What do the law, Megilat Esther and ‘The Giving Tree’ have in common? A comment on domestic abuse in modern times

Megillat Esther and a Hebrew edition of ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein.

Penny Krowitz, who died on Jan. 3 in Toronto, was at the helm of Act To End Violence Against Women, AEVAW (formerly known as Jewish Women International of Canada, JWIC), for over 30 years until it closed due to lack of funding and communal support in 2018.  We met in 2014 when Penny was looking for board members. We discussed AEVAW shifting focus to women of all religious and ethnic communities, not only Jewish.

At the time, my doctorate focused explicitly on Jewish divorce refusal as a form of domestic abuse and it has since become common to define it as such.One critical policy outcome that emerged from my research is the centrality of domestic abuse in the lives of women refused a religious divorce.

My findings demonstrated, when a spouse, disproportionately husbands, refuses to divorce it is inevitably precipitated by a pattern of other abusive coercive and controlling behaviors. Subsequently, AEVAW organized outreach within synagogues but a lengthy agenda remained unfulfilled regarding framing and educating communities that get refusal is domestic abuse and shedding light on domestic abuse in Jewish religious communities more broadly. Nonetheless, Penny’s legacy endures.

The Giving Tree

Recently, I heard a reinterpretation of Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, from a woman who is participating in my postdoctoral research.

It’s a story about a young boy and a tree, and their relationship. Initially, the boy gathered her leaves and made crowns and pretended he was king. He’d climb up her trunk and swing on her branches. He would eat all her apples. When he was tired, he’d sleep in her shade. After a while, he wanted to have fun, and have adventures and make money, to buy a house, and then a boat. So he took her apples to make money, and cut off her branches to build a house, and cut her trunk to build a boat.

After a while he came back to the tree where only the stump remained after all he had taken from her, but the tree had nothing left to give. He wanted to get one last thing out of her but the tree said, ‘I have nothing left. You’ve already taken everything from me: my leaves, my apples, my branches, my trunk. But you can sit on me.’ And he did.

I am the tree, said Hadassa (not her real name).

And my husband, he is the boy who took, and took, and took.

I gave, and gave, and gave. And then, when I had nothing left to give, he sat on me.

Crushing. Constricting. Confining. Controlling.

Hadassa is a 43-year-old woman, mother of six children, between the ages of 10 and two. She married at 31, before that she was an artist, a graduate of the prestigious Betzalel Academy of Arts and Design.

Hadassa was married more than a decade before she finally called the police and went to Bat Melech, the only religious domestic abuse shelter in Israel. Her husband was taken into custody and court-mandated treatment due to domestic violence at Beit Noam, one of the few live-in intervention programs for abusive men in the world, located in Ra’anana.

I share these details to demonstrate that abuse in Jewish communities doesn’t always look the same. It’s not only found in relationships where couples married at 18, or where they were not educated, or where the marriage was arranged (although it is found in all these scenarios as well).

Hadassa describes each of the eight types of domestic abuse. Yes, there are eight types but neither the law, nor rabbis, judges, lawyers nor laypeople can name them all.

She doesn’t use the language of abuse, or law, or rights, but shares accounts about her husband cutting her credit cards, while she lived in constant fear and became obsessed about uttering Psalms to keep her and her kids safe. She recalls constant put-downs and gaslighting, being denied birth control, lack of familial and communal support, no division of labour, no love just rules, no relationship just mikveh night or moments of his desire against her will, no hugs just hitting, throwing, strangling, of complete unpredictability, control and dependence, and no legal divorce.

Megilat Esther and domestic abuse

On March 6, preceding Purim, two special events occur, the Fast of Esther, Ta’anit Esther, and, International Agunah Day, drawing attention to hidden and silenced women anchored to unwanted, dead marriages. These days are appropriately linked. Biblical heroine, Esther, was forced into a marriage to King Ahasuerus and later likely suffered a disturbing demise according to the Talmud. Esther, whose name is related to the Hebrew word ‘hester,’ meaning ‘hidden’, was silenced.

Like Esther, women anchored to unwanted marriages today don’t control their own destinies. They are subject to the whims of a controlling spouse, and they fear for their lives and futures. Like Esther, the voices of these women have beenhidden and silenced. Ultimately, Queen Esther sacrificed herself and saved the Jewish people. Consequently, we use Ta’anit Esther to publicize the plight of women like her, trapped by their recalcitrant husbands, hidden and silenced

I’ve been interviewing women like Hadassa, for about a year in the context of my Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Faculty of Law at Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status. My research involves lengthy qualitative, semi-structured interviews with diverse women all over Israel at different levels of observance to assess the extent to which religion acts as a resource or a roadblock in cases of domestic abuse, and how both civil/secular and religious legal systems respond to domestic abuse.

Hadassa offered a fresh new lens through which to understand domestic abuse in a way we can all learn from.

She asserts what the data reflects: abuse often starts gradually, quietly, imperceptibly, often packaging itself as love, duty and sacrifice.

