Shalom Bayit: Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community and Beyond

The Talmud teaches that anyone who has the ability to correct a situation and is derelict in doing so bears the responsibility for whatever results. If abuse is not acknowledged, it is tolerated. Standing by while a sin is being committed is a violation of Jewish law. Abuse is happening in our neighborhoods.  Women and their children are being harmed. We cannot stand by.

by Naomi Ragins Senser, Executive Board Member of SHALVA, the Jewish Domestic Abuse Counseling Center in Chicago

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 I am on the executive board SHALVA, the Jewish Domestic Violence Counseling Center here in the Chicago area and today, erev Purim, I want to talk about Queens Vashti and Esther as stories of two women who stood up to domestic abuse in their own way. This is what SHALVA helps women do, so I will say a few words about SHALVA before I explain what I just said about Vashti and Esther. SHALVA is the oldest independent Jewish domestic abuse agency in the U.S. We were started in 1986 when a small group of Orthodox women sat around a kitchen table and decided that something had to be done about a serious problem in their community that was not being confronted. With that, SHALVA became an agency whose mission statement is to address domestic abuse in Jewish homes and relationships through counseling and education, with a philosophy and services rooted in Jewish values. Currently we counsel women equally from all streams of Judaism, with complete confidentiality and safety, without cost, and with sensitivity to their level of religious observance. We see approximately 300 women a year. Besides counseling and legal advocacy, we are involved in a variety of educational activities both to inform the community about SHALVA’s services and to hopefully have a long term effect in trying to decrease the occurrence of domestic violence through recognition, understanding and prevention. We speak to women’s groups and rabbis, as well as social workers, medical professionals and first responders. Recently I have been talking to Hebrew High School classes about healthy relationships and dating abuse and for at least a dozen years we have been presenting programs on the topic of bullying for B’nai Mitzvah aged students and their parents at many area synagogues. Domestic abuse, after all, is just the grown-up version of bullying – a pattern of behavior in which one person dominates another through coercive physical, psychological, emotional, and/or financial means.

But for so long the idea of domestic abuse in a Jewish home was unimaginable. There was the myth of the perfect Jewish home. Shalom Bayit  – the ideal home – is a very important Jewish value, a harmonious home where all are nurtured and respected. But, Jews are people and ideals are not reality. Studies have repeatedly shown that the incidence of domestic violence in the Jewish community – in all streams of Judaism – is equal to that of all other communities in the US. One quarter of all women, Jewish or not, have been, will be or currently are in an abusive relationship. One out of four. Hareidi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, Renewal and Bu-Jew. One out of four.  But this myth of the perfect Jewish Home has led to denial and under-recognition of this reality in our community, with women remaining in horrific situations because they are so demoralized and are unaware that help can be one SHALVA hotline phone call away.

Which is why when I think about Purim, I think about SHALVA. As I mentioned, I like to look at the Purim story as an illustration of how two women dealt with their issues of domestic abuse.  It is appropriate that an underlying theme in the Book of Esther is hiding since domestic abuse is the hidden sin.  This theme can be seen in Vashti’s refusal to appear naked or unhidden in front of the king and his company, resulting in her banishment. It also refers to Esther’s hidden Jewish identity in the palace. Most commonly it is discussed in terms of the fact that God is not overtly mentioned in the book, hidden in the actions and reactions of the narrative. Jewish women experiencing domestic abuse, hiding their shame, may feel that perhaps God has hidden His face from them. The examples of Vashti and Esther, as well as the sensitive expert counseling at SHALVA can help these women recover their faith and self-confidence to make the decisions they need to in order to find safety and Shalva, which you know is the Hebrew word for tranquility.

So let’s look at Vashti. In chapter one, after 187 days of a royal party where the rule for drinking was “no restrictions,” Vashti was commanded to come before the king and all his guests wearing a crown, and probably nothing else, in order to display her beauty to all the men gathered there. She refused. She rebelled against being degraded by a man who bragged about her beauty and had no respect for her feelings, stature or dignity. But she also rebelled against the social and sexual order of the day leading Memuchan, one of the kings closest advisors, to warn the king that Vashti was a threat to all men in the realm, since if she could refuse the king’s directive, all wives would think they could refuse their husbands. Memuchan, in my reading, is a typical abusive husband; one who sees his honor as dependent on his ability to dominate his wife and any failure to enforce obedience as tantamount to male disgrace. He convinces the king of that. Vashti is either banished or killed, depending on whom you read, and a royal edict is sent out that every woman must respect her husband and that every man should be the master in his home. Well, I hate to tell you that in the midrashim, Vashti is not looked at very nicely. She is called wicked Vashti, she is reported to have developed leprosy and to have grown a tail. But what she did was to demonstrate exactly what Memuchan was afraid of, that any woman, not just a queen could say “NO!” “I will be treated with dignity, I will have personal boundaries that can not be violated. I will have self-confidence and I will live safe from fear and harm.” Not many women in Vashti’s place can be as strong and assertive. Rather than being brought up as self confident royalty like Vashti was, many Jewish women are brought up to suppress their own feelings, to be the self-sacrificing wife and mother, to insure Shalom Bayit. As little girls most of us would never think of dressing up as Vashti for Purim. But SHALVA helps women find their inner Vashti – encouraging them to stand up for themselves and to make the decisions in their lives that will lead them to a safe place.

