The power to end abuse in the Jewish community
Let us begin with the end in mind: Judaism demands the absolute rejection of all forms of abuse and demands that we do everything in our power to protect our children from abuse, physical, verbal, and emotional.
Abuse does happen in Jewish families – physical, verbal and emotional abuse happen in Jewish families and way too often, the Jewish community inadvertently colludes to continue the abuse, and so the two most important things I’m going to say are that we must believe women when they speak and we must believe children when they speak.
Years ago, I gave a drash, a sermon, on Yom Kippur in which I addressed domestic violence. Two very sweet members of the community, Shabbat regulars, came up to me and said, “Rabbi, you really shouldn’t speak of such ugly things from the bimah. That doesn’t happen in our community.” But these two well-intentioned people didn’t know what I did: the reason I chose to speak about Domestic Violence that day was because two rows behind them and a little bit to the left, it just had.
We don’t like to talk about what is ugly and painful and we feel ashamed. We don’t want this to be true, but many of us are hurting – some of us are suffering, perhaps even someone who is reading this piece right now. So it’s important for us to loudly affirm that everyone of us (you, if you’re the one that I don’t know that I’m speaking to but care so deeply about) matters, that you matter, that you were created in the image of God, that you are worthy of dignity and respect. That you should be believed when you tell someone you’re being hurt.
All too often those brave enough to share their experience of being abused with a religious leader or a neighbor are ignored, not believed, or worse: sent back home to their abusers. This is worse than being misguided, this is subjecting someone vulnerable to sakanat nefashot, risking their life. It is my responsibility, it is our responsibility, to do what we can to remind every person of that and to build the structures that are safe for everyone.
Victims of abuse, as we know, can be women or men, young or old, gay or straight, and respectable studies have shown that in Jewish communities, women stay in abusive relationships longer because of the stigma that often comes about because of the silence, the choice of leaders not to talk about this.
I recently participated in a panel discussion with the visionary leaders of Beit Ruth, a long-term therapeutic residence and school with a mission to ensure that vulnerable and at-risk girls are given the opportunity to thrive emotionally, socially and academically, thereby breaking the cycle of violence for themselves and future generations of children in Israel. Before accepting the invitation to speak, I hesitated, as I often do, because I am a man. It is appropriate to feel humble in this conversation, because society confers upon me a very strange kind of privilege that I did nothing to earn.
An experience I had some time ago always comes to mind in these moments, reminding me that despite how little I truly understand about the life and experience of women, it is very important that I show up as a man.
I was in a parking garage a few years ago and was going back toward my car. A woman had just parked her car and was looking for the exit, as it was a very confusing parking garage. Wanting to help, I said, “this is the direction you want to go.” I saw her reach into her purse and something startled her eyes and, while I don’t know what she was reaching for, I suddenly realized I’d never been afraid in a parking garage before.
I’ve often relied on text to support the work of ending abuse within the Jewish community. It implicates God. But since we’re talking about the things where we are most raw, how could it not? There is a cycle of abuse in the Nevi’im, in the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. It looks like this:
- at the top of the circle we and God are getting along great, it’s wonderful.
- And then something tempts us, perhaps another god, we become distracted, and God gets angry.
- God sends another nation to control us, to use its power to hurt us, until we call out in our pain.
- God hears our cries, sends something or grants us the power to overthrow our oppressor and then it’s okay again, until the cycle begins again.
(Much of my own understanding of this is thanks to the scholarship of Naomi Gretz, in her 1998 book, “Silence is Deadly.”)
