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What Esther can teach us about domestic abuse

(Copyright belongs to Resolution Partners Dispute Resolution Services)
(Copyright belongs to Resolution Partners Dispute Resolution Services)

While there are many things we can learn from the megillah, one of its unlikely lessons is that much of how we think about domestic abuse is wrong. Typically, abuse is conceived of as something physical, along the lines of cuts and broken bones, sexual violence, and even murder. However, the emphasis on physical violence can often cause us to miss the true picture of abuse, which is more complicated and insidious than we might think. To better capture what really takes place in abusive relationships, experts coined the term “coercive control,” and though it consists of several different behaviors, all are done with one goal in mind: to control and dominate one’s partner. 

These dynamics are made clear when one examines the relationship between Achashverosh and Esther. Though Esther never had a bruise on her, few would argue that her marriage was happy. She did not choose to be married to the king but was taken from her home as part of a royal plan to find a new queen. Separated from her family and fearful even to share her true identity, she was clearly no stranger to pain and suffering. There was nothing mutual about her relationship with her husband. He may have claimed that he loved her, but he had all the power, and she had none. He told her when to come and when to leave, and she had no choice but to listen to him. As Vashti had shown, doing otherwise would mean death.

International Agunah Awareness Day was chosen to fall on Ta’anit Esther to highlight how Esther’s plight mirrors those of agunot today. Though coercive control is not limited by gender, men are by far the worst offenders, and nearly every case of get recalcitrance that comes before the International Beit Din was preceded by a marriage where coercive control was patently present. It usually starts at the beginning of the relationship with gradual social isolation. Before marriage, a woman has close relationships with friends and family, but after the wedding, they suddenly begin to see her less and less. Usually, the husband will claim they must spend time together away from others or try to prevent her from making plans with friends and family. Social isolation is often accompanied by the husband’s attempts to control his wife’s behavior. It may start with small things, such as comments that the dishes must be done a certain way or the food cooked in a particular fashion, but it can quickly escalate. What begins as demands about how she must act in the home soon expands to dictates about what she can or can’t do outside of it. Frequently, “violation” of the husband’s demands leads to cruel punishment in the form of lengthy periods of silence, the denial of sexual intimacy, and other vengeful punishments. 

Many of us might imagine we would refuse to comply with attempts at social isolation and control from a marital partner, but things get quickly complicated. These attempts are often coupled with additional acts of humiliation and intimidation that take their toll on a person’s psyche. A husband might insult his wife by demeaning her appearance and attacking her insecurities. He will often manipulate the truth and then lie about it, making his wife think she is the cause of the marital problems, a behavior commonly known as gaslighting. Intimidation and threats of violence are particularly effective. By acting in extreme ways to scare his wife, a husband makes clear what will happen if she defies him. When angry at her, he might violently punch a wall, smash dishes on the ground, or drive dangerously at excessive speeds. Sometimes, he need not even say anything. One day, he just comes home unannounced with a gun he claims is for their protection. Eventually, the threats intensify, and the violence along with it, though not always in ways we might expect. One of the most common yet least recognized forms of violence in a marriage is sexual violence. Husbands who engage in coercive control will often rape their wives and perform other violent sexual acts as a way of humiliating their wives and proving their control over them. 

Survivors of coercive control will be the first to tell you that the physical abuse they may have suffered was less painful than the emotional and psychological abuse they experienced under coercive control.  “The violence was not the worst part” is a tragic refrain we’ve become all too familiar with at the International Beit Din.  Rather, the steady stream of threats and humiliations leaves women wracked by anxiety and depression, and because they are isolated from friends and family, they cannot easily ask for or obtain help. In addition, it is often the case that the husband has manipulated the finances in such a way as to leave his wife at a severe disadvantage. With the deck stacked against them and no clear exit, untold numbers of women, including our family, friends, and neighbors, live lives of utter desperation behind invisible iron bars. 

Though coercive control may be a newer concept, halacha is no stranger to the profound suffering it can impose. More than a decade ago, Rabbi Shlomo Daichovsky of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate issued an important ruling in a case where a husband had emotionally abused his wife for many years. He made clear that the husband had no choice but to divorce his wife and made the following unambiguous declaration: “Psychological violence is worse and often more dangerous than physical violence. Trampling a person’s dignity, turning them into human dust, a rag and nothing more, is worse in many cases than physical violence.” In this particular case, he notes that the woman “sought to commit suicide several times . . .[w]e are talking about a case of absolute despair caused by his actions, and a life of sorrow, pain, and humiliation; a woman enters marriage to live and not to suffer.”

