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Wifebeating and the Halacha – Time for a Change

For women, silence can be literally deadly.

A few months ago, I attended a prayer meeting at Jerusalem’s Jeshurun Synagogue to mark the annual international day protesting violence against women. Attendance was sparse. The men’s section bare. A young rabbi got up and said this embarrassed him. He said that if the meeting had been about Israel’s special mission in the world, the synagogue would have been packed. He went on to say what a terrible thing domestic abuse was, etc. etc. making all the right noises.

At the end of his – I have no doubt – heartfelt lecture, a lone woman raised her hand timidly. What does the Halacha say about wifebeating ? she asked him. “It’s a non-issue,” he replied, insulted. “I won’t dignify it by getting into a Halachic discussion.”

The woman, mortified, sat down.

“It was a valid question,” I comforted her afterwards.

But only after reading Professor Naomi Graetz ‘s compelling book: Silence is Deadly, Judaism Confronts Wifebeating, did I realize how valid. The case Professor Graetz makes , based on sources in the Talmud, the Mishnah and centuries of responsa of rabbinic authorities, is that, indeed, many Halachic authorities have not only done nothing to punish wifebeaters, but have actually condoned wifebeating, spelling out conditions in which it is not only permissible, but a mitzvah. Moreover, in our own day, current Halachic thinking makes it extremely difficult for an abused wife to get out of her husband’s clutches if he persists in refusing her a divorce.

The pioneering haredi rabbi who opened the first battered women’s shelters for haredi women in Jerusalem, once told me of a conversation he had with a well-respected Sephardic rabbi: “What are you Ashkenazim making a big deal about?” the Rabbi complained to him, “Almost every Sephardic husband beats his wife.”

I have no idea if this is true. But what can’t be denied is that the Maimonides wrote in his colossal work, the Mishneh Torah: “A woman who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod.” (Isshut 21:10).

While this is certainly not Halacha, the religious atmosphere created by such an unchallenged statement may explain the callous attitude exhibited by many religious authorities towards domestic abuse.

Whenever I am asked if there is more domestic abuse in the religious world, I answer no. I think there is exactly the same as in every other society. What makes it worse, is that the religious world finds it difficult to acknowledge the problem and deal effectively with it.

Over a decade ago, when my first novel Jepthe’s Daughter was published, in which I depicted a Talmud scholar as wifebeater, many in the religious world were ready to tar and feather me. I was called a liar outright during lectures, usually by a bewigged matron. I was vilified in haredi publications, denounced by friends, snubbed by former rabbinical mentors.

I couldn’t understand why.

After all, the story was based on that of my neighbor, a haredi woman who committed suicide following severe sexual and physical abuse from her Talmud scholar husband. For many years I assumed that the underlying cause of this response was simple embarrassment.

After reading Naomi Graetz’s book, I’m not so sure.

As an Orthodox woman, committed to Jewish law, I have always believed that the Halacha was the closest thing we were going to get to G-d’s own word. As such, despite appearances, Halacha had to be absolutely just, wise, compassionate, and most of all, unbiased, based on a true interpretation of Biblical law. In that light, I found it shocking — and it would not be an exaggeration to say heartbreaking — to read the many anti-feminine, and almost heartless decrees by some of the most respected Halachic authorities of all time cited by Graetz.

What is one to make of the Chatam Sofer’s responsa, that we do not force a wifebeater to grant a divorce because “it is better to live in two (tan du) than to dwell alone (armalu)”? And how can we accept that it is this ruling and not the liberal one of Maimonides, who states: “Woman is not captive. She should get a divorce if her husband is not pleasing to her,” which is the basis for rulings in our own Rabbinical Courts?

Thankfully, Naomi Graetz points out other rabbinic voices.

Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg who wrote concerning a habitual wifebeater: “If he persists in striking her, he should be excommunicated, lashed … even to the extent of amputating his arm. If his wife is willing to accept a divorce, he must divorce her and pay her ketubah”.

Silence is Deadly is an important book, the kind that insists we examine the sources for some of the most blatant of social problems and why, until now, there has been no outcry from the rabbinical establishment to solve them. Its cumulative evidence cries out for just change within the Halachic framework that today gives abusive husbands almost absolute power over their wives.

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