An abuse of belief

Some haredi men can inflict unique kind of cruelty against their wives.

domestic abuse 88 (photo credit: )
domestic abuse 88
(photo credit: )
Abuse of women, children and the elderly in the religious Jewish community was long denied, on the grounds that observance of the Torah and Talmud prevented it. Physical, sexual, emotional, economic and other types of maltreatment of the weak, claimed this sector, occurs among secular Jews, but "not in our camp." But this has been disproven by infamous cases of child abuse reported recently in the general media, and the opening of shelters for battered women in haredi neighborhoods. THE RECENT ninth Jerusalem conference of ATEM Nefesh-Israel - an organization of observant social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and other therapists - had several sessions devoted to this topic. Although all the 200 or so participants were religious (most of them women), the public nature of the conference at the Bayit Vegan Guesthouse constituted a welcome airing of the religious community's "dirty laundry," though some rabbis still insist on hiding it. The organization of religious therapists was founded by Shaare Zedek Medical Center neuropsychologist Dr. Judith Guedalia and geriatric social worker and Melabev founder Leah Abramowitz. Clearly, most religious Jewish men are good or excellent husbands and fathers. No data were provided on how common abuse is in the religious - especially haredi - community, and how it compares with the secular community, but the fact that it was discussed is a healthy phenomenon. "Twenty years ago, no one would dream of talking openly about violence in the religious family," said Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau. The modern Orthodox rabbi - who is director of the Center for Judaism and Society, heads Jerusalem's Institute for Social Justice at Beit Morasha, serves as rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in the Katamon quarter and lectures on Jewish law and social justice at Bar-Ilan University - delivered a keynote address at the conference. "If a community gives a legitimacy to violence and abuse, these can happen. There are closets in haredi society that are still not open." AN EYE-OPENING workshop on "Spiritual Abuse" of haredi women opened the closet door a crack. Dr. Nicole Dahan, a social worker at the Ariel University Center and Tzipi Levy, a social worker in the Jerusalem Municipality, have done much to put this subject on the public agenda. While until recently, men's abuse of their partners was known to involve physical, emotional, sexual and verbal violence, as well as economic abuse and the reduction of freedom, Levy and Dahan discovered that some haredi men use God and the commandments to abuse their wives. Such spiritual abuse occurs solely in observant communities, mostly the ultra-Orthodox. Men who spend all their time in a kollel (yeshiva for married men) and have a very low level of secular education may be jealous of their wives, who are often required to work and support their large families. A growing number of haredi wives attend courses and colleges, earn degrees and work in advanced fields such as computers and even engineering. This may lead to abuse by their husbands. Levy, who like Dahan is Orthodox and who has worked as a municipal coordinator against abuse of women, described a haredi man who told all the relatives invited to his daughter's bat mitzva that his wife was "crazy" and proceeded to bad-mouth her even though this is forbidden by halacha. After running workshops for secular abused women in northern Jerusalem, she began to organize them for haredi women. Groups of women met regularly for a year and a half and poured out their hearts about what they live with. They told stories about husbands who denigrated their prayers. "One husband told his wife that her praying was a 'waste of time,' that 'God doesn't listen' to her and that there was 'no value' to her supplications." Levy recalled one woman whose husband screamed at her in the middle of the night when she got out of bed "immodestly" in her bare feet to breastfeed her crying newborn. Another example of spiritual abuse was a woman who very much wanted to observe the commandment of "separating halla" - a commandment given especially to women. This involves the removal and burning of a portion of dough before baking bread containing at least 1.6 kilos of flour. The moment of separating the dough and reciting a special blessing is viewed as an especially propitious moment for praying for one's loved ones. The act is symbolic, like offering a sacrifice on the Temple altar in expiation of sins, as a tithe to the kohen or as a plea to God to protect the woman from sorrow and pain. Separation of the halla is also regarded as a way to have an easy, safe birth and a good livelihood. But one husband denigrated his wife for "wasting money