Coercive Control and the Divorce 

In relationships where a husband subjects his wife to coercive control, the most dangerous time for her is when she attempts to leave. As they feel their control slipping away, abusive husbands are liable to become extremely violent and do anything they can to stop her. However, even if she is able to escape, the trauma does not end, for he will try to use the divorce process to further exert his control over her even after their physical separation. During a civil divorce, one can manipulate the legal system to abuse the other side, and the problem is only compounded in Jewish divorce, where the husband alone decides when the marriage is over. For husbands with a history of coercive control, refusing to give a get is their last opportunity to abuse their wives. If they desire to control and dominate them, what greater power could they ever have than the ability to ensure she never marries anyone else again?

In our experience, nearly every case of get recalcitrance is preceded by a marriage where coercive control is present, and unfortunately, beit din can become an unknowing party to it. Even if an abused woman does manage to find a sympathetic rabbinic ear, few, if any dayanim (rabbinic judges) are trained in the dynamics of abuse, nor do they typically have experience in working with survivors of trauma. Though many dayanim see themselves as doing holy work, because they have little or no leverage over a recalcitrant husband, they can go out of their way to try and accommodate him out of the hope he will give the get, without realizing their actions facilitate extortion and further traumatize the woman. 

In one particularly egregious case, a client of ours turned to her local beit din after years of an abusive marriage in which she had been subjected to all the forms of coercive control: social isolation, control, humiliation, and intimidation. However, the beit din did not want to summon the husband to court because they were concerned any pressure might cause him to withhold the get. After years of waiting, she was eventually notified that her husband had given her a get and that she could come to the beit din to receive it. But when she arrived, the dayanim told her this could only happen if she gave in to her husband’s demands. Hearing this from the mouth of the rabbis left her stunned, for after years of coercive control by her husband, it felt as if he had violently humiliated her once more, this time empowered by those she looked up to as moral and religious authorities. As a result, she immediately began to spiral into a dark depression marked by thoughts of suicide. 

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

Though the name may be new, coercive control is most definitely not. A careful examination of halachic literature reveals that the rabbis were sensitive to the many ways in which a marriage could break down and the typical forms and typologies of abuse. A teshuvah (responsa) by Rabbi Yehudah Miller from the 18th century provides a detailed description of a marriage where the husband did everything he could to subject his wife to coercive control. From the very beginning, he tried to control her and worked to separate her from her parents. He fought with her daily, demeaned her constantly, and even instructed their servants to do so. As part of his attempt to intimidate her, he would refrain from speaking to her for days, and, at one point, he even locked her out of the bedroom during the coldest part of winter. 

Eventually, the woman became pregnant, but as she got closer to her due date, he took the house key away from her, effectively locking her in the home. As labor approached, she feared he would not even call for a midwife, so she decided to flee to save her life and the life of her unborn child. Though she managed to reach her parents’ house, her husband still would not let go of his control over her. He used his connections with the non-Jewish authorities to compel her to return to him, and once this occurred, the abuse only intensified further. He lied publicly that she had cheated on him, and because he was a kohen, she was now forbidden to him. Nevertheless, this did not stop him from cruelly raping her while she was a nidah

It is extraordinarily rare to find a rabbinic responsa that offers this level of factual detail, but it’s clear that Rabbi Miller felt it was essential that all of the abuse be documented so readers would properly understand the pain and suffering the woman had experienced. In a moment of profound reflection, he offers words that describe not only the case before him but those of all women who suffer terribly under coercive control:

If all the heavens were parchment and all the trees were quills and all the water in the ocean was ink, it would still be impossible to put all the details of the case into writing. In part, because they are so embarrassing, and in part because one forgets certain details because of the great pain.

What appears to have distinguished Rabbi Miller from his rabbinic colleagues, both past and present, was his willingness and ability to listen to the woman and hear her pain. By understanding the extent to which coercive control had destroyed her life and giving voice to her suffering, he understood the halacha required he must act boldly even when others might not do so. 

The same, of course, can be seen in the megillah. Though Esther’s pain as Achashverosh’s wife goes mostly undocumented, what is clear is that her marriage takes away her sense of agency and autonomy. By being subjected to the king’s coercive control, her life is not her own, and there is little she can do about it. But in truth, Esther is not the only one in the megillah to experience this, for Haman’s murderous decree, signed by the king’s own hand, causes the Jewish people to feel similarly. Redemption only comes when Esther risks her life to say what others refuse to hear, and the same is true for the agunot of today. The only question is whether we are willing to act.

This piece was jointly authored by three of us, Rabbi Zachary Truboff, Rabbi Barry Dolinger, and Esther Macner, as a reflection on our work helping hundreds of agunot at the International Beit Din.

About the Author
Rabbi Barry Dolinger is a musmach of RIETS and serves as the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a practicing attorney and serves as the Executive Director of the International Beit Din.
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