Violence against women must end

Rabbi Catharine Clark

We’d like to think it doesn’t happen among Jews, but it does. Jewish women experience physical, sexual and verbal abuse perpetrated by their husbands, fiancés and boyfriends. It’s time to put a stop to it.

Nov. 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In the spirit of this day, here are some important steps for ending abuse of women in the Jewish community.

• Stop denying it. Denial has been a popular “strategy” since at least the 12th century, when Rabbeinu Tam wrote, “Wife beating is unheard of among the children of Israel.” Denial, however, does not change the fact that Jewish women in abusive relationships live in fear and pain inflicted by their partners.

• Recognize that Jewish law prohibits a man from striking his wife. In his commentary on the Tur (Even HaEzer 154:15), Rabbi Yosef Karo quotes Rabbeinu Simhah, who says that “we must treat a man who beats his wife more severely than we treat a man who beats another man, since he’s not obligated to honour the other man, but is obligated to honour his wife, more, in fact, than himself. And a man who beats his wife should be put under a ban and excommunicated.”

• Understand what shalom bayit, “peace in the household,” means. The person who is disrupting the wholeness of family life is the abuser, not the woman who seeks to stop the abuse or to leave the relationship.

• Speak about domestic violence from the bimah or in the synagogue bulletin. Rabbis, cantors and lay leaders who do so send the message that they take the problem seriously and will listen to a congregant suffering abuse.

• Insist that the leadership of your synagogue or JCC put the contact number of the local women’s shelter in the women’s bathroom and nursing room. This information empowers an abused woman to take her first steps toward help or to flee to safety in a critical moment.

• Listen and believe. If a woman tells you that her partner is hitting her, controlling money, demanding detailed accounts of where she is at all times or denigrating her, respect the courage she has shown in coming to you.

• Refer her to a domestic violence program so that she can develop a safety plan. A safety counsellor can help her protect herself, for instance by knowing when to call the police.

• Do not tell her that she should stay in the relationship for the sake of the children. Long-term exposure to violence inflicted by one parent against another has detrimental effects on a child’s development. Moreover, children who witness domestic violence are themselves in danger of being physically injured.

• Support her in making in her own decisions, even if her decision is to stay with her abuser for now. Her partner probably is not always abusive. In fact, it is likely that the cycle of abuse includes times when he is thoughtful and charming. In addition, abusers often respond to attempts to leave with escalated violence.

Please take these steps. All of us have the responsibility to ensure true shalom bayit for the families of our Jewish community.