Progressively Speaking: Responding to domestic abuse

Progressively Speaking: Responding to domestic abuse

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild looks at how we should respond to a rise in reports of domestic abuse in the Jewish community?

We must welcome the rise in reporting of domestic abuse within the Jewish community because this signifies not increasing abuse, but that women are feeling more supported and able to report abuse.

For too long, the myth that abuse doesn’t happen in Jewish families or is rare in the community has meant Jewish women generally have taken even longer than average to leave their abusive relationships.

But in truth, the Jewish community has its share of marriages where there is abuse, both physical and emotional, coercive control, and inequalities of power.

Shame, fear of ostracism or the displeasure of their family, added to anxiety about losing their children or becoming an agunah, has led many women to becoming trapped in their marriage for ‘shalom bayit’.

Biblical texts, which frame the marital relationship essentially as one of property rights, and in which the husband is called “ba’al” or owner, set the scene for the patriarchal and deeply unequal view of marriage that can be found today, but it is really in the Responsa (rabbinic judgements) that the problem is created.

There are Responsa that excuse or permit the physical abuse of a woman by her husband to punish her for being a ‘bad’ wife, or to educate her to be a ‘good’ one. This attitude shapes halachic and communal reactions today.

Domestic abuse does not constitute grounds for divorce in Jewish law and, judging from recent cases in Israel, this may not change soon.

We must accept our religion does not make us immune to abuse and we must train community leaders to notice and respond to such behaviour and provide refuges. We must create change in our Responsa and communal conversations. The Batei Din should explicitly condemn domestic abuse; the shame of  abuse belongs to the abuser and to the community that keeps the toxic secret.

Sylvia Rothschild is a former rabbi of Wimbledon and District Synagogue

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