Clergy Resource Center
Every time someone publicly addresses domestic abuse, whether it's speaking from a pulpit or writing about it in a newsletter, a victim or one of their loved ones comes forward to seek help. Clergy and community leaders play a critical role in lighting the way for individuals experiencing abuse to find the help they need to create a safer life for themselves and their families.
Domestic abuse occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate as in the general population – 15-25% – and the abuse takes place among all branches of Judaism and at all socio-economic levels.1 Studies show that abuse occurs in every denomination of Judaism in equal percentages, and we see abuse in all communities including the unaffiliated. Abuse takes place at all socio-economic levels.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone. I think most Jewish people think it can never happen to them or does not happen within the Jewish community. I felt this way too before I experienced it, and I never could have imagined that I would be in this situation. But I have learned otherwise.- JCADA Client, 2006
Cultural Issues Facing Jewish Victims
Parashah Pieces: Divrei Torah [Sermons] Samples & Inspiration
- It is clear from the very beginning that within every human being is a spark of divinity. Each person is of inestimable worth. An abuser is determined to destroy the “tzelem" in his victim The victim must be helped to realize that their spark of the divine can never be destroyed.
- Why does the verse add the words “before God”. These words appear superfluous. The following comment is offered in the Etz Chayim commentary, “God deemed their behavior corrupt, but they themselves saw nothing wrong with it.” In cases of domestic abuse, it is common for the abuser to consider his behavior as perfectly normal and fitting. Our tradition holds us to God’s standards and not human standards.
- The repetition of “I am the Lord/ Anee Hashem” in these two verses reminds us that God is a part of our lives even in the most “intimate” of settings. Abuse and indecency in a family is not a private matter but an offense against God. Additionally the phrase “…of which man shall live/ v’chai bachem” has been understood by the Rabbis as the basis for arguing that martyrdom is prohibited except in three cases; murder, incest, and adultery. One should die rather than compromise one’s sexual propriety. How much the more so, one should not commit an act of sexual abuse.
- What a powerful image. Taking advantage, abusing others, is not merely a personal offense, the collective is defiled as well.
- Martin Buber understood this commandment (love your neighbor as yourself) as being connected to the preceding one, “you shall not take vengeance.” Because all human beings are part of the same body, to hurt another person in an effort to get even is to hurt part of oneself. He compares it to a person whose hand slips while holding a knife and he stabs himself. Should he stab the offending hand that slipped, to get even with it for hurting him?... So it is, when we, in anger hurt another person, not understanding we are all connected. ( Etz Chayim Torah and Commentary p. 697)
- Commonly understood as fasting, v’ee’nee’tem et nafshotaychem, more precisely, means practicing self-denial or better; self-control. To be human, fully human, is to have control over one’s baser impulses. Rather than seeing v’ee’nee’tem et nafshotaychem as to punish oneself (fasting as self-flagellation), we can understood the mitzvah as an effort to draw closer to God by leaving the animal part of ourselves aside. Godliness is about controlling ourselves. The animalistic side of ourselves seeks to control others.
- Harold Kushner in the Etz Chayim Torah and Commentary offers the following insight into this verse from P'nai Yehoshua. “The jubilee year brings freedom not only to slaves but also to the slave owners, freeing them from the dehumanizing situation of having such power over other human beings.” An abuser asserts dominance over his/her victim attempting to degrade and demean the other person. Our verse reminds us that the abuser is also demeaning and degrading him/herself.
- Far from seeing “your home as your castle”, Jewish tradition sees one’s home as place to practice holiness in word as in deed. According to Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, “True holiness sanctifies the seemingly mundane activities of running a household. One who behaves in a elevated manner in one’s own house is truly a holy person.”
- Harold Kushner in the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary offers the following insight into thisverse. “The verse is interpreted homiletically to teach that one should be the same person at homeas away from home, in private as in public.” Clearly, our tradition understood that there is greattemptation to act irresponsibly when not subject to the scrutiny of others. Being a person ofintegrity requires great self-disciple and yirat shamayim, a real sense that God is watching.
- The prophet Hosea sees the relationship of Israel and God as the relationship between husband andwife. The repentant wife, Israel, will be accepted back by God, the forgiving husband. The restoredrelationship will be one of partners (eesh v’eesha) and not of master (ba’al) and servant.
- According to the Ktav Sofer (Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, 19th Hungarian rabbi), peace bebegins in the home, then extends to the community, and finally to the all the world. Here again, wesee the Jewish view that decency radiates from inside out and not the outside in.
- The light of the menorah pushes back the darkness of the world. The Chanukah menorah shedslight when the world experiences its greatest darkness during the winter solstice. We, as Jews, bearresponsibility to shed light on the dark places in our community where injustice and abuse abide.
- Spreading evil reports about the Land of Israel led to an entire generation’s demise in the desert.Gossip and lashon ha’rah is rightly condemned in our tradition. And yet, our hesitancy to practiceevil speech should not prevent us from following up on suspicions that someone is being abused.Passing on one’s suspicions of mistreatment to a rabbi is the right thing to do!
- According to Rashi, “From here we derive that one should not persist in dispute because Mosessought them out to conciliate them with peaceful words (b’divrei shalom).” Humility and puttingaside ego is an important lesson that we learn from Moses, our Teacher. Perhaps, this played aneven more critical role in the life of Moses who was prone to act out on his anger.
- According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 60a), Balaam said these words when he saw that the tents ofthe Israelites were arranged so that their entrances made it impossible for a family to see inside thetents of others, showing respect for privacy. And yet, Balaam was a pagan prophet whose donkeysaw more clearly than he. Perhaps we need to look more carefully than Balaam. What appears onthe outside to family purity and modesty might on the inside be filled with violence and abuse.
