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I agree with Rabbi Waxman that corporal punishment sends the wrong message to children about solving problems with violence and therefore should have no place in family life. His comments remind me of a larger issue: the systemic failure of our community to adequately protect children (and women) who are witnesses to or victims of the rod of abusive violence in their home.

Domestic violence is a real problem in every segment of the Jewish community.

The most egregious cases are those in which women seek to leave physically abusive relationships only to find that rabbinical courts (batei din) advise them to return to their husbands for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in the home. Others pressure women to give up their children, or give up the financial support they are due, to receive their get (Jewish divorce document). Without a get, a woman cannot remarry. Still others are obstructionist, dragging their feet when they could help.

A case in Baltimore highlights this dilemma. Cynthia Ohana was abused for years by her husband. When she left, he continued to threaten her and their children despite restraining orders. For years, the religious courts refused her request for a civil divorce. Finally they permitted her to apply for a civil divorce. However, the beit din then spent years dragging their feet in taking the steps necessary to pursue for her get. Only when several local activists took up her cause did the local rabbinic establishment begin to exert any significant effort to coerce Ohana to give his ex-wife a get, finally placing him in herem (ostracized from the community). His father, a prestigious rabbi in California, supports his abusive son. In the meantime, Cynthia and her children remain in danger. Her parents have basically moved into her home to provide additional support and protection for her and her children. She also remains an agunah, a chained woman, who cannot remarry or move on with her life. She has been one of the foremost advocates for the “get bill” now before the Maryland legislature, which requires men seeking a civil divorce to remove all impediments to remarriage, including providing a religious divorce to their ex-wives.

To be fair, there are many rabbis and activists working to assist such women. However, as agunah activist Rivka Haut would be quick to explain, there are also many corrupt religious courts who side with the abusers rather than the victims. Why Orthodox leaders continue to wring their hands rather than accept any of the halakhic solutions that have been offered to solve the agunah problem (and free such trapped women) remains a tragic example of loss of rabbinic will.

Of course, domestic violence is not just an Orthodox problem. While the Conservative Movement technically solved the agunah problem with hafkaat kidushin (annulment of marriage initiated on behalf of the wife by the Movement’s Joint Beit Din), we need to do more to help our rabbis and educators to recognize the signs of abuse and be more effective in offering assistance. Our congregations also need to put into place effective policies to provide safe haven for domestic violence victims.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Jewish Women International is hosting their third conference on domestic violence this March 18-20 in Baltimore. A growing number of Jewish domestic violence centers (like CHANA in Baltimore) provide local support, safe houses, and counseling.

However, we have a long way to go before every Jewish home is rod-free.

Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

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  • Rabbi Stern: Being Honest About Abuse
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