What happens when religion is used as a weapon? Professionals and victims speak up about spiritual abuse
ochel Leah came to kindergarten looking broken, like a bird whose wings have been clipped,” says Dina, who’d been a preschool teacher for over 25 years. “I knelt down and hugged her, then asked, ‘Rochel Leah, what happened?’ ”
Rochel Leah burst into tears. Dina looked at her student more closely and was horrified to note red marks on her cheeks. Tightening her arm around the little girl’s shoulders, she gently asked, “Did someone hit you, sweetheart?” Silence.
“That’s how it goes,” Dina sighed. “Children always protect their parents.”
Dina called Rochel Leah’s mother and told her that Rochel Leah was crying inconsolably.
“It’s fine,” her mother said firmly. “That’s how she’ll learn — if it hurts, she won’t do it again. You know what she did? She got up this morning and snuck a cookie! Before she’d washed netilas yadayim! In our house, that’s completely unacceptable.”
“I’m never at a loss for words,” Dina recalls. “But after that, I was speechless. I worried that if I told her how wrong this was, she’d decide I wasn’t an acceptable role model. But how could I stay silent?”
Dina stammered out a response — she doesn’t remember what — and tried to collect her wits. At the end of the day, she called Rochel Leah’s mother again, and arranged for a meeting.
The Worst Abuse
“Spiritual abuse is taking away a victim’s personal experience with HaKadosh Baruch Hu and forcing him or her into a mold that the abuser has created and is curating,” says Rachel Pill LMSW, a therapist in the Five Towns. “Spiritual abuse is not unique to our community; it’s found in any religion-centered community.”
But while spiritual abuse is just another form of abuse — it has nothing to do with frumkeit or mitzvah observance — its effects are especially devastating. “This is in the psychological realm,” says Mrs. Pill. “Emotional abuse is calling names, belittling, humiliating, things like that. But psychological abuse is breaking down the neshamah of the victim and leaving her with nothing, so that the only thing she has is the abuser.”
The worst part of this abuse, she says, is that the abuser is taking away the victim’s relationship with Hashem. “They’re taking away that innate binah and that ruchniyus. And they do it mostly without ever touching their victim. That way no one can ever say they did anything wrong. They’re ‘just trying to help her.’ They’re ‘just trying to elevate him.’ They’re ‘just trying to make sure that she doesn’t ruin the ruchniyus of the family’ because ‘she’s not so capable.’ But when you take away a person’s ability to have a relationship with Hashem, that is the lowest of the low. That is the most abusive thing one can do to a frum person.”
This abuse can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for the abuser, Mrs. Pill explains. Once the victim’s relationship with Hashem has been battered, her observance will almost definitely suffer. “Then the abuser can turn around and say, ‘Oh, you see, look what I have to do. She’s nearly off the derech,’ or ‘she’s not really frum.’ ”
The Problem Is the Abuser
Adina’s childhood reads like a textbook illustration of spiritual abuse — but tragically, it was all too real.
“My father used spirituality to scare us into obeying him. If one of the children brought a halachic view that was different from his, he immediately pulled the kibbud horim card. He always got offended when one of his children did something that he didn’t like.
“One day, my father asked me to run an errand for him,” Adina recalls. “When he got home later that night, he asked if I’d done it. I admitted that I’d forgotten. ‘You don’t forget what’s important to you,’ my father told me. ‘You obviously don’t care about kibbud horim.’
“The next day, I returned from school with a fever and a cough. It was winter and I’d caught the flu. When my father saw me in bed, he smiled and said, ‘I hope you understand why this happened to you.’ ”
Another time, Adina relates, her father called her when she was in the middle of Shemoneh Esreh. When she later explained why she hadn’t responded, he told her, “Your tefillah isn’t worth anything.”
Adina wasn’t the only one in her family who experienced her father’s wrath. When her teenage brother tentatively told their father that he wanted to go to a different yeshivah — one that was smaller and warmer, if less prestigious, than the one his father had selected — his father burst into tears.
“You’re killing me! How are you not ashamed to hurt me like this? How can I look my parents and siblings in the eye after this? They’ll all know that my son doesn’t honor his parents.” Later, he added, “I knew it, I knew there wouldn’t be anyone to say Kaddish after me. What have I done to deserve this?”