My research has affirmed that although there isn’t more abuse in religious communities, there also isn’t less, a common misconception. Furthermore, women from religious backgrounds tend to experience prolonged abuse, often enduring abuse far longer than other women. Thus, they tend to endure many, if not all, types of abuse until they seek help, if they do so at all. Socialization (including a propensity towards shame, forgiveness, and evasion) and a lack of familial/communal/religious support are a few key factors that make religious women more vulnerable to abuse.

This means while the rate of violence is the same across all communities, the impacts seem to be far more widespread in observant ones.

As data is coming in, it reflects a few key areas which, if addressed, would drastically stifle this conflagration. They are so rudimentary it is both heart-breaking and inspiring:

  1. A troubling definitional issue.
  2. A significant educational gap.

Defining abuse

Language in law matters a lot, and so too in society. At the moment, in many jurisdictions, including Israel, where roughly half of the world’s Jewish population resides, there is either no definition of domestic abuse or there is a very narrow definition enumerating only physical and maybe sexual abuse: two of the eight types. This means that three-quarters of the abuses women are enduring are not being defined or understood as abuse both in the law and beyond. To be clear- I am referring to both legal systems.

Unsurprisingly, when I was working on my doctorate, completing the only comparative study between the civil laws attempting to remedy religious divorce refusal in Canada and New York, a major socio-legal hurdle was also a definitional one: ‘Who is an Aguna/ a chained woman’?

Today, working on my postdoctoral fellowship, I’m faced with the same constraints: ‘What is domestic abuse (family violence/domestic violence/intimate partner violence)’?

This remains a constraint; particularly in light of limited communal understanding and resources. Recently, a community member in Toronto reached out to me. While her husband granted a get relatively quickly, he is refusing a civil divorce leaving her legally chained to him in terms of their finances/debts, insurance, and all other civil matters. He quickly remarried religiously. Hundreds of people attended the cross-border wedding bringing together influencers and prominent Jewish families from Toronto and New York.

So, while this man did not officially leave first wife an ‘aguna’, what is our role as a community? How do we understand this? I understand it as polygamy (prohibited in civil and Jewish law), legal abuse and financial abuse. The first wife thinks of herself as a ‘civil aguna’. How is it that so many rabbis and laypeople that were approached to help saw no problem with this and allowed it to proceed?!

Condoning, but more than that, enabling this, perhaps atypical, abuse rather than shining a light on it and the myriad of other abusive behaviours Jewish women may endure, and which our communities and legal systems have allowed, cannot continue.

Understanding the phenomenon is a prerequisite to preventing it. We must define domestic abuse in the broadest, most inclusive manner. In fact, some jurisdictions are very slowly expanding the definition of domestic abuse to include “coercive and controlling behaviours” which includes the non-physical and which even includes get refusal according to some early precedent-setting decisions out of the UK and California. This change in the legal definition creates a trauma-informed shift in the way we understand abuse, as non-physical but no less coercive and controlling.

That said, as a scholar who does primary, empirical research; I have to admit that the law is just a small part of the story. While law is a potentially powerful force, that power can be manipulated and used in abusive ways both intentionally but also simply ignorantly: judges and lawyers aren’t always up to date on the latest legal amendments or on communal needs.

For example, as a speaker at a recent webinar sponsored by the B’nai Brith Matas Law Society, I suggested that lawyers not advise clients to withhold a get even in the name of zealous advocacy for their clients in the civil sphere. We are now working together to bring about a policy change, to amend the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers in Ontario, and eventually all of Canada.

I was only able to suggest this policy change due to the expanding definition of domestic abuse which includes religious divorce refusal as a distinct form of religious abuse, a type of “coercive and controlling behaviour” in the law. Thus, by suggesting withholding a ‘get’, lawyers would be advising clients to engage in, now criminal, “coercive and controlling behaviour”, a type of domestic abuse. (Husbands doing this of their own volition would be doing the same.)

We need to continue to work on defining domestic abuse broadly. But, it is up to us to be informed, to educate, to spread awareness.

The education gap

Law alone will not educate everyone, everywhere that abuse is not just physical or sexual. Education at every level: for lawyers and judges, rabbis and bride/groom teachers, schools, yeshivas and in homes is fundamental to actually begin seeing impacts in the law and in our society. Most importantly, young women must be educated.

So many of those I interview say they didn’t know it was abuse, they didn’t have the language for what they were experiencing. They thought it was ‘normal’ since they never heard that it wasn’t. Not educating people does not make it so that they will never experience abuse, it simply doesn’t prepare them if they will.

“Our days are short but the work is plentiful…you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to neglect it” Pirkei Avot 2:15-16

Throughout generations, women passed the torch. Esther. Penny. Hadassa. They started the work but there is so much left for us all to do. We all have communal obligations in the face of domestic abuse.

As we celebrate Purim, with many dressing up to retell the story of Esther, remember, that behind those masks may be an abused woman, hidden and silenced. See them, acknowledge them, talk to them, hear them, believe them, stand up for them, support them, fight for them and raise them up.

Penny Krowitz supported countless women with JWIC/AEVAW. Let us pick up where she left off. This article is dedicated in her memory.

Dr. Yael C.B. Machtinger is an Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellow at Bar Ilan Law School’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and a Law and Society professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, working on her first book, a  comparative study of Jewish divorce refusal between Toronto and New York. Contact her at [email protected].