January 19, 2019

Domestic Abuse & Child Abuse: What Is Our Response?

In recent weeks, the American public has been inundated with horrifying reports surrounding the actions of players in the National Football League. As one of the most lucrative sports enterprises in the world, a sui generis phenomenon among American athletics, the NFL is acclimated to violence and machismo on the field. But the latest rounds of news have little to do with football. Rather, it is something darker, something much more subversively pernicious: acts of wanton domestic violence and the feckless response from the highest levels of administrative oversight. What is at stake here transcends mere athletics, or even sports in general. Indeed, it [is] the lack of an ethical fortitude on the part of all the actors involved that makes these events truly disheartening.

Here is what has been happening: in recent weeks, it has come to light that Baltimore Raven’s running back Ray Rice punched and knocked out his fiancée (later wife) in a Las Vegas casino elevator, San Francisco 49er Ray MacDonald was accused of hitting his pregnant fiancée, and Minnesota Viking’s Adrian Peterson allegedly used a switch (a flexible branch from a tree) to discipline his four year old son.

How are we as Jews supposed to feel about issues pertaining to this level of domestic abuse and seemingly extreme child discipline (some may even call it abuse)? What are our guiding lights towards an ethical understanding of our normative behavior if placed in similar situations?

As sad as it is to report, nationwide, approximately one in five women are hit by their spouses or boyfriends. Additionally, there are about three million annual reports of child abuse (involving six million children); in 2010, 1,537 children died of abuse at the hands of a disciplining parent.

Throughout Jewish history, the sages were unequivocal about respecting women’s dignity: “…One who loves his wife like his own body and one who respects her more than his own body… you shall know that peace is upon your tent'” (Yevamot 62b). Resh Lakish (who one may compare to the superstar athletes of today, based on his life as gladiator before becoming a rabbi and scholar in Torah), shunned even those who considered abuse: “He who raises his hand to his friend, even if he doesn’t hit him, he is called an evil person” (Sanhedrin 58b;  Exodus 2).

In their time, the rabbis were very concerned that only self-disciplined men be granted access to marriage. Rama ruled that “a man who regularly gets angry and expels his wife, we coerce him to divorce…. it is not the way of Jews to hit their wives, for that is the way of idolaters” (Laws of Divorce, Even Ha’ezer 154:3). Verbal and emotional abuse as a means to control wives was also strongly denounced: “A man should always be wary of verbally or emotionally abusing his wife, for when her tears are found, verbal and emotional abuse is near” (Bava Metzia 59a). The rabbis even allowed violence to protect wives: “He who says ‘I will not feed or support [my wife]’—we hit him until he feeds [her]” (Shulchan Arukh, Even Ha’ezer, Laws of Divorce, 154:3). The Beit Yosef ruled that if a husband refused to stop the abuse,  …” we agree to take the matter to the non-Jewish courts to force a divorce…” (Gittin 88b; Beit Yosef, Even Ha’ezer 154:3).

For many years, it was myopically assumed that there was little or no domestic violence among Jewish families, even though the statistics for domestic violence measure that about 15-25 percent of households in all religions experience some form of such violence. Unfortunately, as part of a larger systemic problem, Orthodox wives who are abused tend to stay in their relationships up to seven years longer than other women before they begin seeking recourse against their cruel husbands. With an emphasis on marriage at an earlier age, bearing more children, fewer work skills, isolation from outside social services, and fear of retaliation deter action from these abused women.

In Baltimore, however, progress has been made. The Counseling, Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women (CHANA) opened in 1995, and the percentage of Orthodox women coming for therapy rose to about 30 percent. Since 2007, a series of public stories highlighting domestic violence and sexual abuse of children in Baltimore’s Orthodox and immigrant Jewish communities led victims to come forward and increased community support. By 2013, there were more than 40 volunteer therapists helping more than 200 people–many of whom were women and children, while young men from the community were recruited to help curtail violence and abuse. Considering all the obstacles and difficulties faced in one of our more insular communities, any progress in helping those facing attack should be lauded.

Unlike adult domestic violence, which has a more discerning eye among the American public, children are frequently invisible victims. Current government estimates are that neglect (more than 60 percent) comprises the majority of child abuse cases, followed by physical abuse (nearly 17 percent) and sexual abuse (9 percent, with about 3/4 of these abused by a family member). It is still difficult to quantify how widespread child abuse is in this country; nevertheless, any measurable percentage is a blight on our society. The arguments that have been surrounding Peterson’s use of a switch, that it is a cultural norm or that it was used on him disregard a broader issue, namely that such techniques are detrimental in the first place.

There are hopeful signs of meaningful change, though it still may take a long time for actualization. The NFL’s tepid actions were met with a thunderstorm of protest, from fans to sponsors: Anheuser-Busch, the “official beer” of the NFL, issued a statement that is was “not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code.” While the financial considerations of any team in the league should be secondary to the conversation about the treatment of women, we know that it is not. Nor should we be so to think naïve that the NFL is being truly altruistic by appointing an all female board to oversee issues relating to domestic violence.

Taking a broader view of the world, where are we to look for ways to improve the situation? India is one nation that has made some progress, moving from a society in which rapists were protected while victims were regarded as promiscuous liars, to one in which the public will cheer when rapists receive severe punishment. However, India is home to a large percentage of the world’s 150 million children who live on the streets (mostly males), and is also still home to 40 percent of all child brides, and it is estimated that during the current decade, some 18.5 million Indian girls younger than age 15 will be married. Rabbi Meir rejected this degrading custom, suggesting that parents must only “allow” their daughter to marry a learned, civilized, and respectful man (Pesachim 49b). So even this example, while not perfect, shows that there is much room for improvement not only with our athletes, but with average people as well.

Luckily, since 1993, reports of domestic violence have fallen by nearly two-thirds in the United State. Yet, efforts to expand funding and programs under a renewed Violence Against Women Act have been stalled in the Senate for several years by staunch Republican opposition. While the recent controversy has elicited strong condemnation of domestic violence, some NFL players and many in social media have defended Adrian Peterson’s beating of his child. Along with the efforts made to protect women against violent action, we should not allow such severe punishment aimed towards children simply because it has cultural roots in the region. Leaving scars are not only physically harmful, but they affect the psyche of the developing mind.  As a father of a three week old son, the very thought of using such disciplinary techniques alarms me very much.

We should be cognizant that many around the globe are stuck in systems where degradation of women is routine. It is our ethical and moral obligation to take action, through education and lobbying our elected officials, to ensure that the atrocities of domestic violence and child abuse are adequately addressed worldwide. Let us stand in solidarity against senseless violence. Let us break the cycle and promote equity wherever we can.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of six books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”