What drew me to Birkat HaGomel was the core concept of return to a community
When I came to university I started having what the counseling center identified as flashbacks of some kind. I’d come to Shabbat services and would have to step out in a panic. Over the course of the next two years, I learned that I’d been sexually abused by someone in my childhood synagogue.
I have always grounded my Jewish identity in community. Both of the congregations I’d grown up in were like families to me. When I found out I had been assaulted, I wasn’t sure how to feel safe as part of this family again. But I really wanted to.
I knew that I needed a way to reconnect with my Judaism and with my Jewish community. I searched for rituals, but found tradition lacking. Many rituals I found were geared toward situations irrelevant to me, like the menstrual cycle or Shabbat after being assaulted, or facing an abuser in court. Others were connected to practices like lighting Shabbat candles, wearing a tallis katan, or immersing in a mikveh. I was seeking a ritual that was more grounded in the halakhah, and came across Birkat HaGomel.
Birkat HaGomel is a blessing expressing gratitude, traditionally recited in the presence of a minyan after surviving something dangerous and scary. The blessing can be summed up as saying, “I’m back, things are good now, thank you God and please keep it that way.” To which the congregation responds, “Yeah, God, let’s keep it that way.” Birkat HaGomel is much more popular in some communities than others and is recited after illnesses, giving birth, journeys, and other situations.
Berakhot 54b, which establishes Birkat HaGomel, derives the need for the blessing from a story in Psalm 107. The story follows a group of men who start out as seafarers, then desert travelers, before recovering from an illness and being released from prison. I think survivors of abuse can relate to each of these four experiences.
The seafarers are obligated to say Birkat HaGomel because G-d has saved them from storms. The psalm describes G-d calming storms, as powerless sailors cry out to G-d for help. Survivors of domestic abuse or partner abuse might imagine the sailors frantically adjusting sails in the harsh wind and rain just as they may have tried to keep their family or relationship intact. Other survivors might wish for a life before the strong winds and crashing waves of public shame.
After the abuse, many survivors also have to trek through the desert. The desert travelers in the psalm are unable to pray because their spirits have “failed.” Similarly, survivors of abuse may struggle to find the support and resources they need, and may even give up hope that help exists. G-d still rescues those lost in the desert and helps them find a city.
After enduring the desert, the travelers become ill. Many survivors experience mental illness. Thirty to fifty per cent of all rape survivors experience PTSD, and more than 90% experience symptoms of trauma for at least a couple weeks.
Next the healed travelers are imprisoned and then freed. For survivors of domestic abuse, imprisonment can be literal. An abusive partner or relative may have limited their independence and even freedom of movement. Imprisonment could also be the control that sexual abusers take over their victims’ bodies. The psalm describes a G-d that “brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death and broke their shackles.”
The rabbis determined that two factors should be present when applying Birkat HaGomel to new situations: dangerousness and distress. In his responsa 337, the 14th-centurty Spanish rabbinic authority the Rivash argued for an expansion of Birkat HaGomel. His particular expansion concerned the case of someone who survived an attack by a wild animal in the city. Citing the psalm, he argues that desert travelers recite Birkat HaGomel upon return because they survived the potential of being attacked by a lion or other wild beast. Shouldn’t someone who survived an actual attack recite Birkat HaGomel? He goes on to argue that the Germara mentioned the four categories as examples, not limiting factors. When the Talmud was written, those four categories were some of the most common dangers faced. The Rivash and other commentators expanded the use of the blessing to anyone who survived potential mortal danger.
But what originally drew me to Birkat HaGomel was the core concept of return to a community. By reciting this blessing at synagogue, with the presence and response of a minyan, I was able to return to my Jewish family, now a place where I’m safe.
The response of a minyan can be significant. Survivors require both professional and social resources for recovery. When they reach out to those closest to them, their community, survivors too often are met with doubt and blame. In some cases, their accusations fracture their community. Here, Birkat HaGomel doesn’t only represent a change that’s happened for the survivor, but a change that’s happened in the community. The communal response welcomes the survivor to a now supportive and whole community. It can also serve as an affirmation by the community that they will take steps to prevent other members from being abused.
But is Birkat HaGomel too public for survivors? Abuse is a deeply personal experience, and no survivor should be pushed to disclose their experience. But there is no public declaration of “why” in Birkat HaGomel. In many communities, members will reach out about whether the reciter is okay (a heart attack or bad flu?) or whether something exciting happened (like a faraway trip or a new baby!). Birkat HaGomel gives survivors an opening to discuss their experience while providing some flexibility in what they tell whom.
Birkat HaGomel is accessible – it doesn’t need a mikvah or a tallis katan. It provides communal acknowledgment without a survivor having to spill every detail. It reminds survivors that the abuse is over now, and they are safe. And the ritual’s broad past also allows survivors to step out of shame and into gratitude.
The author of this blog post has requested to remain unnamed. This is an abridged version of a d'var torah given at the author's synagogue.