Safe Jewish Homes

A few years ago I spoke about Domestic Violence on Yom Kippur.  Afterward, two very sweet members of my shul came up to me and said: “Rabbi, you shouldn’t speak about such ugly things from the bimah.  That doesn’t happen here.” 


I responded, “Two rows behind you and a little to the left, it does.


Domestic Violence happens in Jewish homes.  This drasha is the reopening of the conversation, because we need to talk about it.  I wish we didn’t have to.  But this isn’t only an issue in the Catholic Church.  It is much closer to home than we’d like to admit.


The prophetic cycle is a theme within much of the Hebrew Bible. It goes as follows:
  • God and the Jewish people are in harmony,
  • we stray,
  • God gets angry and sends another nation to enslave us,
  • we repent, calling out in our pain,
  • God has mercy upon us and lets the Jews out from under the yoke of the other nation,
  • and finally God and the Jewish people are in harmony.
  • Until the next time.
Said differently, when the Jewish people cheat on God with another religion, God’s jealousy leads to Jewish suffering, until the Jews submit again to a dependent relationship with God. Until the next time.


Much has been written about human relationship as metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. And the implications of this metaphor are amplified a hundredfold in the words of this classic rabbinic midrash, taken from Midrash Rabbah (Exodus 31:10):


When Israel was driven from Jerusalem, their enemies took them out in chains, and the nations of the world remarked: “The Holy One, blessed be He, has no desire for this people, for it says, They are called ‘rejected silver.'”  Just as silver is first refined from its defects and then converted into a utensil, again refined and turned into a utensil, so many times over, until it finally breaks in the hand and is no more fit for any purpose, so were Israel saying that there was no more hope of survival for them since God had rejected them, as it says, “They are called ‘rejected silver.”
When Jeremiah heard this, he came to God, saying, “Lord of the Universe! Is it true that You have rejected Your children? As it says, ‘Why have You smitten us so that there is no healing?’ (Jer. 14:19)”
It can be compared to a man who was beating his wife.
Her best friend asked him: “How long will you go on beating her? If your desire is to drive her out, then keep on beating her till she dies! But if you do not wish her to die, then why do you keep on beating her?” The man replied, “I will not divorce my wife even if my entire home becomes a ruin.”
This is what Jeremiah said to God: “If Your desire be to drive us out of this world, then smite us until we die! But if this is not Your desire, then Why have You smitten us so that there is no healing?” God replied, “I will never kill Israel, even if I destroy My world!”
“…And it is not because,” says God, “I am in debt to the other nations that I have handed over My sanctuary to them, but rather it is your iniquities that have caused Me to hand over to them My sanctuary. If this weren’t the case, why would I have to do this?”


This cycle of theological abuse is difficult for many to accept, and rightly so. And linking God to jealousy and violent rage is not my goal. In fact, my goal is to demand the exact opposite stance – that Judaism demands absolute rejection of all forms of abuse.


We’ve suffered too much abuse in our people’s history to cause it to anyone else.


Rabbi Avi Weiss has taught that “the test of a community is the way it treats its most vulnerable members.”  We, as a moral Jewish community, must reject any concept of God as a jealous and dominating partner – because it forces all of us to identify as victims. This is an unhealthy model of relationship, and a shameful, twisted image of a loving God.


But the abusive theological model and its language are found within Jewish tradition. We must take a next step together and acknowledge the fact that abuse has happened, and continues to happen, in traditional Jewish communities.


Abuse happens within Jewish families. Physical and verbal abuse happen in Jewish families.


We don’t like to talk about what is ugly and painful. We feel shame in revealing our less than perfect family lives. We don’t want the outside world to know. We don’t want each other to know. So we remain silent. But we are hurting. Some of us are suffering, right here, in our midst. Others inflict deep pain upon those they claim to love.


Victims of abuse can be women or men, young or old, gay or straight. It has been suggested that, on average, Jewish women stay in abusive relationships for 5 to 7 years longer than non-Jewish women, primarily because they don’t want to believe that Domestic Violence happens to Jewish women.


Abuse does happen in Jewish families.   We’ve shared a text that portrays God as an abuser. We reject that depiction as evil and wrong.


But there are other aspects of traditional Judaism, present even in modern congregations, that maintain the weak position of the victim in the face of abuse. Here are two:


1) Some rabbis have invoked the Jewish ideal of “shalom bayit,” of maintaining peace in the home, as justification for sending a woman back to her abuser. Some rabbis continue to counsel this way, and have only served to disempower suffering Jews.
2) A get, or Jewish divorce decree, according to some streams of Judaism can only be issued by a man, who can torment his partner with the get’s legal power and its control over the wife’s future. This makes the vulnerable woman an “Agunah,” a chained woman, trapped by Judaism’s rules.


