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Intimate Partner Violence in a Jewish Context: A Personal Story

01/16/2019 10:32:46 AM

Jan16

Miriam Yudelson Katz

 

Parshat Bo begins with Hashem telling Moshe: בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה ,כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ “Go to Paro. For I have hardened his heart…” A few psukim later, Paro tells Moshe to take Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt, only to revoke that permission soon after. Sforno says that Hashem “stiffened Paro’s heart so that ordinary rules of psychology could no longer be applied to this man.”

Have you ever lived with someone who changed their mood and attitude on a whim? Been at the mercy of someone who was cruel one moment and kind the next? This is called crazy-making, and is a form of abuse. Like Bnai Yisrael at the mercy of Paro, a person in an abusive relationship lives on edge not knowing if her partner has hardened his heart on that day, or heard her cries of anguish. And the ordinary rules of psychology don’t apply when dealing with an abuser. While God promised us that He would not revisit Egypt or the plagues on us, as people with free will we can wreak havoc on each other in ways that rival the plagues.

The first time that my first ex-husband, who I’ll call Alan, beat me up was six months after we got married. I don’t remember why we argued that night.  I remember getting thrown against the wall, over and over. I remember him slapping me across the face, knocking my glasses across the room. Then when he had enough, suddenly he went upstairs and calmly went to sleep. I was stunned. I was ashamed. I didn’t know what to do. I was too humiliated to call my parents, and didn’t know where else to turn for help. With nowhere else to go, I got into bed next to the man who had just beaten me.

Over the next two years, this was my life. Alan got angry over imperceptible faults. I was late coming home from work or I had disrespected him in front of our Shabbat guests. He argued with his parents over the phone, then throw the phone at my head in a rage. This alternated with him apologizing, being charming and loving.

Domestic violence isn’t about a spouse making a mistake or doing something wrong. It is as fickle as Paro’s heart. It’s about power and control. It’s about authority and intimidation, rather than relationships of respect and partnership. Anger and violence are tools, not causes. Alcoholism, drug use, or depression may exacerbate the problem, but they are not the cause. Circumstances are excuses to deny responsibility. We all feel angry sometimes, and we all make mistakes. We don’t all abuse others, and none of us deserves abuse.

Domestic abuse takes many forms, ranging from isolation, financial control, and intimidation to bullying, emotional abuse, and physical violence. My ex-husband isolated me from my parents. He destroyed my self-esteem, belittling and humiliating me and criticizing me constantly. He was violent and intimidated me by punching holes in our walls, driving recklessly, and abusing our pet.

Intimate partner violence impacts millions of people each year. One out of three American women and one out of four American men experience physical violence from an intimate partner at some point in their life. While we lack reliable statistics about the Jewish community, Jewish victims generally stay in abusive relationships twice as long as others. Jews are trapped by the three shins: shanda, shidduchim, and shalom bayit.

Shanda, shame. Jews don’t have such problems. Don’t embarrass the family by making a big deal. The pressure of public appearances is powerful and there is tremendous stigma attached to divorce within the Jewish community.

Shidduchim, matches. Acknowledging abuse and considering divorce can damage the shidduch, matchmaking, potential of children, siblings, and other relatives. And so many stay in abusive marriages until their children are grown. And some stay quiet about abusive and controlling behavior because they mistakenly think it’s loshon hara to talk about. But preventing a dangerous marriage is not loshon hara.

Shalom Bayit, the ideal of a peaceful home. There is a perception that the responsibility for a happy home rests on one partner, that Shalom Bayit is within reach if you only read a book or go to a lecture and follow the advice. Every week as I lit Shabbat candles, I prayed that I would be deserving of a peaceful home. I blamed myself for his actions, and I thought that Judaism held me responsible for the success or failure of my marriage.

Many people think that following the mitzvot protects us from such problems. While in an ideal universe Torah values should ensure that all people are treated with respect and kindness, religion itself is frequently used as yet another control tactic.

Alan was generally more violent when I was in niddah. If I protested that he wasn’t allowed to touch me at that time, he would say it wasn’t “derech chibbah”, affectionate contact, so my niddah status didn’t matter. By mikvah night I generally had bruises up and down my arms, legs, and torso. Every month I entered the mikvah praying desperately that this month I would be worthy, I would appease him sufficiently, and my marriage would magically transform into a loving and respectful relationship. I felt responsible for all of it.

I know women whose husbands used halacha itself as a means of control. Refusing to use an eruv isolates a young mother. Insisting that for kashrut reasons all food must be made at home, that they can never accept a Shabbat meal invitation or buy prepared foods, further isolates a woman and can burden her unreasonably, leaving her more vulnerable to her husband’s rages. Taking on new chumrot or shifting minhagim suddenly can leave a partner uncertain and feeling always in the wrong.

And obviously, gett refusal is a form of abuse. While some men withhold the gett for financial gain, there are many whose primary motivation is to punish and control their wives.

Going back to the parasha, it says לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם, “People could not see each other and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” A person who is being abused lives in darkness, darkness so thick that they cannot get up from where they are, darkness so oppressive that they cannot see a way out. Light and caring break through the darkness of abuse. That is why we are focusing on family violence this Shabbat. Dark things need to be discussed and addressed and challenged. I am here to ask all of you, all of Bnai Yisrael, to bring light to people in darkness.

If you see something, say something. Don’t confront an abuser. It won’t shift the underlying dynamic and can cause more harm in the short term. However, letting an abuse victim know that you see and you care can make a tremendous difference. The path out of my violent marriage began with a friend saying “I don’t like the way he talks to you.” Another friend reassured me I could talk to her about anything at any time. Someone gave me information on a domestic violence counseling center. It was those small gestures that showed me that this wasn’t all my fault and maybe there was a way out. And when I was ready to take action, I knew where to turn for help.

So my message to you today is Reach out! Reach out if you need help. Reach out if you think someone else needs help. I am here for you; the Bnai David clergy and Jewish Family Services Project Hope staff are here for you. Read and share the information on the back table from our co-sponsors. Be quiet and gentle, yet reach out. It can be the critical ray of light, for you, a friend, a neighbor, colleague, or acquaintance.

Sat, April 20 2019 15 Nisan 5779