September 14, 2019

Women Fleeing Domestic Violence

Thirteen year-old Joseline, a Guatemalan migrant seeking asylum with father Jose Luis, cries after crossing the Rio Grande and turning herself in to U.S. Border Patrol in Hidalgo, Texas, U.S., August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not abase any widow or orphan.” — Exodus/Shmot 22:20-21

“A person is obliged to help orphans and widows, in that their soul is downcast. … One doesn’t speak to them other than kindly or treat them with anything but respect … the person who attacks them or vexes them or hurts them or dominates them or ruins their income violates a commandment … .” — Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot
Deot, 6:10

“[To claim asylum] the applicant must establish that race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant.” — 8 U.S. Code, 1101

Winding through our Torah is a persistent refrain: the commandment to care for the widow, people without fathers, and strangers. It requires not only our empathy and friendship, but also material support, through a share of our harvest or our income (Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:19-22). What do these three types of people have in common?

In the patriarchal society of ancient Israel, each of these groups was comprised of people who did not have empowered men to look after their interests. Our Torah teaches that in a world riven by hierarchy, the well-being of the least empowered among us is a binding responsibility.

These commandments give rise to a way of being in the world. Our rabbis taught us to extend to society at large our ethical principles in dealing with one another.

What has this to do with immigration policy? The Trump administration routinely denies asylum to women fleeing domestic violence committed in countries where legal authorities ignore or stigmatize them. These women are precisely the kind of people our Torah commands us to defend; people who, in societies of privileged male power, have no individuals or institutions to protect them.

Our Torah teaches that the well-being of the least empowered among us is a binding responsibility.

We would never seek to impose Torah law on our country. The separation between the state and religious institutions in the U.S. is a structure religious minorities such as ours rely on to protect our own rights. But as Jews, we are obliged to rely on the moral grounding of our Torah as we respond to urgent issues of our day.

U.S. law provides for asylum, because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Women fleeing domestic violence are members of a particular social group. While most domestic violence is perpetrated in private, each transgression contributes to a social structure that keeps women disenfranchised and vulnerable. This is political violence — violence that enforces power differences between categories of people. It takes the form of beatings, mutilations, rape and murder on a horrific scale. Its victims come to us as strangers, traumatized and terrorized, seeking shelter and a chance to start again.

The commandment to aid and care for widows, orphans and strangers is a commandment to identify with and uphold people who are categorically disempowered and wronged because of their place on a power pyramid. Applying this ethic to today, we are called to speak up in opposition to President Donald Trump’s administration in favor of women and their children fleeing the systemic toleration of domestic violence.

Returning to Maimonides, we learn “No joy is greater and more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. One who gladdens the heart of these unhappy people imitates the Shechinah, as it is written: ‘[I am] … to revive the spirit of the downtrodden, to revive heart of the crushed.’ ” — Isaiah 57:15. Hilchot Magila v’Hanukah, 2:17


Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach and writes for Shondaland and various blogs.