Although much more is known about domestic abuse in Jewish homes, it is still often missed. The myths and misinterpreted beliefs both within and outside of the Jewish community continue to ignore the reality that it occurs in the Jewish community at the same frequency as in all other communities.
In his 1998 article “Tackling the Shanda,” Rabbi Abraham Twerski wrote, “Even the most serious life-threatening problems go unnoticed when there is resistance to acknowledging them.” This can be attributed to the fact that not unlike other communities of faith, Jewish values are passed down from generation to generation regardless of affiliation or lack thereof.
Core Faith Values and Jewish Domestic Violence
There are four core faith values that are of particular importance to keep in mind when addressing jewish domestic violence:
- Shalom Bayit (peace in the home) is a very important value when considering jewish domestic violence. However, for many it has come to mean that every Jewish home is the ideal home, a place where all are nurtured and respected. But myths and ideals are not reality, a reality that has too often led Jewish victims, particularly women, to believe that it is their responsibility alone to assure Shalom Bayit, further validating that the abuse must be there fault. It is therefore difficult for Jewish victims to identify themselves as being abused, and difficult to get the help that they need. Shalom bayit is indeed a sacred concept but it is the responsibility of both spouses to see it is achieved.
- Shonda which in Yiddish means shame or scandal is to be avoided at all costs. On a personal level, doing a bad deed is a sin and therefore a “shonda”. In addition, history has taught Jews to be particularly concerned about their vulnerability with regards to the larger non-Jewish community. A small and often persecuted group, like others like it, they are concerned about how they are seen in public for fear that it not only looks bad for them personally, but for the whole Jewish community. Admitting to a failed marriage is often seen as abhorrent. Yet, the real scandal is that victims of abuse are not safe in their homes and relationships.
- Lashon ha-ra refers to speech that is gossip and slander, serious sins in Judaism. For Jews accusing some one of domestic abuse may be defined as Lashon Ha-ra. “The Talmud teaches that anyone who has the ability to correct a situation and is derelict in doing so bears the responsibility for whatever results. If abuse is not acknowledged, it is tolerated. Standing by while a sin is being committed is a violation of Jewish law.”
- Teshuva, sincere remorse that leads to forgiveness, is also a tremendously powerful and potentially misleading component in addressing jewish domestic violence. Judaism teaches that sins against God can be forgiven through a series of stages. On the level of sins between people, the injured party is encouraged to forgive the transgressor, especially if asked several times. An abuser, especially if they are religious, will often seek forgiveness from their victim and will go to the extreme to confess their wrongdoings and promise to change. From the perspective of teshuva, the victim may feel obligated to accept the apology and offer forgiveness. Rabbis, if they are involved, will often support this, teaching the victim and abuser that sincere remorse erases even the worst sins, and thereby urging the couple to forgive and move on. Unfortunately, it is known that abusers are unlikely to be able to curb their abusive behavior; in fact, it most often escalates over time. Forgiveness by the victim is possible only when there is real repentance, meaning a change in the abuser’s behavior. Victims also will move to forgive at their own pace and cannot be pushed by others’ expectations of them. It may take years before they are ready to forgive and their timing is to be respected.
- The Get, the Jewish divorce document which can only be issued by the husband, for religious women, is another barrier to receiving help for domestic abuse. Their husbands may use Jewish law as a means toward further abuse, by perverting the law and using it to hurt their wives. The result of refusing their wives a Get, binds them to their husbands forever. They will be unable to get remarried, or to bear children who would be considered part of the Jewish community. This gives husbands a huge amount of power over their wives, including blackmailing them for property and custody rights.
Below is a prayer from the Converso liturgy from the Book of Esther that could easily represent abused women everywhere.
And Esther prayed to the Lord God saying:The Book of Esther
My Lord Adonai, help me for I am alone.
Give me courage,
Master of all powers
Put clever words into my mouth as I face the lion.
You know Lord
I hate the symbol of my high position.
The crown I wear upon my head in court
And do not wear it when I am alone.
I have found no pleasure in this house.
O God whose strength prevails over all
Listen to the voice of the victim
Save us from the hand of the wicked
And free me from my fear.
- Senser, Naomi Ragins. Shalom Bayit: Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community and Beyond, Executive Board Member of SHALVA, the Jewish Domestic Abuse Counseling Center in Chicago,
- Light, Rachel Rose, “Fourteen Years of Silence: An Exploration of Intimate Partner Violence in the Jewish Community” (2006). Yale Medicine Thesis Digital Library. 263.
- Faith Trust Institute
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- 5 Things You Must Know When Addressing Jewish Domestic Violence - October 4, 2019