Getting It All Out in the Open

By | Mar 15, 2012

by Kelley Kidd

Rally in support of Tamar Epstein

Jewish husbands, we think, are educated and upstanding, family men who treat their wives with warmth, kindness and respect. Domestic abuse? Not in our backyard.

We need only look to recent news coverage to see that it is in our backyard: For approximately four years, Aharon Friedman, a Congressional staffer living in the Washington, DC area, has been refusing to grant his wife Tamar Epstein a get, or a Jewish decree of divorce. According to Jewish law, the husband must initiate divorce proceedings, a generally unproblematic technicality. Sometimes, though, a husband may refuse, as Friedman has. As a result, Epstein is an agunah, or a “chained woman” under Jewish law, unable to remarry or move forward in her emotional or romantic life. Despite the completion of their civil divorce, as well as widespread condemnation of his behavior, Friedman refuses to relinquish control over her life by consenting to a religiously valid divorce. Prominent Washington-area rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld describes this behavior as emotional abuse that is “no less a form of spousal abuse than striking one’s wife.”

Unfortunately, Friedman’s abusive behavior is not the only issue at hand. We are also faced with the fact that in Judaism, there exists a mindset that preserving tradition in the form of “a nearly thousand-year-old ruling is more important than offering women equality within the religion.” As Dvora Meyers writes in The Forward, we see a husband “brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it” because current Jewish law allows for it, and rabbis lack the “judicial courage” to implement “halachic proposals that would enable a rabbinic court to dissolve marriage contract even without the husband’s consent.” The law actually facilitates the continuation of abuse, in the form of emotional control.

This story sheds light on what has always been a fairly unspoken issue—as I mentioned, no one really considers abuse to be a Jewish problem. In fact, though, Jewish homes face the same rate of abuse as the rest of the community—it occurs in 15% of Jewish families, across the religious and socio-economic spectrum. Abuse includes a wide range of action, all of which tend to center on control of the other partner. This may mean physical abuse, such as any kind of attack or beating, or sexual, which entails forcing oneself sexually on the other partner and demanding sexual acts that violate the partner’s wants. But, as we see in the case of Aharon Friedman, it also crosses into the realm of the less tangible, the use of intimidation, manipulation, criticism and humiliation that characterize emotional forms of abuse. Economic abuse entails keeping tight control of someone by monitoring their finances and withholding their money and choice in order to determine what they can and cannot do. These types of abuse may exist independently or in conjunction with one another.

So, if abuse is just as widespread as issue within the Jewish community as in the general population, and perhaps even justified by certain Jewish laws, we must consider why most people are so oblivious to it. Though our rate stands no higher than that in the rest of the population, Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships for two to three times longer than women in the general population. It seems likely, then, that there are cultural factors in Judaism that contribute to the fatal silence that surrounds abuse in Jewish homes. On the most basic level, observant women may hesitate to leave their home for logistical or financial reasons—many observant women depend on their husband for an income. And in pursuing a divorce, what if she finds herself “chained,” an agunah like Tamar Epstein?

Beyond that, however, it seems that there is a stigma surrounding abuse of Jewish women, creating shanda, or shame, regarding being the victim of abuse. Women may be hesitant to come forward because they believe “Jews are not supposed to be victims of abuse” and fear being ostracized in the community, or simply not believed. Abuse has hardly come up in Jewish forums, so our culture has failed to send the message that women should feel comfortable coming forward and being honest. In fact, Shalom Bayit, one of the few mitzvot dedicated to women, sends quite the opposite message. Shalon Bayit refers to Peace in the Home, the Jewish woman’s “pride and joy” according to tradition. This expectation that a woman create the ideal home to family, education, and love may prevent a woman from seeing it as socially acceptable to “shatter” that image by being honest about an abusive situation.

Some in the Jewish community are fighting domestic abuse. The public outcry over Friedman’s treatment of his wife—including efforts to pressure his boss, Congressman Dave Camp of Michigan, to intervene—proves that the issue is coming to the fore. And the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, based outside of Washington, DC, works to eliminate the issue’s shroud of secrecy. It is our duty to look beyond what is easiest to believe and find the truth. Friedman and Epstein’s case demonstrates the absolute necessity of this kind of critical thinking. And once we see that the tragic truth stems in part from our own cultural creation, we can move towards bringing about a norm of justice, and true Shalom Bayit that is far more worthwhile than the illusion currently masking the need for meaningful cultural change.

7 thoughts on “Getting It All Out in the Open

  1. “…preserving tradition in the form of ‘a nearly thousand-year-old ruling is more important’…”

    I linked through to the Washington Jewish Week article you have referenced here and I’m truly disturbed my many of the comments there. It seems that many of the opinions in agreement with Mr. Friedman’s actions laud him as a worried father, using any means necessary to maintain a relationship with and proximity to his child.

    To that end, I say. This is not just about abusive patterns between a men and women; but, sadly, a clear example of why this sytem of control is continuing to rear its head in new generations. If this behaviour continues to be shrouded under the convenient cloak of tradition, then it’s his daughter who may be the one that suffers the most. Personally, I have my doubts as to how effective a father can be, when the example he is clearly demonstrating is bullying and entrapment. (And, those are simply the tactics that have been publicly shared. Imagine what his other charming traits must be.)

  2. Will Kidd says:

    I think its kind of cool that a flock of rabbis could get together and give themselves the authority to change the Jewish law. I expect precedence weighs very heavily on them as a group, however. After all, a lot of smart guys (and gals more recently) have debated the issue for ages. I keep waiting for God to tell the Pope that there’s plenty of humans now so its OK for Catholics to use birth control; maybe God will chat up the rabbis on this one too.

  3. Linda says:

    Your comments about Shalom Bayit strike to the heart of why so many women choose to remain locked in an abusive situation far longer than their non-abused peers can understand. To reach a point where they can live with the decision to break the “peace of their home” only to be locked into another level of emotional abuse is untenable. I sincerely hope that this article, and conversations ensuing from it, will lead to changes in rabbinic law. Abuse in any form is unacceptable, but abuse condoned by religious law and enforced by its leaders takes it to a level beyond comprehension.

  4. Judy Kidd says:

    It is good to get abuse out in the open and to see that it is much more than just physical. The psychological is maybe worse because it affects a person all the time. Wasn’t there a movie recently about a man who refused to give his wife a get?

  5. Jacki Imbrey says:

    I appreciated reading this and applaud your insight on the topic. Abuse, whether physical or emotional, is a horrible personal afront on another; and you do a good job of correlating control and abuse.
    I totally agree this religion, and MANY others, position the laws to essentially empower the husband over the needs or wants of the wife, and they all ought to be ‘corrected’.

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  7. Hey Kelley, I applaud you for bringing this important topic to the forefront. This is an issue which is often stigmatized by our religious society… but yet is an issue that many marriages/relationships face. It’s not a pretty one… but it needs to be discussed. Keep up the great work in your writing.

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