Unfortunately, Jewish Men Do


There is a t-shirt that someone bought for me last year that has the words “Rabbis” and “Cheshvan” printed on it along with a huge heart. This t-shirt, created by Rabbi Rachel Silverman, acknowledges that once the Hebrew month of Tishrei and all of its holidays are finally complete, we rabbis fall in love with Cheshvan. It is no secret that the month is usually a lot quieter and easier for us.

Depending on the year, Tishrei can fall mostly in September or mostly in October.  This year, the holidays were nearly equally divided between the two months, with most of Sukkot,  Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah taking place in October.  As all of the yom tovim were on weekdays, the routine of going to synagogue, hosting a meal and trying to squeeze in a nap before returning to the synagogue again was constantly repeated.

While successfully adhering to an active Jewish calendar, it seems that many from the Jewish community have forgotten that we concurrently live our lives according to the secular calendar.  October is not comparable to Cheshvan. Not only is Breast Cancer Awareness observed, but  according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, October has been designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month since 1987. From NFL players to the Empire State Building and Montparnasse Tower in Paris, the color pink currently is everywhere to symbolize breast cancer awareness, but somehow not enough of us are paying much attention to domestic violence this month.

On October 12 and 13, my synagogue bravely hosted A Shabbat of Awareness, with different speakers brought in to educate our community about the silent epidemic of domestic violence. Our speakers included Dr. Carmella Marrone, the founder of the Queens College White Ribbon Campaign Against Domestic Violence and Rabbi Lisa Gelber, who is featured in the film I Believe You: Faiths’ Response to Intimate Partner Violence which she screened for us.  Unfortunately, the attendance for these speakers was dismal. Later we heard that many in our community did not feel that domestic violence was a Jewish issue nor was it appropriate for a Shabbat topic.

I could not disagree more.

According to Rabbi Diana Gerson, chair of the Jewish Women’s Caucus of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in the United States alone there are over 85 different Jewish agencies with programs dedicated to serving victims of domestic violence. This list does not even include Israel or other countries that are home to Jewish populations.

An easy statistic to remember from the National Health Resource Center on Domestic Violence is that nearly one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Jewish women are not exempt.  Abuse does not favor one religious, socioeconomic, or ethnic group over another.  The old saying that Jewish men don’t hit their wives or children is simply not true.

In our vast corpus of Jewish literature, we have numerous examples of husbands hitting their wives. Notably in the Talmud we read “Rabbi Meir used to say: Whoever marries his daughter to an am ha-aretz (ignoramus) is as though he bound and laid her before a lion: just as a lion tears [his prey] and devours it and has no shame, so too an am ha-aretz strikes and cohabits and has no shame” (Pesachim 49b). A review of early and later commentators including Maimonides and Rabbi Moshe Isserles, allude to the notion that Jewish men have been abusing their wives for thousands of years.  

Perhaps so few people came to our Shabbat of Awareness because they thought that if they attended people would think that they were victims of abuse and it would be a shundah. On the webpage of the FaithTrust Institute that is specifically designed for issues pertaining to domestic violence and the Jewish community, the Yiddish word shundah is described as shame, scandal and disgrace. It should not a shundah to be a victim of domestic abuse. Rather, as they write, the real shundah is not labeling abuse for what it is and allowing people to suffer in silence.

To be sure, many of our congregants have spent more time sitting in a synagogue pew in the last thirty days than many of their other pursuits, but what message have they given to every fourth friend, relative or colleague of theirs by not even showing up to educate themselves this past Shabbat? When we read in Parshat Breishit this past week that the world was evil and God wanted to start over, how much of a stretch would it be to assume that domestic abuse occurred, even back then?

As the month of Cheshvan is in full swing and Jewish holiday related activities have calmed down, remember that there are still a couple of weeks left in October.  Take some time to learn about the domestic violence  resources in your community.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin serves as rabbi at the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY.