Rabbi, May I Beat My Wife, Please?


Under what conditions, the Talmud asks, may a man beat his wife? This is an important question given that a bad wife, in the rabbis’ estimation, may be beaten. A bad wife, they say, is one who goes out with uncovered hair, spins wool with bare arms, or talks to any old man. A screamer, the Talmud adds, is also fair game.

It’s not a very enlightened attitude (but then, it was the fourth century), and it’s just the beginning of hundreds of years of rabbinic squabbling over if and when a man can abuse his wife. In the 12th century, Maimonides (aka Rambam) permits caning a woman who won’t do the work her husband requires of her.

But there have also been plenty of rabbis who won’t stand for domestic violence. Rabbi Perez Ben Elijah, a French rabbi in the 13th century, proposed a takkanah, an amendment on Jewish law that would make assaulting one’s wife equal to assaulting a stranger. Since then rabbis have gone back and forth on this issue, with some siding with Maimonides and others with Rabbi Perez Ben Elijah.

And what about the so-called “bad wives” of today? Well, most large Jewish communities have organizations to support Jewish women in abusive relationships, including free counseling, shelters, and legal services–to protect them from their god-awful husbands.

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