Spouse Abuse Revisited

One of my mother’s favorite expressions whenever she saw us bringing home the latest fad was: “Wie es christelt sich, azoy es yiddelt sich.”  So I was not surprised to learn that several years after the non-Jewish world “discovered” spousal (and child) abuse, the religious community has discovered that it faces its own spousal abuse crisis.

In fact, the dimensions of the problem are apparently so grave that it deserves its own “Special Section” in Jewish Action with no fewer than three articles and several pictures of grave-looking men assembled to hear the bearers of bad news and to mobilize against the crisis.  In the articles, we are told that spousal abuse is an “ugly problem” in the Orthodox community, but the author cites no authoritative sources nor gives us any hard data.  We are told in another article to look past the ehrlicher yid facade (forget that every Jew is omed b’cheskas kashrus).  And we learn that along with hilchos niddah, young Jewish women will now be taught how to recognize a potential spousal abuser (forget learning the fine art of compromise, so necessary to a good marriage, or even, God forbid, a lesson or two on how to make a better kugel).  Only grudgingly are we told that the problem is “limited.”  Finally, of course, the unstated presumption of all the articles is that it is only men who are abusers, that there is only one side to every story and that there are never any extenuating circumstances.

My point here is not to argue whether or not spousal abuse exists.  It certainly does.  But if we are going to import non-Jewish attitudes and accept that we have become more like the non-Jewish world in our behavior, then let us also learn from what they have learned; that lesson, quite simply, is that this problem does not lend itself well to the glare of the public spotlight.  What constitutes abuse is a subjective evaluation, exaggeration and outright lying are frequent, and the accusations frequently occur in the midst of divorce where both parties’ motives may be subject to doubt.  Therefore accusations of abuse must be handled with care and finesse.  Otherwise, innocent people will be hurt and reputations destroyed.  Another way of saying this is that when we decide to look under every rock to find a problem, then we have already made the determination that we will find the problem regardless of whether it really exists and regardless of who gets hurt.

Over the past several years in the Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz has chronicled two stories of how the subject of abuse (in this case child abuse) moves quickly from the awareness stage to being presumed a crisis until it finally evolves into a witch hunt.  If the accusation was made, therefore it must be true.  Lives were destroyed, communities torn asunder by accusations that were ultimately disproven or impossible to prove.  Must this also be the way it works in our community?

Unfortunately, I know of these matters first hand.  My wife and I were divorced about the time of the OJ Simpson trial, but not before she had accused me–publicly–of being cruel and abusive.  I heard myself referred to as the OJ Simpson of our community and a group of women mobilized to telephone rabbanim around the world demanding that I be denied access to my children.  My wife did not need to present one shred of evidence.  The presumption today in the world at large, and therefore in the religious community, is that if a woman makes an accusation of abuse then that accusation becomes incontrovertible fact.  I will never forget a conversation I had with one of my neighbors after the divorce.  “Oh, yes,” she said, ”Your wife told us you beat her, but I figured she deserved it.”  I won’t comment on her belief that a woman could deserve a beating.  My point is simply that she never challenged the accusation.  It was accepted as fact.

Eventually I was “exonerated” in Bais Din.  But it didn’t really matter.  I had been tainted by the accusation and have found it difficult to get shidduchim ever since.  Now when I meet a shadchan or a potential mate, I feel that I must bring up the issue first before the shadchan or the woman hears it from someone else.  It introduces a poison into the relationship before it even starts.  Tell me: who was the real victim here?

In my opinion, the greatest danger to interpersonal relationships that the religious community faces is the fraying bonds between man and wife and the rapidly rising divorce rate.  Courses which teach young women to recognize potential signs of spousal abuse will only serve to introduce more distrust into the marital relationship and cause those bonds to fray even more.

Do we really need to assume that every problem facing the non-Jewish world is ours as well?  And do we need to handle these issues in the same unsatisfactory manner?  Do we really have so little faith in our rabbanim that we believe that cases of spousal abuse can’t be handled privately or do we really need to introduce every “technique,” every task force, every course developed by those whose hashkafos are not ours?

I know that my opinion is contrary to the politically correct opinion at large today.  However,  I fear for the innocent lives, such as my own, which will be hurt now that we have introduced this poison into our midst.

