A few years ago Rabbi Michael Dratch founded the organization JSafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment. Its mission reads that JSF “works to promote a Jewish community in which all of its institutions and organizations conduct themselves responsibly and effectively in addressing the wrongs of domestic violence, child abuse and professional improprieties, whenever and by whomever they are perpetrated.”
It’s a great organization whose goals are worthy of praise. But to be honest, I would like to see it tackle the elephant sitting in the room. Namely, for every halakhic (according to Jewish law) source the organization cites outlawing wife and child beating and abuse, I can bring one that says the exact opposite. Perhaps the organization has spoken out against Maimonides, the Geonim, Tosaphot and other rabbis who allowed for such sentiments to be halakhically permitted, but I would like to hear it more often and louder. (Perhaps I have not read its literature closely enough and one of our readers can show me where the organization has denounced these sages’ opinions.) The bottom line is halakhic Jews are no more susceptible to this type of behavior than non-Orthodox Jews. But it’s a shanda (shame) when halakhic Jews fail to come to terms with their own traditions and instead “fight” the battle in the most socially disingenuous way blaming it merely on those who are crazy or those who “misread” halakhic sources. In doing so, their complacency or fear of what the observant community might say ends up preventing them from ultimately doing their jobs as communal protectors. As Noimi Graetz has noted:
“Tzemah ben Paltoi, Gaon of Pumbedita (872–890), permitted a man to flog his wife if she was guilty of assault. Rabbi Yehudai b. Nahman (Yehudai Gaon, 757–761) wrote that: “…when her husband enters the house, she must rise and cannot sit down until he sits, and she should never raise her voice against her husband. Even if he hits her she has to remain silent, because that is how chaste women behave” (Otzar ha-Ge’onim, Ketubbot 169–170).
The ninth-century Gaon of Sura, Sar Shalom b. Boaz (d. c. 859 or 864), distinguished between an assault on a woman by her husband and an assault on her by a stranger. The Gaon of Sura’s opinion was that the husband’s assault on his wife should be judged less severely, since the husband had authority over his wife (Otzar ha-Ge’onim, Bava Kamma, 62:198).
In his Mishneh Torah, Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) recommended beating a bad wife as an acceptable form of discipline: “A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod” (Ishut 21:10). “
Look, I am not so naive as to think that had these sources not existed we would never have any domestic abuse in halakhic homes. However, so long as the conversation is centered around Jewish domestic violence it is critical that Jewish leadership come to terms with its texts of violence.