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The Silence On Domestic Violence

As part of a follow-up survey I recently completed on the Jewish communal response to domestic violence, I talked to nearly half the rabbis in Massachusetts. Half of them claimed to have been approached by congregants to discuss their experiences with abuse, yet more than three-quarters still have not given a sermon on the subject of domestic violence. Several of the rabbis told me that abuse might be a problem in other rabbis’ congregations, but not in their own. What these rabbis-in-denial don’t seem to “get” is that some of the abuse victims in my study are their very own congregants.

Rabbis are presumably the most knowledgeable about the laws and traditions of our faith. Why, then, are they not speaking out?

When rabbis do speak out about abuse, I have found in my research, congregants approach them for help in greater numbers. By showing that they are open to hearing from those in pain, rabbis invite those in trouble to confide in them. Women don’t approach their rabbis because they think that the rabbis will not be receptive to and understanding of their problems. Because the rabbis have not spoken about it, victims believe that these rabbis know nothing about the subject and don’t care about it — a truly vicious cycle.

If rabbis, who purportedly stand as spiritual and moral role models, are not setting an example for their congregations, then who will? Is the synagogue simply a large room with seating, or is it indeed a sanctuary — a place of spiritual uplifting, moral guidance and safe haven, for both victims and their congregational family?

Nobody, it should be clear, is asking rabbis to provide direct service. But they should be expected to open their doors and their hearts to provide moral support and referrals to professional resources.

Lest it appear that I am placing unfair burden or blame on rabbis, it might be worth remembering that the Jewish community has an obligation to learn about issues once presented with the truth. In the three years since I first interviewed the Massachusetts rabbis, the number who have attended a workshop or seminar on domestic violence has risen to nearly half from less than one-third. Synagogue leaders are certainly more aware of abuse; the question is what they plan to do about it.

Unlike the Catholic Church, the Jewish tradition does not have a papal figure who dictates what may or may not be taught in a synagogue. The rabbi is the employee of the board of directors and should respond to its wishes. So, where is the board of directors and its adult education or social action committee? Where, for that matter, is the federation board of directors? One would hope that the people charged with planning for the community’s welfare would take some interest in the subject matter.

To its credit, last month’s General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities did address the topic — but it did so in a single session that lumped domestic violence together with substance abuse and gambling, a relic of the days when we believed that Jews did not succumb to these “social ills.”

One Jewish communal official, in explaining why her organization did not bring up the topic of domestic abuse at its annual convention, told me, “We want people to see the beautiful side of Judaism, not the seamy side.” If community leaders prefer to bury their heads in the sand, are they not sending a clear message to rabbis that they may safely ignore it as well?

For more than a decade, the organized Jewish community has obsessed over the issue of “continuity.” We profess concern about the legacy we are leaving our children and grandchildren.

Consider this: Studies have shown that 40%-50% of children in parentally abusive homes are themselves abused, and children in parentally abusive homes often grow up to become abusers themselves, or to marry abusers.

Is this the legacy we wish to leave?

Carol Goodman Kaufman, a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the author of “Sins of Omission: The Jewish Community’s Reaction to Domestic Violence” (Westview Press, 2003).


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