Domestic Violence: A Jewish Issue, Too

During Jewish holidays and festivals, many of us recite the
familiar blessings for our loved ones. As a Jewish communal professional for 30
years and a synagogue member for 23 years, I wonder why congregations don’t devote the
same time and attention during religious services to discussions of Jewish
family issues as we give to prayers for the Jewish family. The former might
make the latter more meaningful.

One of these issues is domestic violence, in all its
virulent forms and varieties. Jews, despite their reputation as a peaceful and
family oriented ethno-religious group, are not immune from domestic violence.

Nevertheless, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish men don’t
beat or sexually abuse their wives and children. When there is a publicized
incident involving a Jewish family, Jews gasp in horror and disbelief. After
all, these things don’t happen in the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most notorious incident in recent memory was the
1988 story of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, an upper-middle class Jewish
couple in New York City. Steinberg was an attorney who systematically beat his

Both Steinberg and Nussbaum beat their 6-year-old adopted
daughter, Lisa, and it was Steinberg who struck the blow that killed her. When
this violence was discovered and during the subsequent trial, this family was
headline news in this country. How could a Jewish couple be so physically
violent? Yes, Jews commit acts of domestic violence, like our gentile

It is estimated that 2 million women in the United States
suffer as victims of spousal-partner abuse each year, and that between 3,000
and 4,000 battered women in this country die each year from physical abuse.
Equally tragic is that 2,500 abused children in the United States die each year
from abuse. Figures show that 95 percent of the perpetrators of domestic
violence are men.

The incidence of domestic violence in the Jewish community
approximates the incidence in the general community. Domestic violence is an
equal opportunity phenomenon. It transcends racial, religious, ethnic,
geographic, sexual orientation and socioeconomic boundaries. Children who are
victims of abuse often become abusive as adults, abusing their children and
spouses or partners.

In Jewish homes, there is an intensified shame and stigma
associated with family violence. When there is violence in the Jewish family,
both victims and perpetrators go through great pains to conceal it from their
friends, employers, clergy and other segments of their social and community
life. Jewish victims tend to go to family and friends for shelter and financial

What can the Jewish community do?

Spokespeople in the Jewish community, such as rabbis,
educators and other Jewish communal professionals, should learn the following:

1. Signs and symptoms of victims, as well as perpetrators.

2. Mandatory reporting requirements, with respect to child
and elder abuse.

3. Local community resources, such as the community’s Jewish
Family Service. The staff there can provide many direct services and refer the
calling party to other important resources, such as domestic violence shelters,
law enforcement agencies, other social service agencies, legal assistance,
medical care and financial assistance.

4. Rabbis and other congregational leaders should talk about
domestic violence at religious services, in children’s classrooms and in
adult-education programs. Domestic violence issues should be on the curriculum
for all age groups, as prominent as Torah study. Identify religious and sacred
texts and traditions that are the foundations for the sanctity of life and
teach them to all congregational members.

While we are talking here primarily about physical abuse,
let’s remember that relationship abuse can also be economic, emotional, verbal
and sexual. All forms of abuse are seriously damaging to individuals and

If you know someone who is being abused, be supportive and understanding.
Help the victim develop a safety plan and assist the victim in securing
assistance to ensure survival, safety and recovery.

If our religious traditions believe that human life is
sacred, then domestic violence is wrong in any form and under any
circumstances. We have a collective responsibility to educate ourselves about
the problem and to do everything possible to prevent domestic violence and
reach out and help victims and perpetrators alike. Â

Mel Roth is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County.

Orthodox Women Rabbis

The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world

The furor raised in Orthodox circles by 27-year-old Haviva Ner-David, who is studying in Israel to become the world’s first Orthodox woman rabbi, should have been no surprise to anyone. Old habits die slowly, some say never. Although halacha (Jewish law) does not technically forbid a woman from becoming a rabbi, the Orthodox claim that tradition prevents a woman from becoming one. Furthermore, because a few minor limitations on a woman’s public role in a synagogue would prevent her from fulfilling some of the responsibilities of a pulpit rabbi, the Orthodox claim she should not seek ordination at all. This argument, of course, is fallacious. Aside from easy solutions to such minor obstacles, most male rabbis also do not perform the role of pulpit rabbis; nevertheless, they are ordained.

Still others argue that female ordination distracts and detracts from the most important issue in the Orthodox community, that is the issue of the agunah (the married woman who is unable to obtain her Jewish divorce from a recalcitrant husband). To the contrary. It is precisely the agunah issue that should inspire Orthodox women to become rabbis and have the right to interpret halacha.

