in the cover up will suffer their own punishment. Possibly jail sentences, definitely loss of their reputations.

As I thought about how insufficient these results were, I wanted to know if Judaism’s ancient Sages had anything to say about this. I knew it wouldn’t help the men Sandusky abused but it might give us a message that we could use in our lives today.

I found an answer in the Talmud, an ancient Jewish text composed almost 2000 years ago. It was on daf (page) 38a in the tractate Gittin, which discusses the laws of divorce. We learn about a master who is required to release his Canaanite maid servant because the men in his household were sexually abusing her and he could not stop it. Allowing this slave to go free directly contradicts a law found in the Torah, the first section of the Hebrew Scriptures. In Leviticus (Vayikra) 25:46 we learn that Israelites are not allowed to free their non-Israelite slaves, but the Sages, who explicate the Torah laws, realized that protecting a vulnerable servant transcends even Torah law. As punishment for his inability to protect his maid servant, the master loses his right to keep her as his slave.

I know it’s tempting to focus on the issue of slavery. But let’s leave that conversation for another day. For right now let’s stay focused on the surprising fact that the Rabbis were willing for the master to break a commandment so that justice could be served. It was that important to them to teach that those in power need to protect the vulnerable members of their household. The maid servant is set completely free without prejudice and Rashi, the great Jewish commentator [France, 11th century], tells us that once she is free, she can marry a Jew who will protect her.

This speaks directly to what happened at Penn State. While the children that Sandusky abused were not officially members of the Penn State household, once Sandusky brought them onto campus, they became just that. And once the officials knew what Sandusky was doing, it was their obligation to report him and protect those children. Their cruel negligence for more than a decade puts them in the same category as the master in our Talmud.

It’s much too late for the Penn State officials to free those young men from the abuse they suffered. But it is not too late for the officials to take responsibility for their lives. They should be made to provide them with enough money so they can seek the healing they need and have whatever amount of comfort they can find. I believe that because the Penn State officials chose a football program over the lives of young children, they are now permanently responsible for those lives.

Although it’s inspiring that we have the Rabbis’ ruling, we shouldn’t need it to know that each of us is responsible to protect the vulnerable among us. The page of the Talmud citied above makes this way of behaving explicit in the Jewish world, why is it not just as obvious in the secular one?

Even though over the years we have learned how common it is for the powerful to abuse the vulnerable; even though we know that we need to stop these predators, we have yet to change our collective behavior. May Penn State be the example that finally embeds this lesson into our national psyche.


4 thoughts on “Penn State – What can we learn?

  1. Orit Nissan Greenfield

    Rachel yekara!
    Thank you for reminding us the Tikkun that haven’t been done yet.
    Thank you for reminding us that we are responsible each and every day
    as a community of civilaized people to pursue justice.
    Our sages did not forget that Hashem’s will was, is and will be
    to have us participate in this on going creation by creating the missing piece- bringing and restoring justice.
    Toda Raba,

  2. Leah

    Thank you, Rachel, for sharing this insight from Jewish law. The abuse and cover-up at Penn State was horrifying and depressing. It is helpful to hear from our sources where we must go next, ie. supporting the survivors for life. I look forward to more of your beautiful and wise writing.

  3. Marnie

    RBO, I’m so glad you’re writing. This a beautiful d’rash on a terrible situation. I hope that your message is heard by those who need to hear it – the vulnerable, who need to know that we are all commanded to protect them; and the ones who for now are standing idly by, to know that they are commanded to do something. Kol hakavod to you, and Shabbat Shalom!

  4. Marnie

    Btw, I don’t mean to imply that only two groups need to hear this lesson. We all need to hear it; it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that not only do we not stand idly by, but that we are present and aware, so that we don’t willfully blind ourselves to the realities before us.


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