Destroying a soul — hurting someone in a manner that damages the essence of who they are — is posited here as the worst kind of destruction. Judaism views body and soul as interconnected, equally holy aspects of our humanity. This verse is a clarion call for us to pay attention to emotional abuse.
Talmudic prohibitions of emotional harm are strong and clear. Humiliating someone is tantamount to shedding blood. (Bava Metzia 58b-59a) Verbal abuse (ona’at d’varim, oppression by means of words) is worse than stealing money because it robs the victim of their own divinity. An attack on one’s psyche or dignity conflicts with the value Judaism places on life itself.
Physical violence may be easier to recognize, legislate, and condemn. But women who have survived intimate partner abuse will attest to this: Long after the physical injuries or bruises heal, emotional scars remain. This is the assault on the soul.
Domestic abuse is perpetuated when society does not insist on social consequences for “destroying a soul.” Jewish teachings call for a more active approach. Everyone deserves relationships that are safe and healthy, particularly in the place that matters most — at home. Harming one person is an assault on the divine spark in all of us. We are all created in God’s image, b’tzelem Elohim: Every soul is blessed and beautiful, holy and worthy. Our behavior in communal, professional, and interpersonal relationships should reflect that holiness, lifting each other up with dignity and respect — and that is when we will stop violence against women in its tracks.
Ruth Gerson: The rabbis teach that when a soul is destroyed it is as though the person destroyed an entire world.
Hope: But it is also true that whoever saves a single soul, it is as though they had saved the entire world? Did Mr. Spooner save you?
Mom: He did. He was a retired marine working as a teacher in the New York City public school system. He gave his retirement years to kids who really needed him, and he provided mentorship that — I feel, personally— saved my life. Where others might have destroyed my soul, Mr. Spooner saved it.
Hope: What did he save you from?
Mom: My anger, I guess.
Hope: What do you mean?
Mom: When you’re older, I can tell you.
Hope: Tell me now.
Mom: (Pause) When I was growing up, the people in my family, they suffered greatly, and because they suffered, they felt very angry and they wanted to destroy the world. So, they hurt me a lot, every day, and I became very sad, and lonely. My soul was dim.
Hope: What did you do?
Mom: I believed God loved me.
Mom: God showed me. God gave me my teachers, my friends, who poured themselves into me. They made me laugh. They kept me company. They gave me hugs. They challenged my mind. They relieved my suffering, and saved my soul.
Hope: Did you save the world, Mama?
Mom: (Laughs) No, but I am a teacher now, and a mom, and a friend, and I always put my whole heart into the souls around me, and you and your sisters, and maybe one of you will save the world, or one of your children, or your children’s children. I can do this because of them. Creating and destroying, saving and killing, order and chaos — we can choose. God has given us this immense gift. We have consciousness and we can choose what we do. Each good act makes more good, until the goodness created can save the world.
Hope: How can I do good, Mama?
Mom: Oh, my sweet, it’s easy to do good when you feel good. It’s natural. But, it is much more difficult when you are suffering… . When you are angry, stop. Stop and listen to God. Wait and breathe. You may wait only a moment or you may wait many years, if someone has hurt you very badly. But, eventually, you will let God in and you will know what to do and you will create something beautiful.
When I was in my twenties, I was abused by my partner. I didn’t know it was abuse. Domestic abuse was something that happened in heterosexual couples: men hurting women. My partner was a woman, a lesbian, a feminist. I had no framework to understand what was happening to me.
Nobody spoke about LGBQ/T partner abuse. Nobody said it happened at the same rate as heterosexual, cisgender (non-transgender) people (25-33 percent of relationships), or that the abuse experience is similar — everything from subtle manipulation to murder. Although male violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon with devastating consequences, we must not equate domestic abuse with male violence against women. That would ignore LGBQ/T survivors, leaving them without the words to name — and be able to act on — the abuse they experience.
As Naomi Tucker so eloquently states, emotional abuse eats away at one’s soul — intangible, but equally destructive. For me, the effect was to be left feeling guilty, unloving and unlovable, defeated, and both afraid to be with my partner and afraid to leave her. Only later, when I felt that my ex had destroyed my soul, did my therapist reassure me that my soul had simply and silently moved aside to avoid being damaged. She gave me a first glimmer of hope that I would one day feel whole again.