Although domestic abuse is totally abhorrent to Judaism, the Jewish community is not completely immune to it.
I had just finished lighting the Sabbath candles one wintry evening when I went to visit my new neighbor. I introduced myself, and she invited me into her living room where we sat and chatted for a few minutes. Sara appeared to be in her early thirties. She was attractive, nicely dressed, and when she smiled, her face had an underlying tension beneath the surface. I sensed that Sara was a single mother, and wondered what had happened to make her the custodial parent of three young children.
"Are you a full-time mom?" I inquired.
"Yes, a full-time mom who also runs a business. I can't depend on my husband to pay his child support when he's supposed to," she replied.
"I'm sorry," I responded, then tried to change the subject. "Where were you living before you came here?"
"I was living on the other side of town. I was pregnant with my youngest son when my husband lost his job. He was so angry about my having another child – as if he didn't have anything to do with it – that he beat me on the belly so that I would miscarry. Before long, he beat me on any pretext. When I was late serving him breakfast, when I didn't prepare his coffee with exactly the right amount of sugar, when I asked him not to hit our daughter…he thought that he would teach me lessons.
"One day, I wasn't feeling well and didn't have a chance to take his shirts to the laundry. I was busy making dinner for the children when he was getting dressed for a family outing. He came into the kitchen and grabbed me by the hair. The next thing I knew, he had pulled me over to the oven and held my hand against the burning metal.
"'There,' he announced, 'that will teach you not to forget about my shirts again!'
"A few days later, he was turned down for a job that he had wanted. He came home and beat me up so badly that my head was swollen. I couldn't see and I ended up being taken to the emergency room. When he hurt me so badly that I ended up in the hospital for the second time, the rabbi who works as a chaplain there visited me.
"'Please talk to my husband and tell him that he shouldn't hurt me,' I pleaded with Rabbi Goldstein. He asked me to tell him my story, so I did. He told me that he would get back to me.
"The next day, Rabbi Goldstein visited me again and told me, 'You must get away from your husband. I will help you in any way that you need. In the meantime, you can move out of your house into a different place where you and your children will be safe.'
I felt that I must have been a bad wife or my husband would not have treated me that way.
"Looking back on it now, I thank Rabbi Goldstein for saving my life. I have no regrets about leaving my husband – we are divorced now. But it was not easy for me to leave my husband. I went back to him four times before I decided that I could not go back any more. I know that it must sound strange to you, but I felt that I must have been a bad wife or my husband would not have treated me that way. For a long time, I thought that if I would only do things the way he wanted, he would stop hurting us. If he would only get a job, he would be happier, and he wouldn't scream at our kids. If I would only be the perfect wife, I could fix our problems. It took me a long time to believe that staying with my husband would ruin my life and my kids' lives.
"In our community, people also thought that my husband was wonderful. I told a few of my friends that my husband wasn't always so nice to me, just to see how they would react, and most of them didn't believe me. Here he was, giving out candy to children, spending his spare time visiting sick children in the hospital, always there to do favors for people in need. People couldn't believe that he was a monster at home.
"After we separated, I found myself very isolated. I had been brought up believing that the woman is the one who makes or breaks the home and the family. If something is wrong at home, if there are marital problems, it's because the woman isn't working hard enough, or isn't doing the right things to make harmony. I had never been told that there are evil people in this world who act respectably in public and do terrible things to their wives and children. When I went to public places – to social gatherings, to the synagogue, even to the grocery store – I saw the looks of contempt for me on people's faces. I heard them saying behind my back, 'There's Sara – she broke up her family. Her poor ex-husband. She made up vicious stories about him so that she could take away his children and have them to herself.'
"It breaks my heart that people don't believe me, and treat me as if I'm the vicious one. It only adds to my pain that so many people think that this monster is such a good man. Last year, he had a very good year in business, and gave a nice sum of money to a local charity while my children and I ate peanut butter sandwiches for dinner because he had refused to pay his child support for that month.
"I got burned twice. First, by my husband, and second, by people in my community who distanced themselves from me when I most need their support and help.
"My kids and I struggle now. Financially, it is hard to take care of all of us on my earnings. The court ordered him to pay me a certain amount of money every month, but he only pays when he feels like it, and it's never on time. I tried going back to court twice to get him to pay his arrears, but I can't afford to shell out legal fees every other month and miss so much work. Besides, I'm emotionally drained from his constant mind games and the isolation he's caused me. I often think that it's just better to try to go on with my life and not depend on him for anything.
"Many mothers have told their kids to shun mine, so it's hard for my kids to find other kids to play with. My kids feel bad enough as it is, being from a broken family. Now they have this to deal with on top of everything else. I just wish that I could have some normalcy for myself and for my children. I don't know if that will ever happen."
Sara is a composite of many abused women. Some are mothers, some are childless. Some are Jewish, some are not. Some are professional, some never finished high school. Some are old, some are young. Some are rich, some are poor. What they all have in common are horrible life circumstances in which they feel trapped. Some are confronted with death threats if they dare leave their husbands. Many are so emotionally cowed, depressed or hopeless that they stay in relationships where violence is a constant companion. Some, for financial, social, or pragmatic reasons see no way of separating themselves from an abusive partner.
