Denial Is Still The Jewish Community's Reaction to Domestic Abuse
When There Is No Shalom Bayit: (second of three articles)
Jewish men make the best husbands because they don't get drunk and they don't beat their wives.
According to this piece of folk wisdom, which has come down to our day, spousal abuse is believed to be a rare occurrence in Jewish marriage.
In May 2002, Marni Zarin looked at domestic violence in the Houston Jewish community. She found that the rate of abuse is comparable to the percent of abused women in the general population. In an unpublished paper, "Domestic Violence in Judaism: A View of the Jewish Community", Zarin reported that rate of domestic violence is constant over denominational differences; that is, the same percentage of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform women is abused.
Zarin, who is currently an associate at Baker Botts L.L.P., used Houston as a case study to examine how one Jewish community does and does not promote awareness that domestic abuse happens in Jewish homes, help Jewish victims of domestic violence, and try to prevent domestic abuse.
Bottom line: within the Jewish community, there is little awareness among men or women about this issue. There is a general denial that abuse even occurs in Jewish homes.
Zarin recommended that the Houston Jewish community needed to raise awareness about domestic violence in Judaism.
A year later, Zarin says "there is still quite a bit of denial in the Jewish community that this problem exists to the extent that it exists".
Although she does not specialize in domestic law, Zarin warned that a
Jewish batterer could bring a faith-based defense to explain why he abuses his wife by arguing that he needs to force her to maintain the home and shalom bayit (peace within the home). He could also argue that he is allowed to punish her through non-excessive beating or that she is not allowed to divorce him.
These arguments are not defenses for abuse, says Zarin, they are merely excuses.
"Contemporary scholars agree that abuse within a domestic partnership is not allowed in Judaism," says Zarin. "Men must honor their wives more than themselves."
In addition, says Zarin, shalom bayit is now considered an obligation of both partners. Even if a woman does not maintain shalom bayit, the husbandís only remedy is to divorce his wife.
"There are no Jewish faith-based defenses to battering oneís wife," says Zarin.
Toby Myers agrees that nothing has radically changed in the Houston Jewish community since Zarin's paper was written.
"Everybody is very sympathetic to the problem of domestic violence when they think it's outside the community," says Myers.
The Vice-Chairperson of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Myers often serves as an expert witness in cases involving domestic violence. Myers started the first battering group intervention in Houston.
"Domestic violence is a dunklecypher," says Myers. "In Yiddish, that means a dark number. Nobody knows what the number is. Nobody raises her hand.
"We tried to do a survey in this problem community through the American Jewish Committee. We put together a good survey and we had a consultant. When we got to the Federation for funding, they were cold about giving us money. They didn't like the idea."
Myers points out two Jewish women who were killed by their husbands in recent history. Both women were members of one Houston synagogue.
Murder is an extreme end of the entire spectrum of abuse. And in some ways, says Myers, it helps foster denial because a woman who is being subtlety abused looks at this and says 'that's not me'.
"Domestic abuse is based on power and control," says Myers. "I've heard Jewish women say "if I don't put up with some of this stuff, I'm putting my kids futures in jeopardy.
"When you marry, you don't think you're going to be done in by the person you marry. Yet you wouldn't go into business without planning about what might happen if the business fails. In a business you assume this is a partnership. In many marriages, it isn't a partnership. It's more like a boss with a secretary. She's supposed to simply clean out the top drawer of her desk and leave in the event of a divorce.
"These abused and battered women are not sitting somewhere out there. They are sitting in our synagogue pews."
For that reason, Myers believes every synagogue should have a protocol to deal with spousal abuse.
"A protocol acknowledges that a problem exists and you will take action," says Myers. "It is a way for the community to take responsibility."
Synagogue protocols begin with the Board passing a statement of commitment followed by a policy statement around the issues of abuse. This is followed by education so that the professional and lay leadership is prepared to deal with situations that come up and the general membership is educated and knows there are resources in the community.
In addition Myers advocates an education program for Jewish school kids about what goes into a good relationship.
"Maybe we should have a dating survey palm card available for teens in all girls restrooms in schools," she says. The palm card would ask does your boyfriend get mad if you talk to another guy? Do you have to call back immediately? These questions give youngsters an idea of what is appropriate and inappropriate in a relationship."
Houston area rabbis have declared domestic violence an issue. Many local rabbis speak on the issue during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Most rabbis also discuss the issue before a couple gets married.
However, Myers believes that too often, domestic violence is a problem that is rarely aired publicly in the Jewish community.
"I know of many women in the Jewish community who go to outlying hospitals and pay cash when they are seeking treatment for abuse in an ER," says Myers. "They don't want to bump into somebody they know in a Houston hospital.
"This tells me people are ashamed of what goes on. Most of the time, Jewish women will not seek help at a Jewish agency because they feel ashamed.
"That's one of the issues we work on. Not to be ashamed if this is happening to you. You didn't deserve it. Nobody deserves to be beaten or abused."