Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community

Margaret E. Retter, Esq.

Domestic violence(1) is a universal problem that cuts across every class in our society. It does not discriminate on the basis of religion, culture, age, education, or economics. The Jewish community, including the Orthodox Jewish community, is no exception.

Family life is of central importance to Judaism. Judaism teaches that the home is a holy place and “peace in the home” (“shalom bayis”) is the ultimate goal for a Jewish family to achieve. Ideally, the Jewish home is the fortress of peace and tranquility. Central to this domestic tranquility is the woman, who is responsible for creating shalom bayis. Thus, a battered Jewish woman deems herself (and is made to feel by her abuser) a failure as a Jewish wife, mother, and peacekeeper.(2)

Jewish girls and women are taught by their families, community, schools and culture that Jewish men make “the best husbands.” Why? Because there is a myth that a Jewish husband “will never” drink, use drugs, gamble, cheat or hit. Moreover, Jewish law states that a man should honor his wife above himself. Therefore, the very idea that violence could occur in a Jewish home contravenes a principle tenet of Jewish law and its reverence for family life. What we refuse to believe is that the husband of one of our friends — one who prays daily, wear a “talis” (prayer shawl) and “tefillin” (phylacteries), strictly observes the laws of “kashrus” (kosher laws) and Shabbos, and learns Torah — could ever treat his wife in a cruel and abusive manner. Moreover, a Jewish victim’s reluctance to speak out against her spouse continues to generate the myth that domestic violence is absent in the Jewish community. This myth is so strong that when a husband batters or abuses his wife, the woman (wrongfully) thinks that she is to blame for the battering — that her spouse’s behavior is acceptable because she caused him to be angry. She feels that she is the only Jewish woman experiencing such abuse. These feelings are reinforced by the lack of discussion or acknowledgment in the Jewish community about domestic abuse. Therefore, the Jewish victim of abuse feels totally alone.

The premise that a Jewish husband would never harm his wife or children has been so widely accepted that reports of abuse by Jewish women are usually met with disbelief by the family of the victim, her Rabbi, her friends and the community. For years, when confronted with alleged cases of spousal abuse, rabbis, doctors, and lawyers preferred to hide behind the reassuring stance that “it doesn’t happen in Jewish families.” (Breaking the Silence; Domestic Violence in the Jewish Home, “Women’s World”, 1988).

Statistically, the difference between domestic violence in Jewish families and other families is that a Jewish woman remains in her abusive relationship 5-7 years longer than other women before seeking help. A Jewish woman is likely to be in her 30’s or 40’s before deciding to leave her husband. (Barbara Harris Transition Center, New York (JWI)). Many Jewish women feel a heavy responsibility for keeping the family intact and maintaining shalom bayis. Consequently, they may feel more guilt and will live with the abuse or violence for longer periods of time than non-Jewish women.

Unfortunately, in many cases, women of all ages are oblivious to the reality of their situation. Specifically, within the strictly Orthodox Jewish community, women are sheltered from the realities of the outside world. They know something “is wrong” with their marital relationship, oftentimes something “terribly wrong” but they “just cannot put their finger” on the problem. This uncertainty and unknowing may be due to their sheltered background or upbringing, or perhaps it is caused by the people they respect and hold so dear who tell them:

“You must never hurt your family;”

”Just accept it,… that’s what our mothers and grandmothers did;”

“It is your obligation as a good Jewish wife and mother…”

“He’s your husband; you have to respect him;” or

“He didn’t really mean it.”

There are other factors that belie a Jewish woman’s reluctance to seek and accept help from others. For instance, a Jewish woman/wife:

(a) tends to downplay the incident believing it to be her fault;

(b) engages in outright denial that she has been abused, as she is certain that no one will believe her anyway;

(c) does not want to publicize a private incident lest her family, friends and community make her an outcast and ostracize her and her children;

(d) does not have the ability to articulate the abuse to others because it is not physically apparent;

(e) fears that her “powerful” and “learned” husband will obtain custody of her children because he can afford “better” lawyers;

(f) fears reprisal from her husband and/or his family;

(g) lost all faith in the Jewish Courts (Beis Din) and the civil court systems;

(h) fears that if she “makes trouble” her husband will never give her the Jewish Divorce (Get), and that she will be an Agunah.

