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  • Domestic Violence and the Jewish Community: The Literature Expands
  • Carol Goodman Kaufman (bio)

In the past decade, we have seen progress, albeit slow, in our communal struggle against abuse in the home. More people are acknowledging that violence does indeed occur in Jewish homes. More Jewish women are feeling empowered to come forward and seek help. Rabbis are reporting that they have attended workshops and panels on the subject, and communities have established committees to address the problem. And, publications that address domestic violence in the Jewish community have been filling library shelves.

In 1995, Rabbi Julie Ringold Spitzer broke new ground in publishing When Love Is Not Enough: Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism (Federation of Temple Sisterhoods). She exposed the myth that abuse does not happen among Jews, with our tradition of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That belief, she wrote, becomes a burden for women, who feel responsible for maintaining the artifice. Some of the statistics Spitzer cited were unsubstantiated, but she did the Jewish community a tremendous service by bringing a difficult subject to the table.

The following year, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community (Mirkov Publications, 1996) broke strong taboos among his ultra-Orthodox co-religionists by exposing our people’s secrets. For his efforts, and though his work likely saved many lives, Twerski was shunned by his community. Short on research methodology, this slim volume focuses almost exclusively on counseling of abusers and their victims. Twerski was among the first to advocate the separation of couples during counseling sessions so as to ensure the victim’s freedom of speech during the session, as well as her safety upon return home.

Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating, by Naomi Graetz (Jason Aronson, 1998), is an excellent source for learning about Judaism’s laws and traditions regarding spousal abuse, with the rabbinic writings very helpfully presented in chapters according to their attitudes and rulings on the subject. Most surprising for me were some of the seemingly very modern and enlightened responsa by very early rabbis.

Susan Weitzman’s Not to People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages (Basic Books, 2001), while not aimed exclusively at a Jewish audience, focuses on abusive relationships among educated, affluent couples. Weitzman discusses the economic [End Page 172] and social incentives that keep many such women in their marriages. Since education, professional achievement and the status of “marrying well” are all highly prized in the Jewish community, the author’s findings are applicable to Jewish clients, who are often reluctant to give up their status and prestige in their communities, despite their pain.

Rachel Lev, a psychotherapist, is herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her own father. Her book Shine the Light: Sexual Abuse and Healing in the Jewish Community (Northeastern University Press, 2002) includes narratives of sexual abuse and incest victims, a chapter on Jewish law relating to the subject by Rabbi Mark Dratsch, and a very interesting section on using artistic expression to deal with the highly charged emotions that victims experience. She also looks at several psychological theories relating to family and community denial, and at victims’ disconnection from family and social life. In her discussion of systems theory and the permeability of boundaries that characterizes all living organisms, Lev successfully delineates between the fuzziness of boundaries in families and the violation of those same borders when sexual abuse takes place. However, in reading the narratives, I sensed that Lev herself might be blurring the therapist/patient boundary. Was she treating friends? Did she befriend her patients? This may simply have been an editing oversight, but it should have been addressed.

Elaine Weiss’s Family and Friends’ Guide to Domestic Violence: How to Listen, Talk and Take Action When Someone You Care About is Being Abused (Volcano Press, 2003), while again not a Jewish book per se, is a very useful paperback volume whose goal is to provide guidance to friends and family members of abuse victims. Weiss, herself a survivor of spousal abuse, provides an excellent overview of the life of abuse victims and, more important, guidance for loved...


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pp. 172-175
Launched on MUSE
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