What all of these people need is a listening ear, support, and help making a life free from abuse for themselves and their children.
If the abuser is religious, Judaism is not the source of the problem. Judaism is a way of life that tells us how to live God-like lives, from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep. The problem is the fact that someone who appears outwardly "observant" has chosen not to internalize the gestalt of the religion.
Jewish literature has a wealth of stories that tell us how husbands and wives are supposed to treat each other, and describes the mutual respect and love that is an integral part of marriage. For example, the Talmud says, "A man should bend down and listen to his wife."
Numerous Talmudic stories reinforce the idea that the rabbis regarded their wives with the greatest esteem. For example, the greatest rabbis in Israel during the second century wanted to elect a head of their rabbinical assembly. They decided to appoint Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah to the post, despite his youth. (He was only 18 years old, yet he was a great Torah scholar.) Before accepting the most prestigious position in the entire Jewish world, Rabbi Elazar went home to consult with his wife. She advised him not to take the position because, being young, he would not get the respect he deserved. He accepted her advice. The next day, his hair turned white. His wife told him that due to his changed appearance it was appropriate for him to accept the position, and he did.
The Talmud (Ketuvot 62b; Nedarim 50a) recounts the famous story of Rachel, the daughter of a very wealthy man, who married a shepherd named Akiva. Her father disowned her for marrying an ignoramus. At the age of 40, with his wife's encouragement, he decided to start studying Hebrew so that he could learn Torah. With her consent, he then went away to a Torah academy (yeshiva) to study for 12 years, during which time she never saw him.
As he returned after this protracted absence, he overheard his wife tell a neighbor who had chided Rachel for allowing her husband to leave her for so long, "If Akiva would want to stay another 12 years, I would encourage that, too." Before he was noticed, Akiva stole back to the yeshiva. He studied and taught there another 12 years. He then returned home, accompanied by the 24,000 pairs of students he had now developed with his brilliant scholarship.
His wife moved to the front of the crowd in order to greet him after his prolonged absence, only to be shooed away by some of Akiva's disciples. Akiva announced to the throng, "Let her through. Everything that I have, and everything that you have, is because of her." Rachel's encouragement of Akiva's learning saved Judaism from disappearing during the Hadrianic persecutions.
It was this same Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived, who said that the cardinal principle of Judaism is that one should love his neighbor as he loves himself (Leviticus 19:18). He asked, "To whom does the term 'neighbor' refer, first and foremost? To one's wife."
Unity of Souls
The Talmud says that a man is required to love his wife as himself, and to honor her more than himself (Yevamot 62b). In a Midrash, the ancient rabbis asked why Eve was created from Adam's side. Their answer: "Had she been created from Adam's head, she would have been haughty. Had she been created from his foot, she would have been trampled upon. She was created from his side (near his heart) so that she would be loved."
A man is required to love his wife as himself, and to honor her more than himself.
Rabbi Chaim Vital, one of the great kabbalists, said, "A man's soul is judged in the next world according to how he treated his wife."
The Torah says that the first woman was formed out of the body of a man, unlike the rest of the universe that God created from nothing. The Raavad, an important 12th century Talmudic commentator, explained that the Almighty created woman from man so that they would live together as one unit, with each needing the other.
Genesis 2:24 says immediately after woman's creation:
"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh."
The Raavad wrote, and Jewish law underscores, that the proper relationship of husband and wife is to be kind to one another, and to treat one's partner as a part of oneself. The Raavad said that the story of mankind's creation tells a man that the ideal marriage is one in which he treats his wife as he would himself, because she is part of him.
The Talmud and Jewish mysticism speak about the fact that in marriage, two souls that were destined to be joined together become united on earth. Judaism teaches that the purpose of marriage is primarily spiritual, even though it is brought about through emotional sharing and physical union. The marriage of husband and wife, and the love that they share, enable human beings to experience a taste of how much the Almighty loves us.
The Talmud and other rabbinic literature stress the need to compromise in order to have peaceful relationships between husband and wife. It is even permitted to distort the truth at times if being honest will damage a couple's marital harmony.
God Himself "bent the truth" after the Almighty sent a messenger to tell Sarah that she would give birth to a son at the age of 90. (Abraham was going to be 100). Sarah laughed when she heard that she would have the pleasure (of having a child), and "my husband is old!"
The Almighty then asked Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Will I truly give birth, given that I am old?' " (Genesis 18:12-13)
The rabbis noted that not disturbing this old couple's marital harmony was deemed so important that God did not tell Abraham that his wife had called him an old man!
Even though the Torah commands people to stay far away from lies, doing so in order to preserve domestic harmony is an exception.
The Talmud and Jewish law describe the mutual obligations of husband and wife. These laws are intended to teach spouses how to express their love and kindness, and become mutual givers, just as God is kind and a total giver. The wife is to make sure that the members of her family are nurtured physically and emotionally, and take a personal interest in the welfare of her husband and children. She is required to do various "works of love" to show that she is invested in her marriage. Wives are also supposed to attire themselves attractively so that they don't look repulsive to their husbands.