“I can’t describe the emotional damage this caused my brother,” Adina recalls, pain in her voice. “Of course, on the outside, everything looked fine. Because everything had to look fine. And my brother ended up in the yeshivah that my father wanted him to attend, of course.”
Over the years, Adina learned that her father had been diagnosed with a severe personality disorder. “Spirituality is a tool for him, not the real thing,” she says. “The problem is with the abuser, not the religion or its practices.
“Here’s the proof: My father still doesn’t get it. He constantly asks why none of us children are as machmir as him, where he went wrong. He doesn’t understand and probably never will. It’s not him, it’s his personality disorder. But as a child, as a victim, it’s too easy to be confused and to think Yiddishkeit is the problem. And then… the result can be heartbreaking.”
Today, Adina is a deeply spiritual, growing person who has learned to separate her father’s abusive tactics from Torah. But it took years of rebuilding her shattered self — and it came after years in which she tried to escape Torah and mitzvos. Even today, she is not free of those last vestiges of abuse.
“Yesterday, I dropped my cell phone, and it broke,” she shares. “And automatically, I’m back in that same thought process. ‘What did I do wrong? What’s Hashem punishing me for?’ And that’s after years of learning about how much Hashem loves me and how He wants the best for me, that He’s not ‘lying in wait’ trying to punish me. Who knows, maybe Hashem caused my phone to break just so I should get a new one?”
Hiding Behind Spirituality
As a community rav, this dynamic is one that Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Passaic is all too familiar with. He sees this abuse play out in both parenting and marriage relationships. “It has nothing to do with Hashem,” he says firmly. “These abusers hide behind Hashem, to dominate people, to abuse people — all in the name of G-d.”
And while the abusers may cite halachah and maamarei Chazal, their actions are not rooted in any form of holiness. “You have parents who are abusive to their kids, so they jump on the kibbud av v’eim bandwagon,” Rabbi Eisenman says. “But their actions have nothing to do with halachah and everything to do with their world view and what they think is right, regardless of halachah.”
It feels like a tricky delineation. As frum Jews, we strive for perfection in our observance. We want to help others — our spouses and children — be their best selves. So how can you differentiate between genuine tochachah, which should be taken to heart and used to spur growth, and abuse?
“Spiritual abuse is forcing another person to do actions with a spiritual or religious character, with this coercion done ostensibly in the name of Hashem,” explains Rav Eliyahu ben Simon, a moreh tzedek, rosh bais hora’ah, and a marriage and family counselor. “Think of a person who cuts off his wife’s phone calls when she speaks lashon hara, or a woman who wakes up her husband for Shacharis against his will, and so forth.”
When Rabbi Eisenman counsels people, he turns to Chazal for a definition. “The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us, ‘V’lo kardum lachtach bah,’ don’t make Torah into a shovel to dig with. I like to interpret this in a chassidish way. Don’t use Torah as a shovel to dig into people. Don’t use Torah as a weapon to emotionally abuse people.
“Unfortunately,” Rabbi Eisenman notes, “I think it’s fairly common for people to hide behind Torah and certainly daas Torah to vindicate or validate a lot of non-Torah behavior.
“Rabbanim are people too. Anyone can get a busy rav on the phone and ask a question in a manner designed to elicit the response they want. It’s not that they’re lying, but they take advantage of the rav, who is unaware that they are asking the question in a way that the answer will be used as a cudgel against their spouse.”
Even when the behavior has not escalated to abuse, Rabbi Eisenman cautions, people can still misuse spirituality. “What I find done all the time is that the husband is neglecting the home, the wife, the children, with the claim — obviously very finessed — ‘I have to be in shul, I have to daven at the seven o’clock minyan.’
“Now, the shul also has an eight o’clock minyan, which would be more convenient for his wife, allow him to help his kids get ready for camp, get them on the bus. But, ‘No, I have to daven at the seven o’clock minyan.’ Why? If he has a reason, there’s a daf yomi shiur, he needs to catch the train, that’s one thing. But often there’s not a good reason. The husband just doesn’t want to help. He’s not necessarily the meanest guy in the world, but he’s using spirituality as the excuse.”
And with spirituality as his excuse, it becomes easy for this husband to brush off his wife’s suggestions, gaslighting her into believing that her requests are inappropriate. “You want me to daven later? What, you don’t care if I become a ben Torah?”