Name withheld by request

United States


Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb Responds:

            As one who has had extensive experience in the field of domestic violence in the general and Orthodox Jewish community, as a psychotherapist, as a congregational rabbi, and as a speaker and consultant to numerous groups and individuals across the country, I can assure the writer of this letter that serious, documented cases of wife abuse exist in alarming numbers in the frum community and that they range from severe physical violence to emotional abuse of a degree which certainly violates the halachic standards of onaas devarim.  If the writer’s mother’s favorite expression (which originates with the apostate poet Heinrich Heine) has any veracity it is in that we have allowed the marital conduct of the lowest classes of non-Jews to become typical of many “fine” Jewish homes.

            Furthermore, exposure of this problem to public awareness is the single intervention most effective in stopping it.  Sweeping it under the rug only feeds its fuel.

            I agree with the writer that educational programs need to do much more than educate young women to recognize signs of abuse.  They need to educate men to relate to women according to Torah values, which includes teaching them that a wife need not always be the one to compromise and that her skills encompass far more than cooking a good kugel.  I advocate widespread, thorough-going programs of premarital education in all segments of our Orthodox world, for men and for women.

            Finally, I empathize deeply with the writer’s personal experience, because I am aware that men are often victims of abusive women, of the legal system, and of public opinion.  The answer to such injustice does not lie with silence and ignorance.  It lies with a public understanding of the full extent of the problem and with ongoing education as to what a positive Jewish marriage really is.  This education needs to take place within our schools and within our shuls, through a variety of methods which will hopefully include regular marriage enrichment classes for the already married, sermons and rabbinic discourse, and continued coverage of the topic by magazines such as Jewish Action.

I have recently gotten out of an abusive marriage with the help of an Orthodox rav and therapist here in Jerusalem.  Your articles described our situation accurately.  Baruch Hashem that this ugly problem is finally coming to light so that something can be done.

I have found abuse to be a well-denied problem.  What is inconceivable for some people to believe is a bitter reality to me.  None of my neighbors would ever suspect that a man who gets up to learn, davens Neitz and then continues learning almost non-stop throughout the day would be anything less than a tzaddik.  Baruch Hashem I had the guidance of a knowledgeable Orthodox rav, therapist, and later Rabbinical Court Advocate to help me out of that gehenim.

Bringing this ugly problem to the surface so that it can be properly addressed can strengthen the entire family unit and prevent the frum community from becoming a safe-haven for abusers.

Name withheld by request

Jerusalem, Israel

I read with interest Jeanie Silver’s report of the Shalom Task Force Workshop in the Spring 1998 edition of Jewish Action.  The Shalom Task Force has done more than educate Orthodox rabbis to this growing problem.  It has also helped similar programs in the metropolitan area by serving as a model and resource for other communities.  As a founding member of Project S.A.R.A.H. I can attest to the help provided by Nechama Wolfson and her professional staff.

Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships At Home) is a program of the New Jersey Jewish Women’s Consortium on Domestic Violence.  We operate throughout the state of New Jersey and have succeeded in obtaining a state grant to help abused Jewish women.  Our work includes shelter training and sensitizing social workers and volunteers of secular shelters to the needs of the Jewish (specifically Orthodox) woman.  Representatives from the shelters attend day-long seminars where they are provided with “Kosher Kits” for observant women and they are educated in basic Judaism.

Like Shalom Task Force, we host rabbinic seminars on domestic violence where New Jersey rabbis are educated about the crisis in our communities and trained to deal with it.  Rabbis throughout the state indicated their recognition of this growing crisis by attending awareness seminars with gedolei Torah and social workers who offered crucial insight and information.  Furthermore, these initial seminars are followed up by “stage two” seminars with more in-depth study of real life cases.

In addition, we have trained mikvah attendants throughout the state to recognize the signs of abuse and they are now able to refer to local resources for assistance.  Jewish Family Services in every county have clinicians trained to handle cases of domestic violence.  Recognizing the very crisis that Jewish Action describes, the Young Israel Council of Rabbis ran an entire program on domestic violence at their 1997 Annual Rabbinic Conference in conjunction with Project S.A.R.A.H. and Shalom Task Force.

The crisis is real; the response has begun.  We hope that  with further education and training of our young men and women, this horrible plague will be stamped out of our communities.

