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Guest Blogger: JSafe’s Rabbi Responds

We are highlighting this response to Rabbi Stern’s post on Judaism & domestic violence as a service to our blog readership.

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 this and other articles 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 wife beating, 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,” and listen to the audio of “Abuse in Our Community? Protecting our Future – Halakhic and Legal Methods to Stop Predators and Enablers.”

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, Calif. 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
Founder and Director, JSafe

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Rabbi Mark Dratch

posted March 12, 2007 at 10:31 pm

A survey of Talmudic and early rabbinic sources shows mixed attitudes towards wifebeating, some prohibitive and some permissive. Naomi Graetz, in her important Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating (Jason Aronson, 1998), presents a comprehensive review of these positions. What is the stance of today s rabbis in deciding matters of domestic violence in modern Israeli batei din (rabbinic tribunals)? An article by Mordecai Frishtik which appeared in Hebrew in Dinei Yisrael (Vol. 17, 5753-5754, pp.93-118) deals with physical abuse as a cause for compelled divorce in Jewish law. He surveys decisions of these rabbinic courts and shows how they applied Jewish law in these cases. Of course, a couple may divorce if they both consent to the procedure. But compelled divorces are tricky in Jewish law. If they are done improperly or illegally, the results can be devastating; the issue of any subsequent marriage may be mamzerim (illegitimate). Rabbinic judges, therefore, have been reluctant to rely on them, even in cases when they are convinced that the marriage should end, except in certain limited cases. The fact that a divorce cannot be compelled based on certain actions does not meant that these actions are acceptable or are to be ignored. What is the problem? Divorces must be granted willingly, otherwise they are invalid and despite the ceremonies and procedures, the couples remain married. Now, the Mishnah (Ketubot 77a) lists a number of grounds for compelling divorces. These include circumstances that are so repulsive to the wife so as to make living with her husband intolerable; in these cases, the court has the authority to compel the husband to divorce his wife, even against his will. Elsewhere, the Talmud distinguishes between these circumstances of hiyyuv or kefiyyah (compulsory divorce) and yotzi ve-yiten ketubbah, situations in which they strongly advise that a divorce is advisable and in which the woman does not lose any of her financial claims. The problem is that abuse is not on this list of grounds for compelled divorce and the question is raised: is this list exhaustive and divorce cannot be compelled in any other cases (based on Bet Yosef, Even Ha-Ezer 154), or does it merely include examples of the type of conditions that are relevant to compulsion and abuse may therefore be included? Important caveat: even those that did not compel divorce in abuse cases advocated other ways to protect the abused like social sanctions, imprisonment, beatings, public humiliation, publicizing the name and misdeeds of the perpetrators, monetary fines, etc. They were in agreement that this behavior was not to be tolerated and used the means they had to address the problem. Other authorities do accept charges of abuse as grounds for forced divorce. Maharam of Rothenberg writes: Certainly in a case of beating everyone agrees that he should divorce her through kefiyah (compulsion). (Responsa, Krimina edition, 291-292.) Ramban writes: Even in such matters that do not cause anguish does he divorce her and pay her ketubah, how much more so when he hits her and wounds her and causes her physical pain? (Ramban, Responsa 102; see also Gra to Even Ha-Ezer 154, no. 11). Rema, R. Moshe Isserles, the source of halakhic decisions for the Ashkenazic world writes, A man who hits his wife, he has violated a sin just as when he strikes another. If he does this consistently [and he does not respond to the warnings and punishments imposed by the court], there are those who say that we compel him to divorce (Even Ha-Ezer 154:3). The bottom line: We reject the opinion of Rambam who permits a husband to strike his wife (if indeed that is really his opinion in Ishut 21:10, three are some who read the text in a way that allows only the court to issue the lashes); as well as that of Terumat ha-Deshen, Responsa, #218, and others. Despite the permissive opinions of even some of the great ones permitting wifebeating (this in accord with their understanding of the responsibilities of a husband for his wife s religious and moral behavior and in light of the accepted norms of their times and places), the weight of subsequent Halakhic decisions and community practice forbid such behavior today (as well as for the last 400 or 500 years or more). Abuse may even be grounds for compelled divorce. Abuse is prohibited. It is never to be tolerated by the community and the community must impose some of the sanctions and consequences mentioned above. Rabbi Mark Dratch JSafe

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