So, if little girls don’t dress up as Vashti (but I think they should), then when they are dressing up as Esther, who is the Esther we are encouraging them to be? You can look at Esther two ways, as the passive cousin of Mordechai who enters into the harem compliantly, dutifully. The winner of the beauty pageant of Persia, the sweet queen who woos her King with her beauty, saves her people, and then lives happily ever after.  Or we can see Esther as the hidden Jew in a harem of young virgin women exploited for their beauty and held captive for a year until chosen for a night of the king’s pleasure at his whim. Sexual exploitation and domination are common in domestic abuse. We can see that despite her captivity and fear of coming before the king uninvited, Esther was able to gather up her courage in order to make a decision which saved her people’s lives as well as her own. She may have been frightened, but she exhibited strength and confidence. SHALVA’s clients no doubt are frightened, but our counselors are there, like Mordechai, to challenge and encourage them to make the decisions that will change their lives and the lives of their children.

I was not surprised when I read that Esther was the model for Jewish women living during the time of the Inquisition. Conversos, living a hidden life, pretending Christianity and always worried about being found out, abused, tortured and killed for who they really were, looked for the day that they too could be like Esther standing up to the king. Abused women are no different. They pretend that their lives are just fine, adopting an identity approved of by the community while hiding their true reality. The idea of Esther helped the Converso women survive by knowing they weren’t alone. SHALVA too reminds women that they are not alone. There is someone who knows their situation and can help them. They can be Vashtis and Esthers and live better lives.

In his 1998 article “Tackling the Shanda,” Rabbi Abraham Twerski wrote, “Even the most serious life-threatening problems go unnoticed when there is resistance to acknowledging them. Countless excuses are given for maintaining the status quo, which is not really the status quo at all, because abuse is usually progressive.” Additionally, abuse is a learned behavior. Almost all abusers were raised in abusive homes. This is a dor l’dor progressive problem that needs to be acknowledged and stopped.

The Talmud teaches that anyone who has the ability to correct a situation and is derelict in doing so bears the responsibility for whatever results. If abuse is not acknowledged, it is tolerated. Standing by while a sin is being committed is a violation of Jewish law. Abuse is happening in our neighborhoods.  Women and their children are being harmed. We cannot stand by.

 In chapter 4 of the Megillah, Mordechai reminds Esther that by remaining silent she will not herself remain unharmed. The words he uses are “Al ha’chresh t’chrishi.” The word “cherish” means deaf – don’t be deaf to the tragedy that is about to happen because you yourself will not be safe. Domsetic abuse affects all of society because it is so pervasive. It is called the silent sin because it happens behind closed doors and is not discussed. We don’t hear the cries of our neighbors, sisters, teachers, co-workers... SHALVA’s motto, in fact, is “Giving voice to the unspeakable.” Esther learned that she couldn’t deafen herself. She was responsible to speak out in order to save her people and herself, and so are we.

Last week Lori Weinstein, the CEO of Jewish Women International, published an op-ed in JTA titled “With Esther’s Voice, fighting violence against women.” In her op-ed she discusses the long stalled vote on the International Violence Against Women Act in both our Senate and House of Representatives. She writes about celebrating Esther’s strength at being able to speak out in order to save herself and her people. But, she writes, “Not every woman has the ability to speak. Not every woman can go about the day without fear of violence.” At the same time that I ask you to support SHALVA here in our community, I also encourage you to learn about this very important bill and contact your representatives in government to speak out for all those women who can’t.

And finally, a prayer. This is from the Converso liturgy and probably represents abused women in our community as well.

“And Esther prayed to the Lord God saying:

My Lord Adonai help me for I am alone.

Give me courage,

Master of all powers

Put clever words into my mouth as I face the lion.

You know Lord

I hate the symbol of my high position.

The crown I wear upon my head in court

I loathe

And do not wear it when I am alone.

I have found no pleasure in this house.

O God whose strength prevails over all

Listen to the voice of the victim

Save us from the hand of the wicked

 And free me from my fear.”