“It can happen both ways,” Rabbi Eisenman cautions. “The woman can also use spirituality or quote a rav to try to dictate her husband’s actions. Sometimes both happen at once — each side is trying to control the other, and using religion and their rav to do so.”
What can someone do if someone in her life is a spiritual abuser?
Sometimes, Rav Ben Simon notes, the abuser is acting out of the mistaken belief that directing his spouse is his religious obligation, spouting maamarei Chazal to back up his opinion.
“They need a rav who can convey to them the clear distinction between education and manipulation. They can teach their spouse what they don’t know, try to educate them to keep the mitzvos — but they should not feel personal responsibility for their spouse’s spiritual standards. A healthy marriage consists of two autonomous adults who have safe personal spaces.”
Mrs. Pill notes that many times there’s a different dynamic when women engage in abusive behavior — such as a wife berating a husband for not going to minyan. Women often engage in these behaviors because of anxiety, past trauma, and a desire to appear perfect, she says. Even though it is still unacceptable behavior, it requires different treatment than someone who is engaging in spiritual abuse in order to control his spouse.
But when the behavior has escalated to outright abuse, Mrs. Pill says, it’s time to seek outside help. She recommends people in trouble call Shalom Task Force, which can refer the caller to the appropriate intervention or program.
“Healing is a lengthy process,” she says. “It’s not something that we have a 100% success rate in any way, shape, or form. This is not something for a private practice. It really is agency work. It takes a team, and it takes a lot of love; it’s building a person back up, little by little.”
Rabbi Eisenman concurs — and adds that sometimes, the relationship is beyond healing. “I’ve told many women, to the chagrin of many men — get out of this marriage! This is a toxic marriage. You think you’re staying for the kids? You’re going to ruin your kids! It’s all smoke and mirrors.
“He’s convinced you that it’s all your fault, you’re not a good mechaneches, you don’t know how to raise the children, you’re too permissive, you’re not a good disciplinarian. He’s manipulated you in ten different ways, and he’s done it all in the name of Hashem, in the name of halachah.”
A huge part of the process, Rabbi Eisenman says, is the realization that the so-called tochachah is, in fact, abuse. “Once her eyes are open,” he says, “she sees that his accusations are all untrue. She sees she’s a good person, and he’s abusing halachah and her. Once she recognizes that, she realizes that this person is not really a frum person — he’s sick.”
But even once the victim comes to this realization and healing can begin, the effects of the abuse linger.
“Those who experience spiritual abuse feel a lack of self confidence in anything that relates to Torah and mitzvos,” write Israeli social workers Adi Dayan, Liat Abraham, and Sarah Rolnick, who have done research into the phenomenon of spiritual abuse. “They never know if they’re really serving Hashem properly. They’re in a constant state of anxiety. It’s not yiras Shamayim; it’s terrible emotional pressure that doesn’t let them live with the sense of being close to Hashem.”
“Such abuse can cause serious mental health issues and lead to the victims going off the derech,” Mrs. Pill adds. “And who can blame these victims? Especially when the abuser is respected and in good standing in the community, the victim is so alone.”
Tzippy, who as a child was constantly threatened that something bad would happen to her if she didn’t daven, says that today she feels incapable of davening. “Tefillah has become a trauma for me, and my rav gave me a very specific psak about tefillah so I can avoid these triggers. Before that, every time I started davening, I had a panic attack, I felt like I was choking. I need to heal before I can daven again.”
It’s painful, but as a community, we have made tremendous strides, says Rabbi Eisenman.
“There was a time when there were a lot of women and children who were suffering in silence, with no outlet and no support system,” he says. “I think that now our community recognizes that there are sick people using halachah as a screen to hide behind and to validate their abuse. There’s a lot more recognition among rabbanim and other people who give eitzah. And I think women have a much stronger voice, which is a good thing, the way they’re heard in the rabbinic world, in the therapeutic world, and in their own world. That’s very positive.”
Over the course of her career, Mrs. Pill has also seen great communal progress.
“We had our first meeting about 30 years ago,” she recalls. “Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg a”h gathered a few people together who were doing this work, and we had a clandestine meeting in Baltimore to figure out how to move this forward. We were about ten women from different places. Nobody could know we were there because we were scared.
“We discussed how to educate the community, how to move forward with educating rabbanim, how to move forward in just bringing this out into the world, so that people would know. That was pre-Shalom Task Force, pre-everything.”