There may be certain repercussions to a woman for seeking help from her family and her community. Therefore, a Jewish woman may remain silent about being abused by her spouse. For instance, a woman may fear that:

(a) her parents will not believe that her husband is abusing her and will encourage her to go back to her husband (as often is the case);

(b) her family will not take her back into her family’s home due to financial costs, shame from the neighbors, and/or there is no room in the home for her and her children;

(c) her siblings will not be able to find a good shidduch (a potential husband or wife);

(d) a “divorced” child will shame the reputation of parents and family;

(e) her children will be unable to find a shidduch; or

(f) her children will reject her if she leaves her husband and blame her for their broken home.

Finally, Jewish women are reluctant to seek advice or help from Jewish-based agencies because they are embarrassed that their entire community will find out that they are being abused or battered. The Jewish community is very close-knit, especially within certain Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups, and these women fear that they will be known by someone at a local agency. And if anyone was to find out that she was being abused, her act of going “public” will disgrace her family and affect her and her children’s reputation in the community. Moreover, a Jewish woman may fear that:

(a) she and her family will be ostracized from their synagogue since her husband is a “pillar of the community” and gives lots of charity, and therefore, she is probably lying about the situation;

(b) she will not receive social invitations (i.e., Bar Mitzvah and wedding invitations). Oftentimes, a woman may actually be disinvited or requested not to attend a social gathering;

(c) her children will be asked to leave school because her husband failed to pay their tuition in revenge for her publicizing their situation;

(d) she will be isolated by her “friends” and the community; and

(e) her husband may, in retribution, deny her access to monetary funds, cancel credit cards, cancel her medical insurance, and refuse to pay the medical care for the children, or take away her car (which may be her only means of transportation in certain areas).

(f) she will be left penniless and dependent on charity from the community.

Thus, for the reasons stated above, and probably for many more that we have not listed, incidents of domestic abuse and/or violence in the Jewish community are believed to be significantly under-reported and misdiagnosed.

The most common hurdle that a Jewish woman must overcome is the fear that she will be unable to support herself and her children when she finally decides to leave her abusive husband. Many Jewish women marry young and have children right away so there was never an opportunity for her to learn any trades or skills. And once a Jewish woman leaves her husband, where is she to go with her children? There are very few programs nation-wide that identify themselves as serving Jewish battered women. There are very few shelters that address the specific needs of the Jewish woman, such as providing a kosher kitchen or kosher food, observing Jewish holidays, and understanding and providing for the religious educational needs of her children. And, only a couple of these shelters have employees that speak Hebrew or Yiddish.

There is also a myth that all Jewish people “have money” and, therefore, these women should not seek public assistance, even if it is a necessity because they had to leave their husbands. But even if women summon the courage to ask someone for financial assistance, there are scant Jewish organizations that could help them. There are free loan societies (Gemach funds) which lend monies for almost every need and occasion, such as engagement parties, weddings, caterers, bridal gowns, clothes for the family, flowers, tablecloth rentals, place settings, dresses for any occasion, and numerous other causes. BUT, for the Jewish woman who wishes to observe Jewish law and who must pay for a

Jewish Divorce (Get) or pay for legal assistance or for the fees of the Jewish Court (Beis Din), funds are mostly not available except by a few generous, private donors. Because of the lack of support for these women, albeit financial, social or emotional, most are trapped into staying in the abusive relationship.

