Consider and Converse: A Guide to Shalom Bayit

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Introduction

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of shalom bayit — peace in the home. A foundational Jewish principle,
 we explore what happens when shalom bayit is a facade, when the notion of family harmony masks pain and abuse. This month, we also explore what disrupts family peace, and what price someone pays for that act of disruption.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Deborah Rosenbloom, who works atJewish Women International as the person responsible for directing and implementing their work to end and prevent violence against women and girls, introduces readers to the concept of “harmony in the home — shalom bayit. First, she explains that traditionally, “the burden of shalom bayit has been placed on the wife, reflecting the patriarchy of traditional Judaism and the notion that the wife is the foundation of the home who determines its character and atmosphere.” Then, she considers how the first “Jewish couple,” Abraham and Sarah, exemplify a more complicated home than what appears on the surface. When Abraham asks his wife to pretend to Pharaoh to be his sister — thereby saving himself — he not only shows a lack of faith in God, but he also puts his wife in a position where she cannot refuse her husband’s request. The story raises several questions: At what cost are women burdened to remain silent for the “greater good of family harmony, shalom bayit? How do we reconcile the patriarchal values of our ancestors with today’s modern norms? In what arenas do women remain silent — even today — to further family harmony? How might we move to make this family-oriented burden more equitable?
  • Rabbi Jane Kanarek, who teaches Talmud at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, offers a close reading and analysis of a talmudic anecdote about cooking on a festival day that upends the notion of “woman as house” (the word “bayit,” in some instances, meaning “woman”). Jane writes: “One of the requirements for cooking on a festival day is that particular aspects should be done differently from the methods used on a regular weekday. Tractate Betzah (29b) relates a story about the wives of Rav Yosef and Rav Ashi
who were each sifting flour in a manner different from that which they would have used on an ordinary week day. The wife
f Rav Yosef used the back of her sieve, and the wife of Rav Ashi sifted flour onto
a table instead of into a bowl. In the
first case, Rav Yosef tells his wife that he wants good bread, implying that she does not need to sift the flour in an unusual manner on a festival day. Rav Ashi, however, defends his wife’s practice. She
is the daughter of Rami bar Hama, a man meticulous in his actions, and what she saw her father do in his house must be the reason for her own behavior.” What do we learn from this anecdote? How far do we interpret and extrapolate learnings from a text many hundreds of years old? How do we apply the wisdom and lessons from our sources to everyday life? Can you give an example of how you navigate some of today’s complex questions and decisions based on the wisdom of your ancestors?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Nancy Aiken, who works with victims of trauma and abuse in the Baltimore area, shares several stories of women and men who have been abused. What factors are at play that hinder speaking up? What compels disrupting the violence? What do you imagine the impact of the #MeToo movement? How do you understand the distinctions between “harassment” and “assault” and “abuse”? Have you experienced sexual harassment and how did you decide to deal with it? Did you share your experiences with others? Have you healed from the experience?
  • Israel Heller shares his personal story about disruption in the home where he grew up. After failing to adhere to his parents’ standards of Jewish law, he was “kicked out” of his Boro Park home. Although he learned about shalom bayit at yeshiva, he couldn’t see the concept working in his home. Finally, he understands it as a visitor in the home of his rabbi. He writes: “One Friday night, at the home of an avuncular and genuinely kind elderly and learned man, whom my father drove home daily, his wife brought out a very strange kugel. She was cheerfully diminutive, carrying a regular-sized pan but not a regular-sized kugel. Rather, the kugel was weirdly bifurcated: half featured the charred brown that spoke of potato kugel, which I certainly was wanting and expecting, and the other half was a bright amber orange, utterly alien to my still immature palate. I couldn’t help myself, and so I asked the rebbetzin about the dish. ‘Oh,’ she replied brightly, ‘it’s shalom bayis kugel!’ I remember laughing while they each explained that their variegated tastes for kugel achieved a symbiotic and to them delicious resolution when cooked together.” In what ways do you accommodate your family and close friends for the sake of shalom bayit? Where does that accommodation take place? In the kitchen? Around the family table? Making decisions around Jewish observance? What else? Has there ever been a time when you disrupted shalom bayit? What was the byproduct of that disruption?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore the Mishna, “Whoever destroys a single soul it is as though they had destroyed an entire world. And anyone who sustains one soul it is as if they sustained an entire world.”Naomi Tucker writes that “Destroying a soul — hurting someone in a manner that damages the essence of who they are — is posited here [in this Mishna] as the worst kind of destruction. Judaism views body and soul as interconnected, equally holy aspects of our humanity.” She reminds us that “Humiliating someone is tantamount to shedding blood.” As the executive director of a nonprofit aimed at educating and helping people who have encountered domestic abuse, she is very aware of the emotional toil that abuse takes—long after the physical abuse has been acknowledged. “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.” How might Jewish communities address issues of domestic violence as well as sexual harassment more systematically? How do you envision change happening? Have you been drawn to the #MeToo movement? How do you help someone that you know has experienced abuse? Ruth Gerson shares a conversation with her daughter Hope about a teacher who changed her life. And Beth Leventhal shares a story of abuse in the LGBTQ community. How might we make a significant impact in changing the way our organizations enable abuse and protect abusers?

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, Sh’ma Now requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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