How is a man supposed to be a giver in marriage? The Torah says that a man "takes" a wife in marriage (Deut. 24:1), meaning that a man "takes on" the responsibilities of being a husband. The secular world often focuses on rights; Judaism focuses on responsibilities. A husband's responsibilities include providing food, clothing, a place to live, and paying for household objects that his wife needs. These are supposed to be suitable for the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood in which they live, or to his or her premarital socioeconomic status – whichever is highest. Judaism considers women to be very sensitive about fitting in to their environment, and they should not feel that they go "down" in status when they marry.
A husband must also spend a reasonable amount of time with his wife so that they can have a fulfilling relationship. The Torah says that a man is forbidden to deprive his wife of food, clothing, or marital relations by diminishing any of his obligations.
The Torah requires men to absolve themselves of optional activities the first year of marriage in order to make their wives happy. Ensuring marital happiness the first year of marriage is considered to be so vital that it overrides the national interests of army service. A Jewish woman has an actual lien against her husband's time. He may not take a job outside their city if it will decrease the amount of time he spends with his wife, unless she agrees.
Maimonides wrote that a man should prepare himself before he comes home so that he enters his home in a tranquil state. He should never rule his family by instilling fear in them. He is supposed to speak gently to his wife and not be tense or short-tempered with her. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Marriage 15:19)
Wives are supposed to treat their husbands with respect, while wives are to be honored and cherished.
The idea that a husband or wife would be violent to their spouse is totally abhorrent to Judaism. This idea is illustrated by the story of the two Israelite men who fought with one another in Egypt (Exodus 2:13). When Moses, a prince of Egypt, emerged from Pharaoh's palace and saw these two Jews arguing, the Torah says: "He said to the wicked one, 'Why would you hit your neighbor?' "
The Talmud says (Sanhedrin 58) that the man whom Moses saw had only raised his fists, but had not actually struck his fellow. Judaism termed the man evil for even raising his fists toward the other. It is the way of Jews to use their voices to show disagreement, but not to use physical force.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, "If a man spends his rage on his wife, shames her, or raises his hand to her, God forbid, the Almighty will demand recompense of him."
God counts a woman's tears, and men are warned to make sure that they do not cause their wives pain.
A man has no right to ever hit or abuse his wife (see Rabbeinu Yonah, Sha'arei Teshuva 3:77). In fact, millennia before any civilization or country in the Western world deemed raping one's wife a criminal act, Judaism did. Neither the Torah nor rabbinic literature permitted men to harm their wives emotionally or physically. The Talmud says that God counts a woman's tears, and men are warned to make sure that they do not cause their wives pain (Baba Metzia 59).
Spouse Abuse Today
We have no statistics on how often spouse abuse occurred in Jewish homes prior to modern times, but it was popularly believed that Jewish husbands were often sought by non-Jewish women because it was "known" that they didn't beat their wives. As Jews have assimilated into the world around them, the unique features of Jewish family life have been diluted. Society today is steeped in violence which is further reflected in popular culture: television, movies, books, and video games. Sadly, lack of domestic harmony is part and parcel of the world today.
Various means have been put into place in Jewish communities to try to deal with spouse abuse when it does occur. Over the past few decades, Jewish communities have set up shelters for women, support groups, awareness training by mental health professionals for rabbis, community workers, and attendants at ritual baths. There are free hotlines that women can call in most major American cities.
NEFESH (the organization of Orthodox mental health professionals) runs lectures and workshops about how to deal with problems of domestic violence in Jewish homes. The Shalom Task Force in New York educates rabbis and lay people in Jewish communities about how to recognize abuse and respond to abuse when it occurs. Their posters, encouraging women to call, appear in women's bathrooms, synagogue bulletin boards, ritual baths, and stores in Jewish communities in the greater New York area.
In the world today, millions of people are living in abusive relationships. In America, 20 percent of couples hit each other at least once a year. Sometimes a partner is obviously abusive; more often, he conducts himself one way with friends and acquaintances and a different way at home.
Abused people need our support and help, even though many of them will stay with their abusive partner (or parent). When abused people have the courage to leave, we need to help them to create the normalcy they so desperately seek, and not contribute to their feelings of isolation and pain. Helping them and their children feel welcome in our homes, schools and community activities would go a long way toward achieving this goal.
Jewish Community Resources for Abused Women
The following are agencies that assist battered Jewish women by giving shelter, legal or medical aid, and individual or couple counseling. Contact them for more information.
Boston: Jewish Family Service
Cleveland: Project Chai
Los Angeles: Shiloh
L.A. Jewish Family Service
Montreal: Auberge Shalom Pour Femmes
New Jersey: Carol Ruby Cohen
265 Norgrove Avenue
Long Branch, New Jersey 07740
New York: The Transition Center
Center for Family Violence
Yittie Leibel Helpline
(718) HELP NOW
Monsey Chai Helpline
Rockland Marriage & Family Counseling Center
San Francisco: Shalom Bayit
Seattle: Center for the Protection of the Jewish Family
Jerusalem: Maon Horim
The Rabbinical Council of America
Shalom Task Force
NY: (718) 337-3700
Out of NY: 1 (888) 883-2323