On October 31, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger informed Israel Radio, Reshet Bet, that he had visited a shelter for battered Orthodox women in Beit Shemesh and was horrified to hear of their suffering.

Apparently the chief rabbi had not been aware that Orthodox women were victims of domestic violence and expressed sincere compassion for their plight.

He described how he spoke with the women and listened to their stories. This eloquent spiritual leader pointed out that Jewish law (Halacha) does not condone violence in the home and that good Jewish husbands honor their wives and treat them with dignity and respect. He was so impressed by the experience that he is now going to recommend that all dayanim (religious judges) visit this shelter.

Rabbi Metzger’s concern and compassion is well deserved and to be commended. However, it comes a little late. Where has he been for the past 40 years? Has he been so out of touch that he doesn’t read newspapers or listen to radio or television? He served as chief rabbi of north Tel Aviv and has been the chief rabbi of Israel since 2003. In that position, he serves as a judge on the Bet Din Hagadol (the Great Court). Has he never heard of women seeking divorce from abusive husbands? The first shelter for battered women was opened in Herzliya in the 1970s. Why did it take him so long to visit one? What does his lack of knowledge say about him personally, or about the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts in Israel? FROM 2003 to 2009 I served as the only woman on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim. During that period I interviewed over 350 candidates who sought appointment.

My colleagues on the Commission who participated in these interviews, including a dayan from the Bet Din Hagadol and an Knesset member, would discuss the candidate’s yeshiva education and the rabbis who had been his teachers.

I would ask the candidates how they would handle cases where abusive husbands refused to give their wives a get (a divorce). Apparently these questions had not been asked of potential dayanim prior to my participation in the interviews.

The candidates seemed surprised by my questions and a leading rabbi told me that everyone was talking about the questions I asked during the interviews.

Like Rabbi Metzger, these candidates were well versed in Halacha, but seemed to know nothing about the problem of domestic violence in the Jewish community. When asked how they would handle such a case, they stammered and faltered.

Several remarked that abusive behavior doesn’t take place in Orthodox homes! Given this lack of knowledge in the world of rabbis and dayanim, the way abused women are treated in the rabbinical courts when they file for divorce is not surprising.

The rabbis simply don’t believe their testimony.

Even in cases where women have required medical treatment, including the need for hospitalization due to physical abuse by their husbands, too many dayanim seem to find such objective evidence unconvincing. Is it because all of the dayanim are men that they tend to conclude that abusive husbands’ behavior is the result of provocation by their wives? In most cases involving physical abuse, dayanim are reluctant to obligate the abusive husband to give a get. Let’s not even talk about emotional abuse. Most dayanim have never studied psychology, sociology or child development.

They don’t understand the concept of emotional abuse and certainly do not recognize it as grounds for divorce.

NO WONDER that studies of abused Jewish women show that they remain in abusive relationships four times longer than non- Jewish women. When they approach a rabbi for advice on how to deal with an abusive situation, they are often told that shalom bayit (domestic peace) is of the utmost importance. To improve the situation and reduce the abuse, these women are advised to lose weight, wear more attractive clothes, clean the house, keep the children quiet and cook more creative meals.

Now that Rabbi Metzger is aware of the problem, perhaps we can expect some changes. It’s possible that he could do something about raising awareness amongst other Orthodox rabbis and dayanim.

I would suggest that the chief rabbi begin by requiring all Orthodox rabbis to take a course in domestic violence which is prepared and delivered by social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers and civil court judges.

Hopefully, women who have been victims of abusive marriages could also participate in these courses, giving the rabbis an opportunity to hear the victim’s version of events.

The chief rabbi could organize such courses and require that every sitting dayan as well as all of those who submit their candidacy to be appointed as dayanim take such a course.

Feminist activists have marked November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women since 1981.

In 1999, the UN General Assembly designated November 25 as International Elimination of Violence against Women Day and encouraged non-governmental organizations worldwide to organize activities designed to raise public awareness of the problem. In Israel, there have been organized marches, demonstrations and conferences to mark the day for over a decade.

Perhaps this year Rabbi Metzger could, at long last, participate in these activities.

Would it be too much to hope that rabbis and dayanim could treat abused women with dignity, compassion and respect? Can we now expect that the dayanim will deal with abusive husbands by requiring them to give a get without requiring their wives to give up financial rights? Jewish women will be waiting to see what kind of action Rabbi Metzger takes, now that he has “seen the light.”

The writer, a Jerusalem-based women’s rights lawyer, is the director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project of the International Council of Jewish Women.

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