When Israel was driven from Jerusalem, their enemies took them out in chains, and the nations of the world said, the Holy Blessed One doesn’t want God’s people anymore. Just as silver is refined from its defects and then converted into utensil, refined and turned into utensil many times over, so too, is Israel broken over and over, called, the text says, ”rejected silver.” When the prophet, Jeremiah heard this he came to God and said, “is it true that you’ve rejected your people, God? Why have you smitten us and there’s no healing?” (Shemot Rabbah 31:10, adapted)
The Midrash then goes somewhere I wish it wouldn’t go, but I have to acknowledge where we have missed the mark as a tradition here. Listen to the words of this ancient Midrash and feel what you feel (I’m telling you, I feel it too). The Midrash continues:
“This can be compared to a man beating his wife. Her best friend asked him, ‘How long will you go on beating her? If you wish to kill her, kill her, but if you don’t wish her to die, why do you keep beating her?’ The man replied, ‘Oh, I would never divorce my wife, I would never kill her.’ This what Jeremiah said to God: ‘If your desire is to drive us out of this world then do that, but don’t hurt us like this.’ To which God replies, ‘Oh, I would never kill Israel. It’s only because I love Israel.’” (Shemot Rabbah 31:10, adapted, continued)
Friends, I’m sharing this text, not because I like it. I don’t. It’s very hard to share these words, but how could I be an authentic representative of our people and our tradition if I don’t acknowledge the darkness that we were willing to amplify in our texts and face it head on and say, no more. For the sake of our children, for the sake of my children, no more.
The rabbis might now know that they were victims of abuse, meaning they went through trauma and this is how that sounds. But in the name of our tradition, there are rabbis still today, in the name of a principle called Shalom Bayit, Peace in the Home, who send women who have been abused back home, thinking that’s the right thing to do. They’re wrong, they don’t believe women, they aren’t trained, they don’t know how to hear because teachers and experts (like the leaders of Beit Ruth) haven’t been invited into every shul or school and not every board of directors hold systems accountable (including themselves), and communities have not consistently held their rabbis or educators accountable. Some communities (particularly in Israel) maintain the horrific stance that women are denied a get, a divorce decree, held in coercive patterns because in these communities only men have the power. That’s not love. Love shouldn’t hurt.
The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that violence against a human being is violence against God. Every one of us, every child is an image of God and anyone who would hurt them is acting in a blasphemous way. We call that chet, we call that sin.
So what are our Jewish communal responsibilities?
- Believe women. And believe children.
- Jewish organizations must place information about access and safety resources in public view.
- The Jewish community must robustly fund training by experts and make it mandatory for every professional and every Jewish environment to go through such a training, and then we have to make sure that Board members themselves go through the same training because all too often, children are hurt by people who serve as mentors, be they professional or volunteer. (Friends of mine have been hurt when we were children, and it is only by the grace of God that I wasn’t.)
One last thought. Not because it’s going to tie anything up in a bow and not because it’s going to make us feel better, but we should feel proud about the way Zionism itself connects to this great work.
Growing up, reflecting on sad times and upon thousands of years of Jewish powerlessness in exile, we would sing a specific song: “Ani Ma’amin – I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah.” And then, with hearts swelled with feeling, we would sing the second half: “veaf al pi sh’yitmameah im kol zeh achakeh lo behol yom sheyavo – though the Messiah may tarry, I will wait. (Based on Maimonides Statements of Faith)” Why did we sing that song? Perhaps it was because we didn’t think we had the power to change our destiny for the better.
Zionism was a response by those who didn’t daven and didn’t use traditional language, en masse, rejected that posture of powerlessness. Those who founded a new way of being Jewish in the world claimed the agency to bring dignity to our bodies, to our souls, to our lives once more.
Efforts to end abuse against children and against women are the combination of all of these important and redemptive ideas. We can make things better for our children, for ourselves, for our community, and for the world. Like the early Zionists modeled, we can decide not to wait any more.
Thank God, thank God, for the founders and visionaries and current expert practitioners who lead the way to ending Domestic Violence and Abuse in Jewish community. Thank God because we can’t wait any longer, because our children need us now. And so, with the weight of tradition, imperfect as any effort, may we muster the will to continue to learn, to do better until there is no need.
May that day come soon and in our days.