If you’re like me and grew up watching the Duggar family on “19 Kids and Counting,” you’re probably reeling from Josh Duggar’s recent conviction. The oldest son of evangelical reality stars Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, Josh was convicted for receiving and viewing child pornography. His arrest earlier this year came only several years after a major scandal in 2015 in which Josh admitted to molesting several girls as a teenager, including his younger sisters, as well as developing a pornography addiction and cheating on his wife.
Especially given the 2015 events, it should have come as no surprise that Josh Duggar was, once again, in trouble. However,it still came as a shock to many. Any time an outwardly religious person—particularly one serving in a leadership role—behaves badly, it leads to a greater sense of shock and betrayal than if a different perpetrator had committed the same crime.
As an advocate for agunot and survivors of abuse in the frum community, I can’t help but compare the situations I see with Josh Duggar’s story. And while the circumstances couldn’t be more different on the surface—Christian vs. Jewish, child abuse vs. divorce, household name vs. anonymous individual—they bear much more in common than meets the eye.
#1: Abusers Don’t Usually Look Dangerous
We human beings often have the expectation that when we come across a harmful person, we will know. While we don’t quite assume that the person will be wearing a T-shirt announcing their abusive tendencies, we do often overestimate our ability to know who is “safe.” Josh Duggar appeared to be the safest of them all—he only wears collared polo shirts, for goodness sakes—and yet he has proved time and time again that he can endanger and abuse others.
This world would be a much easier place to navigate if we could immediately figure out whom to trust and whom to be suspicious of. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In my work with get refusers, I have found that they can present as kind, friendly and generous people, despite holding their ex-spouses captive in marriage for years, even decades. Abusers and narcissists are often able to convince judges, attorneys, rabbis and community members that they are the safe, reliable, righteous voices in the room, even as their actions indicate otherwise. While there are tools we can utilize to notice red flags and avoid unhealthy relationships, we will only be successful if we’re able to listen to our deeper intuition and avoid the superficial view of who seems safe and who doesn’t.
#2: Religious People
Are Not Exempt from #1
Too often, when we see a person who is visily religious, we attribute all sorts of thoughts and qualities to them. And regardless of our personal feelings about religious observance, we rarely expect the outwardly religious to be secretly criminal. However, just as disease does not discriminate from one community to the next, abuse can occur everywhere, and in any religion. Observant community members are just as likely to commit abusive acts, even if they don’t “look the part.” In some cases, the close-knit and accepting nature of religious societies can actually embolden abusers, as it can allow access to potential victims; and the emphasis on repentance and welcoming others in many religious texts can play to an abuser’s advantage.
#3: Religious Doesn’t Promise Perfection
This brings me to my most important point, which is that we need to question the narrative that religious practice yields a certain “result” in marriage or family life. When I was becoming Orthodox as a young teenager, I was definitely under the impression that if I followed the rules and dated, married and conducted my marriage in the “right” way, I would be rewarded with a fulfilling and happy marriage. The Duggars were no different—I have distinct memories of watching the episodes where Josh and his wife, Anna, were “courting” and hearing Anna’s parents discuss how dating in this way provided a protective experience. Thirteen years later, Anna has just given birth to her seventh child and is waiting to find out how long her husband’s prison sentence will run.
While my own marriage has been wonderful and supportive, I’ve seen time and time again in my work that dating the “right” way does not guarantee that a healthy marriage will develop afterwards. Instead, abuse, infidelity, toxicity and conflict can still exist and flourish. While following marriage advice may improve an already healthy relationship, it is by no means a solution to an abusive and unhealthy scenario.
As religious communities, we need to recognize that unfortunately, there is no formula that will protect everyone from bad outcomes. We also need to avoid messaging implying that following certain practices will yield a certain marital result. Why? First, because we know it isn’t true. Second, because this sort of message creates a sense of shame in those who follow the guidelines and don’t get the expected outcome, making it more difficult to access help in dangerous situations. Third, this type of language whitewashes the realities of abuse in religious marriage, making such behavior seem incongruous and, frankly, impossible.
Finally, as religious people, we must remind ourselves that this really isn’t the point of our faith at all. The goal of a spiritual practice is to deepen our relationship with our Creator, and for that bond to serve as a beacon in darkness and source of meaning in difficulty. It is not, and has never been, an ATM machine offering a “pass” from human suffering.
In my work with survivors of abuse, I have seen religious marriages that involve potentially lethal violence. I have seen religious marriages involving rape. I have seen religious marriages that include gaslighting, manipulation and devastating emotional abuse. In many cases, these behaviors occur not only in spite of the mainstream narrative of the golden religious family, but in some ways, because of them. Abuse victims might stay in dangerous relationships for years, afraid of losing their image and of what people will think. And too often, abusers incorporate spiritual themes into their abuse itself, using Shabbat, niddah and Torah sources to extend and maintain control over their partners.
So what can religious communities do? First, we can recognize that abuse exists everywhere, even in our homes, neighborhoods, and places of worship. We can pay closer attention to the language we use around dating and marriage, avoiding the implication that certain behavior pre-marriage leads to a specific result later on. We can use the insularity of our communities to our advantage, condemning abuse and showing bad actors that if they want to be part of our communities, they will need to be held accountable for their actions.
Our neighborhoods will never be filled with exclusively happy, healthy homes. But by openly acknowledging this reality, we come one step closer to building a community that fulfills the deepest purpose of religious life, ensuring freedom, dignity, support and safety for each and every one of us.
Keshet Starr, Esq. is the CEO of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA).