The opening part of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, which Isaac read for us so beautifully, described Jacob fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau. But today I would like to focus on the other flight of the week, on the pursuit of Jacob and his family by Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, who has exploited him for years.
Before Laban catches up with his relatives, God forbids him from doing them any harm. Still, when they meet, Laban tries to intimidate them by saying ‘my hand has power to hurt you. […] The daughters are my daughters […] all you have is mine.’ Jacob and his family are truly lucky to have God intervene on their behalf.
Laban is a classical example of a domestic abuser – an individual who displays controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour towards their family members. His actions show us that domestic abuse has various faces: physical violence, financial exploitation, psychological abuse, among many others. They also remind us that every family member, regardless of their gender or age, can become a target of domestic violence. Nevertheless, Laban’s insistence to keep his control over his daughters teaches us that, in a patriarchal culture, women and children are most likely victims of domestic violence and abuse.
This Shabbat we mark Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA) Shabbat, a cross-denominational initiative, which aims to remind us that Labans can be found in our community today and that women are still more likely to become their victims. The statistics are truly terrifying. It is estimated that the prevalence of domestic abuse in the British Jewish community is on par with the general population, which means that one in four Jewish women in this country will experience it in her lifetime. This situation was only exacerbated by the pandemic, JWA has seen a 62% spike in calls to their domestic violence helpline in this period. Worryingly, JWA’s data shows that on average, it takes Jewish women who experience domestic abuse 11.5 years to ask for help, compared to the national average of 9.5 years.
This discrepancy between the Jewish community and the general population is attributed to higher levels of shame and fear associated with coming out as a victim of domestic abuse in our community. But where does this shame come from?
An important source of this shame is our communal self perception. Jewish tradition has a long established streak of treating domestic abuse as somebody else’s problem. Rabbis in the Talmud viewed it as an issue of uneducated Jews. Rabbi Moses Isserles, the main codifier of Ashkenazi practise, acknowledged that wife-beating happened in Jewish homes but maintained that it was primarily a non-Jewish form of behaviour.
This belief is closely related to the concept of Shalom Bayit (Hebrew for peace at home), which presupposes that Jewish marriages are characterised by domestic harmony maintained by Jewish women. Such an understanding of Shalom Bayit prevents Jewish women from sharing their stories of abuse by engendering self-blame. It makes them feel that the abuse they experience is a consequence of their failure to create a harmonious Jewish household.
In order to overcome this shame, we need to emphasise that shalvah – a sense of inner peace arising from security – of each Jewish woman, man and child – is more important than keeping up the appearances of Shalom Bayit.
What about fear? Why should anyone in our community fear coming out as a person who has been mistreated? Isn’t our religious obligation to intervene when those around us are in danger enshrined in the words of Leviticus 19:16: ‘do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour?’
I believe that one of the main sources of this fear is associated with the first half of the same verse which says: ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people’, traditionally understood as an injunction against lashon hara, derogatory speech. Those who experience abuse in the Jewish community are afraid to speak up because they are concerned that they won’t be believed. They fear that our community will prefer to uphold positive public personas of the perpetrators and its own self-perception rather than listen to the painful truth. They are afraid that, as a result, they rather than the abusers will be vilified and socially shunned. Finally, members of the ultraorthodox community might fear that informing the authorities about abuse could contravene the principle of mesirah – an ancient tradition of Jewish communities of not reporting fellow Jews to the civil government.
If we want to break the fear of speaking up about domestic abuse, we need to create a communal culture where women-demeaning discourse is not tolerated in our public life. This includes decisive action to tackle chauvinist bullying at schools and on social media, and calling others out when they perpetuate gender stereotypes. This way we shall send a message that we treat gender-based abuse with utmost concern. These actions will also signal our openness to address difficult issues directly rather than sweep them under the carpet.
The fear and shame attached to coming forward as a victim of domestic abuse have been a part of Jewish life for far too long. It is time to put an end to them. But we also must have more immediate concerns in mind. We need not just be but also act in Divine’s image protecting those who experience abuse from Labans of today.
Taking action starts with learning to recognize the warning signs of abuse. Frequent physical injuries, changes in mood or behaviour, offhand mention of a partner being controlling or temperamental could all be red flags. When we are confronted with these signs, we mustn’t dismiss them. Instead, we should seek opportunities to talk privately to the person who might be experiencing abuse, ask them how they are doing and assure them that they can talk to us if something is wrong.
The next step is active listening. We need to learn to listen to victims of abuse in a way that makes them feel believed, challenges self-blame messages they might have internalised and helps them plan their next steps if they are ready to take them.
Finally, we can offer practical help, both as individuals and as a synagogue.
As individuals, we can lend organisational and material support to those who have to leave their homes. We can signpost those who reached out to us to JWA and other organisations that provide assistance. And we can support JWA and other charities offering assistance to victims of domestic violence with our donations.
As a synagogue, we believe that it is our holy obligation to support JWA in their fight to make the Jewish community a safer space. This is why you can find JWA posters with numbers of helplines in our toilets. But we want you to know that these numbers are not the only way to find support in our synagogue. If you are our member – of any gender or age -and you are experiencing domestic violence or abuse, we are there for you. If you need to talk, you can contact Rabbi Mark, Rabbi Debbie or I; you can also reach out to our Community Care team. If you are a teenager or a child, you can also reach out to our Education and Youth Team. We are all there to listen, to support you the best we can and signpost you to organisations where you can receive further help.
I mentioned many actions through which we – as individuals and as a synagogue – can bring healing to those who are experiencing violence and abuse. I hope that you will find time to get involved in at least a number of them. In this intention, I would like to offer the misheberach, a prayer for healing, written by rabbis associated with the Jewish Women International, an organization fighting for the right of all Jewish women to lead lives free from domestic violence.
May the One who blessed our ancestors Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, provide protection, compassion, care and healing for all those who have known violence and abuse within their families. May those who have been harmed find pathways to understanding and wholeness and those who have caused harm find their way to repentance and peace. May our community be a source of support for those who have suffered in silence or shame. May those whose homes have become places of danger find their way to a sukkat shalom, a shelter of safety.