on flour" or "making a mess on Friday afternoons" when she should have been preparing for Shabbat, and declared it was cheaper to buy readymade halla. Levy said the husband then ordered a child to go to the nearest grocery and buy loaves. Instead of saying a blessing on the homemade halla, he did so on the store-bought bread. "He whispered to his wife: 'When I say the blessing on the wine [kiddush], I will not include you!' The woman was thus forced to eat without the required inclusion in this blessing that begins the Shabbat meal." Another technique of spiritual abuse is to bring bread into rooms that the wife has already meticulously cleaned before Pessah, or disappearing when the woman has returned "pure" from the ritual bath - a time when couples traditionally have sexual relations after about 12 days of abstention. He is thus able to control his wife by using their religion. DAHAN NOTED that this type of abuse involves repeated attempts to harm the wife's spiritual life. "It is ridiculing, minimizing the wife's spiritual activity. It is usually not a one-time occurrence," she said, after interviewing numerous victims who feel shame, guilt and lack of worth. "The more seriously the woman takes religion, the harder it is for her." Dahan added that she believes spiritual abuse can cause even more damage than physical abuse, and that "it seems to occur much more in the haredi community than the modern Orthodox because Jewish law has such a supreme role in haredi lives." "Could spiritual abuse be perpetrated by wives on their husbands?" one woman asked Dahan. "It could be, but we focused on abuse of women." One haredi woman in the room, with seating separated by gender, raised her hand and suggested it does go both ways. "I know a woman who goes to the Western Wall to pray every week, leaving her husband to cook for the family, and she refuses to accompany him to weddings and other ceremonial family events." "A man may dress like a haredi in black and with all the paraphernalia," suggested another haredi woman, "but he is just acting. It may be he suffers from psychopathology, or he may feel jealous of his wife." Dahan nodded her head. "Yes, he can have a split personality, giving the impression of living a religious life while hiding his bad side." A participant from the male side of the audience said men who spiritually abuse their wives may get support from their rabbis, some of whom assert that a Jewish woman must do exactly what her husband says, even if he is abusing her. "The rabbi may even quote the Talmud to back the man's arguments and help him control her. But another haredi man said that "not every such story is spiritual violence. The husband may legitimately be opposed to his wife wearing a wig instead of a hat." Dahan commented that "therapists have to be very careful not to label everything immediately as spiritual abuse. There's a thin line between a woman serving or listening to her husband and being punished by him." A hassidic woman in the audience said she knew of spiritual abuse of hassidic women whose husbands are "devoted to the Admor [the hassidic rebbe who heads their community], but go to all events while ignoring their wives. I know of a woman who was getting fertility treatments, but the husband wouldn't cooperate because he "had" to be at the rebbe's sermon and festive meal. Levy said Jerusalem social workers and mental health professionals have accepted their description of spiritual abuse and now screen haredi women who come for help. "There are all kinds of problems that a non-religious therapist wouldn't identify. But there are observant therapists who have asked me whether it's a desecration of God's name if they investigate accusations of spiritual abuse. I say it is a consecration of God's name to identify such acts and treat victims." The social workers were more vague about the treatment than the phenomenon. "I am sure that some things have to be changed in the education of haredi girls," said Dahan. "Many may need to get a feeling of empowerment so they can choose a husband carefully and detect signs of potential abusers. Nefesh is gradually bringing changes by educating and integrating rabbis." "We must give haredi women the choice of whether to be a victim or not," added Levy. "Problems often appear in childhood. We have to help the victim identify the problem. Men will be willing to change if doing so doesn't cost him more than he gains. Rabbis can find a halachic solution for the problem. Sometimes, if there is no hope, they can suggest divorce. They can instruct the woman to pray at the Kotel to empower her." A haredi woman in the audience suggested: "If the husband is unwilling to take the blame, the rabbi can blame the woman even though she is not at fault, and then the husband will be more willing to go for treatment." So the "dirty laundry" is being exposed. Now it's time for the sunlight to do its work.