Why Are We Still Arguing About Domestic Violence?

With the revelation this week of a video clearly and unambiguously showing former Baltimore Raven football player Ray Rice punching his wife in a casino elevator in Atlantic City, knocking her unconscious, and then unceremoniously dragging her out of the elevator, a whole host of disturbing questions have come to the fore.

Were I a sports reporter, I could– and would– devote this article to the reprehensible behavior of all the parties involved. The National Football League’s sluggish and disingenuous response to the incident is awful, and embarrassing. Saying that the league offices had no access to the video when they first suspended Rice for only two games (and then having their team’s web page highlight the lengthy, supportive applause he received at their opening game) cannot be anything other than a bald-faced lie. It took place in a casino, where there are cameras every five steps.

If they didn’t have the tape, they didn’t seriously investigate the awful incident. And if they did have the tape and treated it as cavalierly as they did, well, that might be even worse. Ray Rice himself claimed that his wife fainted in the elevator; not quite. Any way you look at this, it’s a terrible statement on the corporate ethos of the multi-billion dollar NFL, and its decision to treat the truth with such disdain lest it impact the bottom line. Let’s not even talk about the prosecutors involved, who were all too willing to play along in this sham. And, of course, we the fans are all enablers, because we will still watch the games regardless of this shameful behavior.

But I’m not a sports reporter. I’m a rabbi, a rabbi who first dealt with two separate instances of domestic violence in my own congregation more than thirty years ago. Mine was one of the early rabbinic voices trying to convince the Jewish community that domestic violence was a reality in the Jewish community, and that refusing to accept that unhappy truth served to isolate the women who were its victims even further.

The Jewish community has made considerable progress in this regard. In my years of teaching a “practical rabbinics” seminar at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I made sure that my students knew that if a woman came for counseling complaining about a marriage in disrepair, asking whether or not her spouse was physically abusive needed to be part of taking a good and effective history. And if one judges by the number of public service announcements on television about domestic violence and the multiple outlets for assistance that are available, we have come a long way in defining the problem and helping its victims.

But then along comes the Ray Rice story, and it makes me wonder whether or not we’ve made any headway at all in this country.

The particular case of Ray Rice and his wife fits right into the well-established and complicated pattern that domestic violence episodes often follow. The victim rarely leaves home quickly, even after repeated episodes of violence, and often feels constrained to vouch for the abuser (witness the strong statements of Janay Palmer, Rice’s wife, blaming the media for the current problems and lamenting her own role in causing the incident in the elevator). Abuse is followed by apology and reconciliation, and then more abuse. It is a vicious and sometimes deadly cycle.

But just as significantly, what lurks behind the Ray Rice case is the culture of professional sports, and particularly football. Watch the introductions to football games, and even more so the commercials, even the games themselves, and see what it is that drives sales and brings in the money. It’s beer, and sex, and the testosterone-driven allure of the violence of the game. Sports bars are adorned with posters of beautiful women, maybe the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and you get the picture. It’s not hard to draw the line from one causal agent to the other. If only on a subliminal level, it is an atmosphere that is, if not vaguely threatening to women, then certainly not respectful of them.

Were this alone the story, it would be bad enough. But the truth is that for all the progress that has been made in enhancing the place, rights and stature of women in western culture, women are still at risk.

None of this is to say that professional sports, or the companies that promote and advertise it, would in any way condone the abuse of women. But at the same time, the persistence of attitudes and practices that belittle women, or relegate them to a status of “less than,” can lead to behaviors that no one could possibly regard as acceptable.

Ironically, during my month in Okinawa this past summer, I had the opportunity to see the public service announcements on the Armed Forces Network television stations relating to sexual harassment. It is a significant and stubbornly persistent problem in the military, and everyone from President Obama and Vice-President Biden to stars of the entertainment industry participated in 30-second messages that all ended with the same phrase: “Once is too much.” I couldn’t agree more. Once is indeed too much.

It’s time for all sectors of our culture to once and for all come to terms with how they contribute to the problem. Ray Rice is the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg is very, very big.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.