These two aspects of traditional Jewish life are problems. They make victimization possible within Jewish families, and they must be changed.


We must take the deeply Jewish step forward and, together, condemn abuse of any kind in our community.


Abuse can be physical, sexual, verbal or emotional.

It can come in the form of the ongoing use of demeaning words like “you’re stupid,” or ugly, or crazy. It can be total access to and control over bank accounts and finances. It can be threats to injure children or pets. It can be monitoring and limiting friendships, going out, talking on the phone.


Domestic violence is not about having a bad temper or being out of control. It is about power and control – one person exerting power and control over another. Domestic violence impacts on the entire family, injuring also the children who witness abuse by hearing it or seeing it.


I offer two anonymous testimonies from Jewish victims of Abuse. One is physical, and might help those in verbally abusive relationships say, “Oh, that’s not me.” But the second is a case of verbal abuse, perhaps even harder to escape.


1) “The Jewish Community sees my husband as a respected professional who is educated, talented, outgoing, friendly, loving, caring, and compassionate. They were not witness to what took place in the privacy of our home. No one saw him hit, kick, and choke me. No one heard him tell our child, ‘Mommy’s dead.’ No one was present when he threatened to commit suicide in the presence of our child, wipe me off the face of the earth, and promised that I would not survive the night.”
2) “I have a boyfriend who is charming to everyone, a real mentch, sharp thinker and everyone around looks up to him. So you can understand how I feel alone in how I am feeling – since everyone thinks so highly of him. It’s difficult to talk to him about anything because everything I say is either “stupid” or “crazy”. Sometimes I have to lie because I’m afraid of how he’ll react to certain things. I don’t mean to ramble – today was just a bad day. He says it’s my fault that the relationship is going south. I know I have to distance myself from the relationship but, honestly, I don’t think I can.”


We bear witness to these anonymous testimonies, wondering whether or not people sitting near us are in similar situations. We wonder, perhaps, what to do with the inescapable knowledge that there is, most likely, someone hearing this Dvar Torah who is hurting.


To anyone suffering reading this email, I promise you that God loves you, wants to comfort you, and wants our community to help you.  You can come and speak with me, knowing that you are safe and not alone.


So how do we do that? As a Conservative Jewish community, we turn to Halacha, Jewish Law, for guidance. The following is a brief summary of a lengthy teshuva, a Jewish ruling, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, entitled “Family Violence (HM 424.1995)”:


1) Beating and other forms of physical abuse, such as sexual abuse, are absolutely forbidden by Jewish law.
2) Verbal abuse is absolutely forbidden by Jewish law.
3) An abuser has the responsibility to acknowledge his behavior and do teshuvah by getting help.
4) Parents may never cause a bruise to their children, no matter what decisions they make regarding corrective parenting.
5) Children may not beat their parents, even when parents were formerly abusive themselves.
6) The requirement that one preserve not only one’s own life (pikkuah nefesh) but others as well, demanded by the laws of the pursuer (rodef) and of not standing idly by when another is in danger (lo ta’amod al dam ra’ekha), not only permit, but require others who discover spousal or parental abuse to help the victim report the abuse and take steps to prevent repetition of it. Jews who suspect that children are being abused must report such abuse to the civil authorities, no matter what the consequences. Saving a life takes precedence over the presumption that parental custody is best for the child.


These policies are halachicly binding. They are not optional. We are commanded by our tradition to protect ourselves and to intervene when necessary for others. There are times when it is necessary to act to protect the vulnerable.


Now and always are those times for our community.


Opening up darkened spaces is a scary, saddening task, but it is a sacred one as well. We’ve been taught by our tradition that “anyone who saves one soul, it is said about her that she has saved a whole world. (TB Sanhedrin 37a)” There is nothing less at stake than the entire world of at least one person.


And one person’s safety is reason enough for us all to spend the energy talking about abuse.


Perpetrating violence on an intimate partner is an affliction with a spiritual dimension that threatens the welfare of the entire community. We act with commitment to the health of our community when we hold abusers accountable. We act in accordance with halachah’s call to pursue justice when we declare that abusers cannot remain in our midst and must dwell outside the camp.

The fabric of our Jewish homes is tradition’s instruction to create spaces of safety. The fabric of our homes is our Jewish ethics, which demand that we pursue justice. The fabric of our homes is our developing liturgies and holy days, which call upon us to heal and create wholeness in our world.For the welfare of both the individual homes we are blessed have, as well as the collective one we create together at shul, I pray that we commit ourselves to doing so.

May God be with us, holding our hands, as we take these steps.

May our homes be safe and healthy.