Andrea Winkler

Fort Lee, New Jersey

Not By Chance

I do not want to prolong the discussion of Dr. Feit’s attempt to trivialize my book (Not By Chance!, Judaica Press, 1997) in the guise of a review, but I am compelled to correct the two most glaring errors he made in his response to my reply to his review (Jewish Action, Summer 5758).  Contrary to what he wrote and implied, my critique of neo-Darwinian theory from the point of information theory is new.  No one has pointed out before the following two important points: 1) It is extremely improbable on theoretical grounds that the Darwinian mechanism of random mutations and natural selection add information.  2) there are no known mutations that add information to the genome.  They all lose information.  Since no one has ever made these points before, Dr. Feit’s reference to “a voluminous literature” on the subject is mistaken.

One need not resort to citing sophisticated simulations, as Dr. Feit did, to show that randomness plus selection can yield information. Obviously, if letters of the alphabet are thrown on a table randomly and if I reject the ones I do not want and keep the ones I do want, I can create any message of my choice. But this is not the point. The important point is that it is highly improbable for known biological processes to create information through natural selection, as I have shown.

In his review, Dr. Feit wrote that there were flaws in my book, but he chose not to say what any of them were. In his above mentioned response, he revealed one. Since this was the only one he revealed, I would presume he considers it his best find. He criticized my example of the mutation in the gene encoding ribitol dehydrogenase, by asserting that there is an ambiguity in assigning it either a loss or a gain of information. If there is any ambiguity here, it can be only in his mind. In my book, I devoted significant space to showing that as specificity increases so does information and vice versa. This is a principle well known to those working with information theory. A careful reading of the discussion in my book, together with clear thinking, would lead an unbiased reader to the correct understanding that information is lost in a mutation that makes the enzyme less specific.

Lee M. Spetner

Dr. Feit Responds:

            It’s probably an unavoidable part of human nature, but I’ve never seen an author who has had a book reviewed not to his/her liking, thank the reviewer for pointing out weaknesses in the book.  In spite of Dr. Spetner’s demurral, of not wanting to prolong discussion of his book, this is precisely what he has done.

            The “two most glaring errors” to which he refers are actually only one error, and the error continues to be Spetner’s, not mine.  The critique of evolution from information science works with a notion of “information” that is commonly used (although not rigorously defined) in that still-developing field.  The understanding of what constitutes “information” in biological systems does not conform to that notion, and therein lies the ambiguity of terms to which I referred.  On this topic there is indeed a “voluminous literature” to which readers of Jewish Action are referred for further discussion.

A Personal Correspondence

I read with great interest Rabbi Feldman’s open letter to a Jewish homosexual.  While I think that both Rabbi Feldman and Jewish Action should be congratulated for dealing with such a sensitive and volitile issue in a thoughtful and caring manner, I have several reservations concerning Rabbi Feldman’s final recommendations.  Rabbi Feldman suggests that the Orthodox homosexual might serve Judaism well “by bringing Judaism to smaller communities, where there are no facilities for raising a Jewish family.”  In my opinion such a person would not be bringing Judaism, but rather destroying Judaism, in smaller communities.  Jews in small communities need to experience and feel Jewish activities that only a family can have, such as Sabbath meals, parents relating to children in an authentic Torah manner and similar such experiences.  What sort of a role model would our Jewish homosexual be to the Jewish youth of our smaller communities?  And if our Jewish homosexual were ever “outed” the Chilul Hashem in a small community with few Orthodox Jews would be monumental.

Rather, our yeshivot must embark on a serious program of “drafting” all their musmachim [ordained graduates] to spend a year or two in a small community.  The Lubavitch movement now has shluchim [emissaries] in many very small communities,and with a great deal of self sacrifice they are bringing their message to the Jews of these small towns.

Another suggestion that could facilitate the growth or retention of frumkeit in small towns are circuit-riding rabbis serving a number of smaller communities while residing in a larger community.

I very much doubt that Rabbi Feldman would want a homosexual Jew as a teacher, rav or dayan in Jerusalem, Brooklyn, Teaneck, Toronto and Baltimore, so too we must not permit our small communities to be served by men undergoing tremendous personal turmoil.  Let our homosexuals become dedicated laymen, and leave Judaism in our smaller communities to more stable men with less of a personal struggle.  While I understand that Rabbi Feldman is himself a Rosh Yeshivah, this is an issue that should only be acted on with the guidance of gedolai Yisrael.

