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Open Our Communal Eyes to Spousal Abuse

It is really most appropriate that the Hebrew month Tishri, and Succoth in particular, coincided last month with the National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. After all, the succah, the hut that Jews inhabit during the autumn harvest festival, represents the fragility of life. The winds blow and the rains fall, leaving its dwellers vulnerable to the elements. Luckily, most of us only have to live in it eight days of the year. Abuse victims are living in a metaphorical one every day, never knowing when a gust of abuse will sweep away the sparse protection over their heads.

During the last few years I conducted research on the Jewish community’s response to spousal abuse from the perspective of organizational psychology. I looked at the structure and systems of the community. I interviewing rabbis, lay and professional communal leaders and representatives of the many national organizations and agencies that have the health and welfare of Jews as their mandate. In addition, I met with survivors of abusive marriages to determine what their experiences with the organized community had been.

The good news is that Judaism’s teachings and traditions, since the days of the Torah, have instructed its adherents in human relationships. It wasn’t until the Talmud began to be compiled that spousal abuse was specifically addressed, but Jews can be proud that our ancestors confronted the problem centuries before other societies did. From the inclusion in its pages of rabbinical discussions about the topic, we can deduce that if abuse was discussed way back then it must have existed — not the other way around, that because laws regarding abuse are on the books, it does not exist.

I wish I could say that all the rabbis writing in the Talmud and beyond have agreed on the subject and ruled that spousal abuse is unacceptable behavior — but it is not true. Even as august a figure as Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that a man could beat his wife with a rod for failing to do the housework (Isshut 21:10), and he was not alone in this opinion. This is the same Maimonides who was a world renowned physician; he may well have treated the bruises and broken bones of abuse victims. On the other hand, medieval Rabbi Simha ben Speyer wrote that an abusive husband should be punished financially, and even physically, if he does not cease his wife beating.

Unfortunately, in modern times, rabbinical seminaries have for the most part ignored these discussions in their classes. The vast majority of the rabbis whom I interviewed had heard nothing on the topic; a handful had heard mention of the subject within lectures about modern societal ills. Consequently, they are ill-equipped to deal with congregants who may be abused. As for victims, not one woman I met had ever heard her rabbi speak on the topic of abuse. Where, then, should she have turned for help?

What makes Jewish abuse different from that in the general community? First is the problem of the agunah, the chained woman. To this very day Jewish law gives a husband the sole right to give a get, the Jewish divorce decree. An abusive husband can — and often does — withhold granting the divorce decree in order to extort huge sums of money from the wife and her family or to obtain custody of the couple’s children. This is a form of emotional and financial abuse that is unique to the Jewish community.

The second way that Jewish abuse is different is the mesirah, the prohibition against going to the civil authorities with a complaint against another Jew. Now, if we look at Jewish history, this stance is certainly understandable. Jews have lived in some very unfriendly nations, often on tenuous terms. If we were even allowed to live in a particular country, we have been restricted on where we can live and how we earn our living. And sometimes, even if the government hated us, they wouldn’t let us leave. So the Jewish community’s hesitation to trust governing authorities is one born of experience. However, we in America have unprecedented freedoms.

Despite this, rabbis, particularly Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, told me that they would not call the police, and some said this would be true even in a case of physical abuse. “We take care of our own” is what I was told.

And what does “taking care of our own” mean? In one case it meant that the rabbi told the abusive husband where to find his wife in a shelter in order to “encourage” her to come home. In other cases, it meant sending the wife and children to another family’s home, rather than a certified safe house, thereby exposing even more people to an enraged and dangerous man. (Law enforcement and other domestic violence experts tell us that the most dangerous time for an abuse victim is when she leaves.) And, too often, it meant leaving an abused wife at the mercy of a beit din, a rabbinic court, which was at best unsympathetic to her, at worst humiliating.

Jews have been at the forefront of human rights and civil rights movements for generations. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” is one of our most potent slogans. We claim that pikuah nefesh, to save a life, is of primary importance in our faith. We battle injustice on all fronts. Why, then, are so many in the Jewish community standing back with hands folded as the injustice of domestic abuse is committed in our midst?

Carol Goodman Kaufman, a visiting scholar at the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, is the author of “Sins of Omission: The Jewish Community’s Reaction to Domestic Violence” (Westview Press).

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