Historically, the rabbis have been the sole interpreters of Jewish law, the judges of conflicts affecting Orthodox Jews and the deciders of Jewish legal issues. The Orthodox rabbinate has been comprised only of men. Ergo, Jewish justice and legislation has been the exclusive domain of men. And they have miserably failed in that job, especially in the areas of Jewish law that adversely impacts women, such as the get (divorce) and chalitzah (the body of law that prevents a childless widow from remarrying unless her deceased husband’s brother releases her to do so).

The myriad examples of rabbinical impotence and incompetence in this area of Jewish law are staggering. Witness the male rabbis who failed to obtain a get for a woman even after they turned over the extorted funds to the husband. Read accounts of the severely beaten wife being urged by the rabbis to obtain her get by giving her abusive husband the money to appeal his battery conviction. Listen to the tale of the widow whose child died before her husband did in an auto accident, and was thus forced to beg and barter her freedom from her brother-in-law because, as a childless widow she was bound to her husband’s brother by Jewish law. Notice the Orthodox rabbis squirm to admit that the effects of Jewish divorce laws wreak abominable horrors on Orthodox women and children, but that they “cannot change halacha.” It is time to respond with the paraphrase of a popular quote: “There is nothing wrong with Jewish law, only with the people who interpret it.”

It is no secret that men are the sole constituents of both the Orthodox pulpit rabbi and of the rabbis who head yeshivot. Women do not count in the minyan, they are not called up to the Torah, and their role in the synagogue is strictly silent and invisible behind the mechitzah. Furthermore, major yeshivot have been traditionally seats of Talmudic learning, reserved exclusively for men; thus, rosh yeshiva rabbis need not answer to any woman. It is no accident, therefore, that few Orthodox rabbis would deign to offend their male constituents, dare incur the wrath and disdain of their colleagues, or risk being shunned by the Orthodox rabbinate by decrying that any halachic interpretation of Jewish divorce law that allows Jewish men such unfettered power to abuse women and children is a chillul Hashem, and should not be tolerated.

When Orthodox women denounced the rabbis’ ineptitude with claims that, ‘where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way,’ these claims were dismissed by the rabbis as ravings of ignorant women. At the same time, women were deliberately prevented from learning Talmudic law because the rabbis claimed that the sages forbade the study of Gemara by women.

How right they were. It is precisely this forbidden education that has opened women’s eyes to the need to help themselves. In a Canadian Orthodox community, women organized a mikvah strike when they became frustrated with the rabbis’ inability to help a woman obtain her get. Not surprisingly, the mikvahs did not remain closed for long before the men assured that the agunah obtained her get. But Orthodox women are beginning to recognize that such “Lysistrata” strategy is not only demeaning to both women and men, it has very little impact on the agunah problem at large. Orthodox women are now realizing that using their intellect and education will be far more effective in bringing global solutions to oppressed women and children in the Jewish world.

While the title “rabbi” does not automatically confer wisdom or godliness in the eyes of the public, it does validate the opinions of its possessor. It is an unfortunate truism that in the Orthodox community, when a rabbi makes a halachic decision that may be contradicted by an eminent scholar who does not hold the title “rabbi,” the populace will automatically accept the rabbi’s interpretation, even if the rabbi’s opinion is indefensible. (This phenomenon is not unique to the Orthodox community. A university professor with a Ph.D. may be spouting nonsense during his lecture, but if his theory is rebutted by a scholar who lacks the Ph.D. initials after his name, it is unlikely that many will disregard the professor’s assessment.) Thus, when Rabbi Avi Weiss proposed, at the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, that in lieu of ordaining women as rabbis, these Talmudically educated women should be given the title morot (teachers), he was oblivious to the psychological impact that the title “rabbi” confers upon its recipient. Can anyone deny that in a halachic debate between rabbis and morot, the rabbis will always prevail, regardless of the validity or their opinion?

Orthodox women do not seek to become rabbis simply to “be like men.” To the contrary, Orthodox women have been traditionally trained to take private, rather than public, roles in the Orthodox community. However, when male rabbis consistently shirk their duty to do justice for all Jews, there is little alternative to allowing women to test their remedies. The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world.

Is this phenomenon likely to occur within the next few years? Are we destined to see mass ordination of women by 1998 or 1999? Not likely. But those who predict the permanent demise of such a movement will have a better shot at stuffing an escaped genie back into its bottle.

Alexandra Leichter is a family-law attorney in Beverly Hills, and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood Village Synagogue.

All rights reserved by author, 1997.