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Monday, October 14, 2013

Husband-Beaters May Be "Protecting Women," But Why Won't They Actually Help Them?


Last week the FBI arrested a "gang" of rabbis for allegedly kidnapping & beating men who refused to give their wives a divorce.

If you don't know (or hate) the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community you might easily be ecstatic about the arrests. You might think they're "crazy," "sadistic," "money-grubbers," "crooks in holy robes."

But if you're inside the view is a little bit different. First of all, beating men who refuse their wives a divorce is grounded in centuries of legal precedent aimed at protecting the women:
“During the twelfth century, Maimonides ruled that if a man refused to grant a divorce to a woman who was entitled to it, he was to be whipped without mercy until he did so (Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Divorce," 2:20). The legal precedent for his ruling was the talmudic law, "If a man refused to give a woman a divorce, he is forced until he declares "I am willing” (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 50a).” (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, cited in Haaretz)
Secondly, you might be glad that these women had at least some recourse to justice, given the way ultra-Orthodox culture works. Although there are means to avoid the divorce problem, the problem is not considered urgent or widely adopted by most rabbis. And thus, when abusive husbands refuse or flee, their wives are literally "stuck." From the perspective of Jewish law, they can't marry, and even if they did, their children would be illegitimate -- "bastards."

These abused wives are considered agunas, "chained women."

Therefore inside the community, secular law has nothing on the stigma these women face. In that world, life revolves around the family, women have traditional roles, and secular education is frowned upon. Admitting abuse, assault, or any domestic problem brands the victim, not the offender.

To solve the problem involves thinking beyond the superficial. Jewish authorities routinely issue rulings designed to address community needs, including rulings associated with divorce. And Jews follow secular law ("the law of the land") as a matter of faith, not just convenience.

In fact the issue is subtler - religious resistance to equality. The rabbis say their intentions are good, but the effect is to keep women subordinate through fear and shame. This cannot be holy.

The answer therefore is to call as much attention to the plight of the victim of domestic abuse as possible. To show that we support her, inside and outside the Jewish community. And that the shame is on the offenders and those who enable and protect them, not the victims at all.

After that, Jewish legal justice will follow, and the FBI can focus on other things.

* All opinions my own.