And the secret behind the 'miracle' of fully developed babies born two months prematurely.
Marvin Schick (who I'll deal with in another post later today) once ridiculed the idea of molestation taking place in mikvas.
Over Yom Tov I ran across this story taken from an early medieval Jewish text. The story is cited in halakha with regard to modern medical technology like in vitro fertilization:
Immediately, he did as they demanded....
His semen remained viable in the water until his own daughter came to use the mikva. The semen entered her [as she immersed] and she became pregnant. After seven months, she gave birth to a son.…
The man? The Prophet Jeremiah. His son/grandson? Yeshu Ben Sirah, author of Ecclesiasticus and attributed as the author of The Alphabet of Ben Sirah, a medieval work that opens with this story.
The point is not whether The Alphabet of Ben Sirah is all or partially the work of Ben Sirah, and it does not matter if the incident with Jeremiah the Prophet actually happened.
What matters is that the idea of men behaving in a predatory way in a mikva was known at least as far back as the publication of this book in about 850 CE, and the result of that predatory behavior is taken seriously by halakha.
When I first heard the story of Ben Sirah's birth back in my haredi days, the sexual abuse end of the story was minimized or left out entirely. (The heat of the water caused his seminal emission, I recall one rabbi saying.)
When I first heard stories four years ago of boys being sexually abused in mikvas, I was shocked. I asked a haredi friend, a young rabbi, if he had ever heard of such a thing. Heard of it? he said. Let me tell you what happened to me. He told me of abuse in his yeshiva dorm, of friends being groped in mikvas, of older students molesting 13 year olds.
Haredim – even haredi victims of abuse – like to paint this type of criminally deviant begavior as a new thing and blame it, at least in part, on the negative influences of America and secular culture. That allows them to maintain a fantasy of a "pure" Judaism that existed in the not too distant past and tthat can be recovered with enough effort.
But that is a fantasy, not reality.
Stories like the miraculous conception of Ben Sirah probably grew out of a widespread practice in medieval Jewish communities called bundling. The period of time between engagement and marriage was much longer then. The engaged couple – often young teenagers – were not kept apart during that time and often lived together in the same house, usually with the girl's parents. The engaged couple were not expected to be shomer negiah and all sorts of sexual play was allowed – short of intercourse.
(See opposition to this practice from Shu"t Maharam mi Rotenberg #141; Shnei Luchot HaBrit p.100a; and Shu"t Rama #30; all as cited by Biale, 1992.)
Sometimes these engaged couples were unable to restrain themselves and coitus took place. In some of those cases, the girl became pregnant. When that happened, marriages were moved up to cover the pregnancy. That resulted in some babies being born fully developed "seven months" after conception rather than the biologically normal nine.
We need to remove the blinders we wear as a community and see the world both for what it currently is and for what it really once was. The shame of sexual abuse is not that it happens. It happens in our communities just as it happens in so many others, Catholic, Muslim, American, African, everyone and everywhere.
The shame of sexual abuse is in its denial and in its coverup. And it is that shame – and its resulting financial and criminal woes – that Marvin Schick and the rabbis of Agudath Israel of America are trying to escape.
But it won't work, and when the truth does come out the shame – and the financial cost – will be far greater than otherwise because of those coverups.
May we all merit to see that day come in very immediate future.