- Pinchas, the zealous defender of the faith of Israel and the people of Israel, is given a covenant ofpeace. Was this a reward for his zealous act or was this an antidote for his destructive impulse?Commentators offer various interpretations. What we can say for sure is that peace is possibleeven after psychic trauma like abuse. Perhaps that peace is incomplete (hinted at by the brokenletter vav in the word “shalom” as it’s written in the Torah scroll), but it is peace nonetheless.
- The view that wives are subservient to their husbands is certainly present and undeniable in Jewishtradition. Even though the Rabbis of the Talmud narrowed the applicability of this law, the manwas still dominant in many aspects of halacha. Some men today continue to use this worldview asjustification for spousal abuse. Sometimes we do this type thing and we argue that Jewish traditiongives us a justification.
- If Biblical tradition insists on a city of refuge for a inadvertent killer, how much the more so shouldwe provide places of refuge for the victims of domestic abuse. JCADA helps such victims get thelegal, emotional, and physical refuge that they need.
- “Words” in Hebrew are devarim. Devarim also means “things”. This double meaning of devarim reminds us that words have substance. Abusive words do damage that is lasting. Domestic abuse often is verbal abuse. Words that demean, words that debase are weapons in the arsenal of the abuser.
- This commandment is worded differently in Hebrew than the ninth commandment is worded in Exodus (Ex. 20:13). Literally, this commandment means, “You shall not be a worthless witness against your neighbor.”Victims of domestic abuse are found in every congregation in our community. We must be worthy witnesses to their plight. Domestic abuse often happens behind closed doors but the tell tale signs are evident to those who know what to look for. We need to be those people who know what to look for.
- “Shema” means not only to hear but to “listen” and to “understand” and to “do”. Our Jewish community needs to listen when a victim of abuse speaks. All too often, we close our ears. We must listen deeply and patiently and providing them the support they need.
- The Jewish home is to be a place of sanctity. For our ancient ancestors, the outside world was filled with debased practices. Bringing an idol into the home meant the moral and spiritual corruption of that home. In our day, idols may not be gold and silver depictions of Baal and Astarte but the pursuit of the material. Power and envy must be barred from our homes lest we tear apart the very relationships we hold most dear.
- Financial control is often a devastating tool in the arsenal of the abuser. He manipulates the victim with constant threats that he will leave her destitute. The wealth is his and he can use it as a bludgeon.
- According to the Talmud, one who ignores the needy is like an idolater (BT Ket. 68a). Also, it is forbidden to insult the poor or accuse them of being undeserving. How easy it is for us to ignore the Jewish victims of domestic abuse. We say to ourselves, “this doesn’t happen in a Jewish household.”All too often, we look the other way because Jewish domestic abuse makes us uncomfortable.
- How many times have we watched the news and seen that a terrible murder (or murders) has resulted from a “domestic situation”? Domestic abuse often leads to the shedding of innocent blood. Our ancient ancestors felt compelled to perform an expiation ritual when a body was discovered and the assailant was unknown. “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” (Deut. 21:7) Can we truly say that “our eyes did not see it done”?
- This parasha mandates repeatedly that constraints be placed on the powerful in their treatment of the vulnerable, particularly in domestic situations. Whether it is the captive woman taken in war or the unloved wife or the wife accused of not being a virgin, the more powerful male is constrained by the laws of the Torah to treat her justly and within a legal process. Though the particular procedures trouble our 21 st century sensibilities, the general aim of the Torah is constrain the ability of the husband to abuse his spouse.
- Why does the Torah set this out as particularly horrible curse? Doesn’t the blind man grope about in the dark as he gropes about in the light? Yes, but in the light others can give him help whereas in the dark, he is completely alone. (BT Meg. 24b). When we fail to shine a light on domestic abuse, we curse the victims with darkness. She gropes around with no one to help her. She has been victimized twice.
- All too often, we humans surrender our God given ability and right to choose. In situations ofdomestic abuse, the abuser and the abused must know they have choice. The abuser can choose tostop his/her abusive behavior and the abused can make the difficult choice to seek help andseparate herself from the abuser.
- Reaching out for help requires strength and courage. Just as Moses reassures the people Israel thatthey will not be alone, God will be with them, so we must reassure the victims of domestic abusethey are not alone. Not only will God be with them, but we will be with them as well. Isolation is anally of the abuser!
- Even though Moses will not enter the land of Israel personally, he will see it from a distance. He willglimpse what is possible for his children. Viewing the “Promised Land” seeing what is possible notonly for her/himself but for his/her children is a necessary step in the journey of the abused tosafety and a better life. The abused often can only see more wilderness ahead. With the help ofJCADA, the possibility of a brighter future is revealed.
- The parting words we offer as we finish the Torah remind us that endings are always difficult. Weare creatures of habit. Often we would prefer to remain in a situation, even a bad situation, ratherthan starting anew. Some wonder why a victim of abuse remains with an abuser. Though thereasons are complex, one reason is endings, even necessary endings, require great strength.
Check back soon. More parashot to come!
Prayers, Sermons & Text Studies, Jewish Women International
Holiday Guides: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts, Jewish Women International
1Abramson, Sarah & Cora Peterson. (2011). “You know a Jewish woman sufferingfrom domestic abuse”: Domestic Abuse and the British Jewish Community. JewishWomen’s Aid.; Giller, B. & Goldsmith, E. (1980). All in the Family: A Study of Intra-familial Violence in the Los Angeles Jewish Community [unpublished master’sthesis]. Los Angeles, CA: Hebrew Union College and University of SouthernCalifornia.