As a matter of fact, Jewish law specifically addresses the appropriate behavior in which husbands should treat their wives and Jewish law has much to say regarding the obligations of a husband to his wife. Much of the information regarding Jewish legal positions is precedent from actual cases that arose before the codification of the Talmud. Just as in American law, the concept of judicial precedent in Jewish law is very powerful. For example:

(a) The Talmud states that if a man loves his wife as prescribed, his tent (home) will be a place of peace (Talmud Sanhedrin 76b);

(b) Rabbi Joseph Caro, in his legal code the Shulchan Aruch states that if a husband moved beyond the guidelines of acceptable behavior, the Jewish community should work to provide protection for the battered women;

(c) Rabbi Isserles (Rama) commented specifically on what the Jewish attitude is towards a man who strikes his wife. Rav Isserles wrote,

“ … A man who strikes his wife commits a sin… and if he does this frequently, it is in the hands of the (Jewish) Court to chastise him, and to excommunicate him, and to flog him in every kind of chastisement, and to force him to swear that he will not do it again. If he does not heed the word of the court…the Beis Din forces him to divorce her.” (Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer 154:3); and

(d) In the legal writings of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, a question arises regarding a man who strikes his wife. Rabbi Rothenberg replies that, “A Jew must honor his wife more than he honors himself. If one strikes his wife, one should be punished more severely that for striking another person, for one is enjoined to honor one’s wife, but one is not enjoined to honor another.” (Responsa Even haEzer # 297). In another question, Rabbi Rothenberg is asked about a man who persistently beats his wife. He responds in strong terms, “Rabbi P. Gaon rules that a husband who constantly quarrels with his wife must remove the causes of such quarrels, if possible, or divorce her and pay her ketubah, how much more so must a husband be punished, who not only quarrels, but actually beats his wife.” (Responsa Even ha Ezer #298)


There is no excuse for abusive behavior and no person should have to accept it or defend it.  This is not a situation that is invented, exaggerated, or a rarity. It is a “pernicious virus” within the community that will not go away. It can only be solved when all members of the Jewish community believe, support, defend and aid these victims.

(1) For the purposes of our discussion, we are defining the certain terms as follows: 1) “Domestic violence” (as opposed to the term “domestic abuse” which encompasses psychological, emotional, and economic abuse) denotes activities or behavior of a physically aggressive and criminal nature that may result in death or serious bodily injury (New York State Domestic Violence Survival Guide; Cliff Martini 2002; Looseleaf Publications). Although the residence is the usual place of occurrence, the violence can take place at the home of another person (family, friend or neighbor), the victim’s place of employment, a store, or in any public place. Domestic violence is not a private, family matter. It affects the family and the community and it is a menace to the safety and sanctuary of the home and a scourge upon the children. “Domestic abuse” encompasses behavior that is less physical but more psychological, emotional or economic in nature. Examples include ridiculing, “putting down,” yelling, threatening, intimidating, economic control, and other types of harassing or controlling behavior. There are different levels of abuse: (a) Non-Physical (yelling, screaming, threatening language) (b) Physical (pushing, shoving, slapping, assaulting) (c) Emotional (apologies, expressions of regret, promises to change).  “Domestic battering” is a consistent pattern of behavior that seeks to establish dominance, power and control over another through fear, intimidation, and the threat of physical, psychological, sexual or economic abuse and often escalates into the use of violence. Battering also occurs when the abuser believes that he/she is entitled to control his/her spouse, the abused being the “property” of the abuser. Furthermore, the abuser believes that violence is both acceptable and productive behavior. (Supra, N.Y.S. D.V. Guide; C. Martini at p. 5.) In addition to outright physical abuse, battering can include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, mental abuse, economic abuse or any variation of or combinations of the above, used against the spouse to instill fear, establish dominance, and secure control. No one deserves to be abused and no one has the “right” to abuse another. Sometimes both partners may engage in degrading behavior and/or violent conduct. Either the husband or wife can begin an incident, but ultimately both become embroiled in the argument. Now there are two victims plus those subjected to watching the behavior, usually the children. Children who observe their parents will “learn” this behavior and, oftentimes will treat their spouses in the same manner, thereby continuing the abusive behavior for generations.

(2) There are Jewish men who are abused, however, for purposes of this article, the woman/wife/mother will be referred to as statistics demonstrate that the percentage of women who are abused far outweigh the men who are abused, both in the “Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.”


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