Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sh’ma Magazine article: Blame the Jews for Domestic Abuse

At the outset, let me speak plainly: Domestic abuse is a horrible crime, deserving of jail or worse. A horrible disease, it exists in every culture on earth, including among Jews of all types of observance, and the leaders of every society must do everything in their power, and then some, to root it out. Within the context of Orthodox Judaism, that means that rabbis, as supposed social leaders, must take concrete steps, including speeches and classes as well as personal counseling, to eradicate this crime.

Having said that, I was deeply disappointed by Naomi Graetz’s column, Silence is Deadly, in the February/March 2008 issue of Sh’ma Magazine. Graetz took an earthshatteringly important issue and cheapened it into political fodder.

Graetz starts strong, talking about the problem of domestic abuse and the need to eliminate it, and the extent of its presence in Jewish and Arab populations in Israel. But then she veers off into something that sounds an awful lot like anti-Jewish hate speech:

Where does the attitude come from that physical and mental abuse against women is acceptable? Does it start at home, in school? Is it supported by the rabbinate? What gives some men the right to think that silencing women is permissible? Is it because, as our sages say, a woman would prefer any marriage to not being married at all?

As Graetz presumably knows quite well, and as I stated above, domestic abuse exists in every society on earth - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Atheist, Aboriginal, European, South American, Eskimo, you name it. Any decent psychologist can tell you that it is a product of human dysfunction, traceable to insecurity or depression or childhood trauma or chemical imbalance or a combination of other ills. So why allege that rabbis support it, or silence women? Is Torah responsible for Hindu domestic abuse, perhaps? Are rabbis fomenting misogynist behavior in Iceland or Indonesia? And no basis is presented for her suggestion - only that insidious, hideous allegation.

And Ms. Graetz continues:

Some religious leaders choose to ignore the distress of battered women; family stability and obedience to rabbinic law trumps the suffering of the individual. These sages are silencing women’s voices. In Israel, jurisdiction in matters of personal status is given to the Orthodox rabbinical courts, which means that all matters of marriage and divorce are adjudicated according to the interpretations of Jewish law. Although ample precedents exist for interpreting halakhah in a way that might favor women, rabbis who sit in today’s rabbinical courts have no such incentives.

Notice the “some religious leaders” and “these sages” in there? No names, no cases, no statistics or specific data, just a broad-brush stroke attacking nameless leaders and sages.

Graetz then reveals her rabbinic target as she turns the second half of the article into a diatribe against the Israeli rabbinate, alleging that they are biased against women and that they don’t admit the problem - even as she grudgingly admits that “Orthodox and Haredi” communities have now set up safe houses for women. Despite this and associated steps to address the problem (there are now “some rabbis who don’t automatically side with the husband,” to cite Graetz’s damning praise), her solution includes the important charge to “dismantle the rabbinate’s monopoly on divorce.”

And that will solve this problem? Come on. I am no fan of כפייה דתית, religious coercion, but the real issue is addressing mental illness and protecting the vulnerable, not shuffling the rules of which agency processes an application for divorce.

I’m disgusted. I’d rather fight domestic abuse than use it for political agitprop.

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