Dealing with our ‘dirty little secret’

This Sunday, Project Sarah hosts its 12th annual breakfast in Bergen County. “Sarah” is the acronym that describes the organization’s stated mission — to “Stop Abusive Relationships At Home.” As well as offering its informational programs, the organization also provides a vital array of services to Jewish victims of such abuse, and to their families, throughout New Jersey.

Until Project Sarah came along, there were too few voices within the Jewish community speaking up about what for too long has been our dirty little secret. One of those who did speak up was Rabbi Wallace Greene. About 25 years ago, when I was on the pulpit of a synagogue in Hopatcong, he conducted a study session for rabbis in the area, hoping to get us to focus on the problem.

He succeeded to some extent, but too few of us were willing to admit back then that domestic abuse existed in our Jewish world. We are more willing to face that hard fact today, because Project Sarah is casting a bright light on that dark corner of Jewish life.

In this column, leaning in part on Rabbi Greene’s lesson of so many years ago, I am going to focus on spousal abuse, but make no mistake: Judaism abhors all forms of domestic abuse, including child abuse, elder abuse, and sexual abuse.

Until very recently, the violence to which wives were subjected by their husbands was not considered inappropriate; in some places, it still is not. Throughout the millennia, men have beaten “their” women. They saw it as their right. And because they thought — and some still think — that way, it took until relatively recently for Western society even to begin to come to grips with this problem.

As the “#MeToo” movement and abuse statistics testify (a Centers for Disease Control survey found that approximately one in every four women “have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner”), we are far away from resolving the problem. In part, this may be due to a misguided belief, held by too many people, that male superiority is mandated by the Bible. They mean the Christian Bible, which contains such statements as this one from 1 Corinthians 11:3, 8-10: “But I want you to know that the head of…woman is man….For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.”

The Tanach and the Judaism that grew out of it, on the other hand, make clear that a man has no right to abuse his wife, at any time, under any circumstances.

The law is uncompromising. It is blunt and clear. A man has no right to abuse his wife, and certainly no right to beat her. If a man, no matter what is done to him to stop his abusive behavior, continues to beat his wife, the court may order that his hand be cut off. That it is how the 13th century’s Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (the Maharam) ruled:

“We have to treat more severely [the man] who beats his wife than [the man] who beats someone else because he is obligated [by halachah] to respect his wife, but not that other person….And he who does [beat his wife] is put under a ban, and excommunicated, and whipped, and punished with all manner of torment; and if he continues [to beat his wife, it is even permissible] to cut off his hand.”

Wife-beating even is considered an exception of sorts to the rule regarding divorce, which is supposed to be initiated only by the husband, according to the Maharam (basing himself on a 12th-century ruling by Rabbi Simcha ben Samuel of Speyers). “If she wants to leave [the marriage],” he ruled, “she is to be let out and given her due.” The woman may not initiate the divorce even in these circumstances, but the rabbinic court can act for her by compelling the husband to give her a get (“as long as he is warned once or twice,” according to Rabbi Moses Isserles in a gloss to Shulchan Aruch 154:3). Some opinions even allow the rabbinic court to do the unthinkable if it is unable to force the husband to give his wife a get: It may refer the matter to a secular authority for enforcement.

As for what is meant by “given her due,” Maimonides had this to say: “A husband who harmed his wife must immediately pay her all the injury, shame, and sorrow. Everything belongs to her, and the husband derives no benefit….” (See Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, Laws of Injury and Damage, 4:16.)

The halachah is so hard-nosed about this because Eve “was the mother of all living,” as Rabbi Eleazar explained in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Ketubot (see page 61a). Because of that, he said, a wife “was given [to her husband] to live, but not to suffer pain.” To this, the Talmud added that marriage is supposed to improve the quality of a woman’s life, not diminish it in any way. “She goes up with her husband,” it declared, “but she does not go down.”

That is also why Judaism gives wives all the conjugal rights and gives none to the husbands. Sexual abuse goes hand in hand with all other forms of physical and mental abuse, so the halachah sought to get at the broader problem by attacking it at its most basic level. Men have no power over women, whether those women are their wives or not.

It is that simple, and our law codes are that blunt.

Spousal abuse, which should not be a problem in the Jewish community — and should never have been tolerated by us precisely because our rules from day one have been so strict — is as serious a problem with us as it is everywhere else.

The dirty little secret has to stop being a secret. We need to talk about it. We need to deal with it.

We need to eliminate it.

One way to help do so is to support the work of Project Sarah through our donations and/or our volunteerism. Among other steps we can take are these:

• Ask our synagogue boards or ritual committees to dedicate one Shabbat annually to this topic.

• Urge our pulpit rabbis to make the issues involved the theme of a sermon at least twice a year (and especially during the High Holy Days, when the most people will be in shul to hear it).

• Ask our men’s clubs and sisterhoods to schedule a study session with the rabbi in which he or she will teach what Jewish law has to say about such abusive behavior, and how to identify abuse. (If a synagogue has an adult education director, he or she also should be encouraged to plan an appropriate program, preferably on an annual basis.)

• Also ask the men’s clubs and sisterhoods to schedule separate open forums for their members to discuss the issues in a group setting, and invite Project Sarah to provide someone to facilitate those discussions.

• Place ads in our synagogue bulletins to alert congregants about the existence of Project Sarah, the services it offers, and the phone number for victims to call: (973) 777-7638.

May the day come when we have no need for a Project Sarah. Until then, Project Sarah needs us. Its work must be our work.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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