At the time, she said, her efforts were met with resentment and even anger; the women involved were harassed. Today, she says, our community has benefited from increased resources, awareness, and training. “It’s not a topic we can’t talk about anymore. There’s no such thing as ‘nobody’s heard of it.’ People get training in it now. Therapists get training in it. That, to me, is the greatest gift.”
Mrs. Pill notes that high school and seminary students are taught to identify red flags and learn the basics of a healthy relationship. Chassan and kallah teachers also receive special training about how to identify abuse and how to guide their students.
“We teach chassan and kallah teachers what to look for,” says Mrs. Pill. “I’ll say to kallah teachers, when you’re teaching a kallah, if you see a kallah who’s always nervous, who always asks questions starting with, ‘Is this normal?’, who’s anxious about money, who’s always like, ‘Oh, whatever my chassan wants,’ — that’s not aidel; it’s an indication that something’s not right.
“We’re talking about subtleness, we’re talking about control, we’re talking about the chassan who says, ‘Well, my rebbi thinks you really should start wearing your skirts three inches longer’ or ‘My rebbi thinks the way you speak / the music you’re listening to / the phone you have, is not appropriate.’
“If this is not the type of shidduch you wanted, you should not have gone out with this girl. Don’t now turn around and start telling her, ‘My rebbi says, my rebbi says.’ Or the chassan who says things like, ‘If you really believed that we’re going to build a bayis ne’eman b’Yisrael, then you’d do this.’ ‘If you really were machshiv my Torah learning, then you would do this.’ That’s the beginnings of spiritual abuse.”
The effects of abuse can linger for years. But with help, support, and education, the victims of religious abuse can find their way back to connection and a close relationship with Hashem.
“I know from myself that some parts of this spiritual abuse will remain inside me forever,” Adina says. “It’s very, very hard. But my experience has taught me to be careful. I don’t use mitzvos to get what I want.
“My children are gifts, and I thank Hashem for them every day. They’ve been given to me on loan, and I need to take good care of them. Yes, my children are obligated in the mitzvah of honoring their parents, and it’s my job to teach it to them. But whether they do so or not is their domain. It’s between them and Hashem.
“I’m so careful to always tell my kids, ‘Hashem loves you and wants the best for you. Hashem is happy with you. You’re his special child!’ I tell this to my brothers and sisters as well, to try to put a bandage on their wounds. Today’s generation needs love.”
What He Looks Like
Through their research, Dayan, Abraham, and Rolnick developed a profile of a spiritual abuser — a profile, they note, that’s virtually identical to that of a physical and emotional abuser. A few common traits:
Lack of communication skills
Without communication and mutual understanding, it’s impossible to maintain a normative life or healthy relationships. The trio found that the offenders were people with rigid personalities and obsessions. This frequently caused them to be limited in their ability to communicate, to misunderstand the other person, and to assess reality through an egocentric and narrow viewpoint.
Often, this lack of communication skill led the offenders to abuse those around them without even realizing what they were doing. (“What does it hurt her? People today are so sensitive! There’s a mitzvah to give tochachah, and yes, it’s wrong to let a five-year-old go out without tights. We shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, even in public — especially when it’s related to a member of our family.”)
Need for conformity
Some people need their surroundings to conform with the behaviors they believe are correct. In many cases, these people will harm others when they feel this is the only way they can get everyone around them to practice these behaviors. The problem arises when the offender doesn’t pay any attention to the other party, disregarding her desires or even her age — for example, a father who hits his young son for eating candy without making a brachah, or who yells at his young daughter when her skirt flies up as she’s playing.
Need for control
To achieve the conformity in their surrounding environment that they so desire, the abusers must control their surroundings — and they’ll do whatever it takes, in any way they see fit.
(“She has to understand that it makes no difference what she thinks. A single girl shouldn’t have a cellphone. It makes no difference if she’s already 19, and it makes no difference if she bought it with her own money. I’m breaking it, and she’ll learn that this isn’t something that can come into our home!”)
Some interviewees shared that there were variables in their environment that caused the offenders to increase the intensity of their behavior — for example, the mother who was so nervous about high school acceptances that she forced her daughter to say the entire sefer Tehillim every day, telling her that otherwise she wouldn’t be accepted to any high school.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 804)
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