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Stop Pardoning Domestic Abuse

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.

  • Rabbi Grossman: Women–Victims of the Domestic Rod
  • Rabbi Waxman: ‘Spare the Rod’


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    Rabbi Mark Dratch

    posted March 9, 2007 at 4:42 pm


    I thank Rabbi Stern for his comments on domestic violence and for drawing attention to the work of JSafe. As a relatively new organization, we certainly have much more work to do and contributions to make to this issue. I appreciate the impatience. We are impatient as well. Rabbi Stern’s comment, “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” is misleading, both halakhically and in terms of JSafe’s work. 1. The articles we publish and presentations we make clearly state that abuse and violence is prohibited. 2. We are clearly “paskening” (ruling) against those who ruled otherwise. This is the traditional halakhic approach, i.e., deciding between differing and conflicting opinions. As it relates to abuse, see http://jsafe.org/pdfs/052206.pdf and other articles at http://jsafe.org/resources.htm regarding such issues as mesirah (reporting perpetrators to the civil authorities) and others. There are other articles currently being written that address the specific issues of wife beating and child beating more directly. 3. The history of halakhic development in this area shows a definite trend towards prohibiting the kinds of abuse that earlier authorities permitted/tolerated, largely influenced, I believe, by the social norms of their times and places. 4. We certainly have a lot more work to do. In this, Rabbi Stern and I agree. 5. Naomi Graetz’s important book, “Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating” is an important contribution to the literature–and should be read by everyone. It clearly sets down both permissive and restrictive approaches to wifebeating, with a call for community action at the end. But scholarship and history are not halakhic decision making and not all opinions are granted equal weight when a halakhic decision is made. This includes rejecting opinions of even great authorities of the past– and present. 6. I do not believe that most perpetrators justify their abuse by citing chapter and verse in Rambam or other halakhic works, (although some do), and I do not believe that traditional Jewish sources cause increased abuse in the traditional community. However, the messages these sources send, their impact on rabbis and judges in decision making positions, and their impact on the perceived value and ethics as well as the practice of Halakhah are important. 7. And as for the type of rhetoric for which Rabbi Stern is searching see A Peek Under the Rug, http://jsafe.org/pdfs/APeekUnderTheRug.pdf and listen to the audio of Abuse in Our Community? Protecting our Future Halakhic and Legal Methods to Stop Predators and Enablers at http://jsafe.org/resources.htm. 8. All this being said, we may still disagree as to the best way to confront issues and move the agenda forward. And there may be important philosophical and practical reasons for that. We have seen in the past while a number of approaches the work of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky, The Awareness Center, the Unorthodox Jew Blog, Jewish Survivors Blog, Shalom Task Force, Jewish Women International, National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, FaithTrust Institute, Project S.A.R.A.H. (Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic and the Association of Jewish Family Service Agencies of New Jersey.), Rockland County Shelter and Rockland County Bikkur Cholim, the Jewish Domestic Violence Coalition of Greater Boston , the Jewish Domestic Abuse Collaborative of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Shalom Bayit in Houston, TX and Oakland,CA and many more. All working on issues of Jewish Domestic Violence, each in its own way. I am involved with some, and not others. I may or may not agree with some of them in terms of approach or policy, but I can say that as a group we are beginning to make an impact in helping survivors and in changing the way we as a Jewish community understand and address the issues. Once again, thank you for bringing this important issue to your readers. The conversations it will stimulate and the actions it will motivate (hopefully) are vital. Rabbi Mark Dratch JSafe



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    Marian Neudel

    posted March 9, 2007 at 5:25 pm


    Is this time for a new Takkanah?



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    Carolyn Gold

    posted March 10, 2007 at 6:40 pm


    If we are to be honest, then let’s face facts: while a woman is a piece of property to be given in marriage to a man, nothing will change except the wording. Until a woman can initiate and hand a man a get, and stop being trapped in marriage, the hand-wringing will go on and everyone will continue to ask, “What can be done?” And nothing will be done. Gavriella



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    Tzvi

    posted March 10, 2007 at 7:14 pm


    then maybe that’s what its going to take, like the genius of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who creatively found ways of using Torah and talmud to do the right thing.



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    Barbara

    posted March 11, 2007 at 8:19 am


    Question – I finally did tell on my abuser. Of course he charged me with Lashon Hara. When that didn’t work – he charged me with Rechilut. Any thoughts? JSafe has been a lifesaver to me.



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    Tzvi

    posted March 11, 2007 at 3:31 pm


    Barbara, As a jew(though not “observant”,I had to look up “Rechilut”. If he was physically abusive, and you had medical witnesses, saying that they saw bruises, or other “marks” then its not Lashon hara. Its getting Justice. I’d love to hear what the bet din said when he accused you as such.



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    Barbara

    posted November 10, 2007 at 12:05 am


    Let me tell this man was, I learned, married and supposedly “observant” as well as a sexual predator. First, after much prayer and consulting my rabbi, I made it clear to his wife what had transpired, begged her forgiveness and that he may be a danger. Once I had done that he threatened my children and our safety. I went to the police only to find out this man was in deeper with a sexual addiction and illegal behavior than I ever imagined. It ended up with a large, publicized shut down of a brothel and a number of sex for pay companies.
    He has never forgiven or spoken to me again. He still charges me with Lashon Hara & Rechilut. I went to my rabbi who told me I did the right thing by telling the wife & the police. I never heard from the rabbi on the matter again. No bet din ever was involved though it should have been.
    To this day this man accuses me of harrassing him (I am not) and all manner of things I “supposedly did” to his family – which I did not, would not and could not do. He’s smeared me to many people.
    I pray for him every single day. But he has never approached me for forgiveness or explanation. His wife apparently believes the horrible things he told her about me as did a number of friends. Very sad.



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