Divrei Torah & Jewish Holidays

Sukkot & Domestic Abuse

September 11th, 2017

Although shalom bayit – or peace in the home – is a central tenet of Judaism, it is not the reality in many homes where the constant threat of abuse continues to erode the fabric of family and community life.

This year, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot falls in October, which is also National Domestic Violence Awareness month. The sukkah, a temporary structure that Jews live in (or perhaps just eat or sleep in) during this festival, reminds us of the difficult times moving between Egypt and the promised land for the Israelites and represents the fragility of life. Luckily, most of us only have to live in a sukkah for eight days of the year.  Abuse victims, however, live in a metaphorical sukkah every day. 

This Sukkot, we invite you to tie a purple ribbon to your sukkah as a reminder that not all in our community dwell in peace and safety in their homes. Help show that it is our responsibility to support victims of domestic abuse to become empowered and live safely, educate the community about domestic abuse and appropriate responses, and prevent future generations from suffering domestic abuse. 

Click on the purple ribbon below to download and print this ribbon for your sukkah.

Parshat Emor 5777

Eye for an eye.  tooth for a tooth. עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן One of the most misunderstood phrases in the Torah.  Found in our parasha and in Exodus. Never meant literal, vigilante justice/revenge.  Always meant monetary compensation.  Value of an eye and subsequent costs due to the victim by the perpetrator who inflicted the loss of an eye. Rabbis of the Talmud go out of their way to make this point.  Devote considerable thought and verbiage in Mesechet Baba Kama. One of the first sections of the talmud that I studied in rabbinical school.

As it proceeds, this tractate deals with increasingly serious kinds of personal injury. It begins by discussing inadvertent damage caused by a goring ox or a spreading fire; then it goes on to deal with theft, which deliberately inflicts damage to property. Then in Chapter Eight, the rabbis turn to the most serious type of all, the deliberate infliction of bodily injury, including death. And right at the start, they are confronted with the biblical edict that personal injuries are supposed to be punished by inflicting the same injury on the attacker—“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

Yet this principle is directly contradicted by the mishna in Bava Kamma 83b, which has nothing to say about reciprocal injuries. Rather, the mishna says that “one who injures another” is liable to pay five kinds of penalties: “for damage, for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation.” In other words, the mishna starts from the assumption that the penalty for injury is the payment of money.

The Rabbis in the Gemara offer logical arguments as to why the Torah text could never have meant eye for an eye literally and then the Gemara proceeds to discuss in painstaking detail just how one calculates compensation for damage, pain, medical costs, loss of livelihood and humiliation.  

This talmudic discussion has remained with me for now over 35 years.  Fascinated by the rabbinic preoccupation with acheiving justice in our world while at the same time maintaining our decency.  Great deal of which to be proud.  And yet, this fascination leads me also to question a blind spot in the rabbinic quest for justice. Why is it that the concern for justice and fair compensation to the generic victim has traditionally not been extended to the victims of domestic abuse, the vast majority, of course, being women?  All too often the Jewish community has turned away from this injustice, from the victims so desperately in need of compensation.  Is it patriarchal privilege? Perhaps.  Is it the so called sanctity of the home?  Is it the sense of shanda/shame?  This could not possibly happen in a Jewish home, so we’d rather look the other way.

I simply don’t know fully.  Whatever the reason for this moral blindspot, the time is long overdue or us to focus the Jewish mind and heart on the victims within our own communities, our wives, our daughters our mothers.  And so a question...What is fair compensation for a bruised limb, a broken jaw?  Important question but a secular question

A different question....What is the fair compensation for a battered soul and for a shattered heart.  This too is an important question and a very Jewish question.  A question that each and every day JCADA, Jewish Coalition for Domestic Abuse attempts to answer.

JCADA provides assistance to victims of domestic abuse in the Jewish community, while also serving people of different faith and ethnic backgrounds.  Assistance is clinical, legal, financial, wellness/healing, educational and advocacy.  Abuse they deal with is not only physical, also financial, emotional, verbal and spiritual.  And what is the fair compensation that JCADA provides...a chance to have their dignity back, a chance to have their life back, a chance to have their freedom back

This Shabbat rabbis throughout our area are speaking from the bimah about confronting domestic abuse in the Jewish community.  Mother’s Day weekend was chosen by JCADA.  Why?  Of course to note that honor and revere and love is the norm and community standard.  But this standard is not universal.  In every congregation there is someone suffering in silence, a Jewish victim of abuse and they need, they deserve our help.  And of course, this Shabbat we celebrate with Alex and Madelin and their families the joys of Jewish marriage, the promise of ahavah, ahvah, shalom, v’reyoot. But this promise requires work and effort and self-control.  The reality has always been that there are those who will violate the sacred intimacy of marriage and we can no longer turn away from those who deserve justice and our loving support.

Eye for an eye.  Should speak these words with pride but only if we work to support those within our own family that are crying out for justice and love.

Rabbi Ben Shull

Shared with permission from Rabbi Ben Shull

In honor of Mother’s Day Weekend, the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA) has urged Rabbis across the region to raise awareness about issues of domestic abuse. Sadly, one in four women, across all race and class lines, experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, whether it's emotional, verbal, sexual or financial. 

Recently, I was invited to chair JCADA’s Clergy Task Force, helping the organization expand its reach throughout our larger community, and sensitizing its staff to issues of Jewish culture and Jewish values that can inform best practices with clients. I am continually impressed with JCADA’s staff and facility, and feel thankful that our community is blessed with their presence.

This Shabbat, we read a story in the parsha about a young man known as the Mekalel, the blasphemer, who curses God as a result of his misfortunes. The full picture of the plight of the Mikalel is complex, and shrouded in uncertainty in the text. However, many of the commentaries suggest that his mother was the victim of intense abuse, which subjected him to a painful upbringing as a child. Ultimately, the boy’s transgressions go too far for the courts, but before he is punished, God requires of all who heard his misdeeds, to lay their hands upon him in an odd sentencing ritual. This scene invites comparisons to the “laying of hands” on a guilt offering, before it is sacrificed for atonement. It is as if God wanted the community to share in the responsibility of this young man’s plight. To remind them that in the future they must become more attentive to the abuses within their community, and provide the necessary support before it is too late.

May those who experience abuse find open doors in our community, and also know the non-judgmental, loving, professional support available to them at JCADA. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Uri Topolosky

Shared with permission from Rabbi Uri Topolosky.