Zalman Alpert

New York, New York

Rabbi Feldman Responds:

            Mr. Alpert’s references to the “personal turmoil” and lack of stability of individuals like the homosexual correspondent of my letter are based on stereotypes which are inapplicable to the case at hand.

            My letter suggested ways by which my correspondent, assuming he abstained from forbidden sexual behavior, could make a contribution to Jewish life.  He is unable to marry, but in areas where being married is unnecessary, e.g. fundraising, organizational work or adult education (the Shulchan Aruch requires a teacher of schoolchildren to be married)  find no reason why he could not make a significant contribution.

            Incidentally,  Ihave been informed that since the writing of my letter my correspondent has moved towards the full acceptance of the yoke of Judaism.

Book Review Clarificafion

I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the generous review Professor Carmy gave my book, Genesis: the Beginning of Desire.

There is, however,  one minor issue on which I should be glad to receive his comment.  On page 86, he claims that I mistranslate Rashi on Psalms 16:7 (“Our Rabbis apply this verse to Abraham who learned Torah from his own resources, before it was given by God–so, too, should we set the texts in order.”)  His claim is that I read af, we too, instead of ach, however, which serves to dismiss the midrashic interpretation.  In my reading, Rashi emerges as basing his agenda for interpretation on the midrashic quotation.

In all editions of Rashi that I have consulted, af is used, and the meaning thus seems clearly to be as I have translated: “We, too, like Abraham, should compose the elements of the texts.”  One edition even has the added phrase al zeh haderech.  The midrashic reference is to Abraham’s kidneys flowing with innate wisdom (see e.g. Bereshith Rabba 61:1).  Rashi does indeed seem to be projecting an ideal of the commentator as “part creator of the text being studied,” to use Professor Carmy’s phrase.

Dr. Avivah Zornberg

Professor Shalom Carmy Responds:

            Rashi’s commentary on the phrase in question (“The nights when my kidneys chastized me”) has three components:

            (A) A p’shat interpretation: [the kidneys taught me] to fear and love Him.

            (B) The Midrash referring to Abraham whose kidneys, so to speak, taught him Torah.

            (C) Rashi’s remark about what he has just written.

            With respect to the first two, Dr. Zornberg and I are in total agreement.  The trouble begins with the third element.  Dr. Zornberg proposes that Rashi extrapolates a general view of interpretation from (B).  I maintain that Rashi’s comment has no such implication; instead Rashi is explaining that loyalty to the p’shat leads him to prefer (A) to (B).  Whether one adopts Zornberg’s reading or mine depends on the correct text of Rashi, of which there exist several versions.

            Let us examine these versions in detail:

  1. The Rashi printed in the Malbim Tanach (which is generally regarded as superior to the standard Mikraot Gedolot): “But (ach) we must resolve the verses in this way (al zeh ha-derech).” The word ach clearly supports my reading that Rashi is here qualifying his endorsement of the midrashic interpretation, not theorizing about its novel application.
  2. In Mikraot Gedolot Rashi (Warsaw edition, 1862-1866), we read: “So too (af) we must resolve the verses in accordance with their order (al sidran).” On my view the word af should be emended to the superior edition’s ach, thus yielding the same meaning as that edition.  The phrase al sidran covers the same ground as al zeh ha-derech.  Zornberg, of course, is committed to the printed af.  It is not clear, however, what she does with al sidran.  While the phrase al zeh ha-derech is vague enough to refer to anything, al sidran is specific.  Al sidran points to a local methodological issue: does an interpretation accord with “the order of the verses,” or does it not?  Al sidran cannot supply a proof for the exegetical creativity championed by Zornberg.
  3. The Maarsen edition of Rashi on Tehillim has ach and al sidran. This version is thus identical with #2 as I emended it.  It is possible to defend Dr. Zornberg’s reading of Rashi by adopting the af from the Mikraot Gedolot and the al zeh ha-derech from the Malbim edition.  I see no reason, however, to stitch together a hybrid text, however fascinating the implications of this manufactured text might be.
This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at ja@ou.org.