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Isaac and Rebecca

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-11-28

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Several months ago I wrote about domestic violence. I argued that there was a tendency to underestimate and to take too lightly the problem of violence against women in Jewish society, which, both statistically and anecdotally is, sadly, higher than it ought to be. Frankly that it exists at all is a reproach against everything Judaism stands for.

I had several types of responses. Some men contacted me to complain about being assaulted themselves by women. One bad tempered gentleman harangued me about how much the rabbinate is actually doing to deal with the problem. Others told me I was being too kind. Someone gave me a list of wife beaters within his own small little enclave and a religious social
worker regaled me with stories of significant numbers of women terrified to speak for fear of worse beatings.

Most societies over the past four thousand years of recorded social history have been male dominated. There may have been very good reasons for this in a violent world where brawn mattered more than brain. But in a world where every university attests to the relative superiority of female brain power, it is manifestly clear that the disparities have or had
nothing to do with innate abilities but with social conditioning and a lack of opportunity. If women were perceived as dumb that was because they were expected to be.

Daniel Boyarin (Professor of Talmud at Berkeley) in his book 'Unheroic Conduct' argues that Freud's belief that his patient Anna O was neurotic because her religious Jewish environment was restrictive was simply wrong. Bertha Pappenheim (her real name) was and remained happily orthodox and was a co-founder of the Bais Yaacov movement that set up an educational
network for religious girls. What frustrated her as a cultured, wealthy Viennese woman, was the dominant non-Jewish attitude to women who were supposed to play decorative roles as hostesses and enable men to do the talking and arguing while they remained politely silent.

Barely a hundred years ago in Britain the suffragette movement had to contend with males who thought women were not intelligent enough to vote. Switzerland only gave women the vote in the 1970's. Women's property rights were only grudgingly conceded in Europe within the past hundred years or so and in Britain a woman could not open a bank account or get a credit card independently until the nineteen fifties. Indeed it is only in the very latest Queen's Speech this week that a bill is coming in to record and register wife beaters. So I am certainly not beating up only on our own!


A lot off research has been published about the failure of the great secular Zionist experiment in liberating women in Israel. Despite the years of Marxist theoretical idealism in Russia and China women are still treated poorly and have far fewer opportunities than males. And in many
backward Muslim and Hindu communities killing women or girls simply on ungrounded suspicions is considered acceptable. So if one is inclined to complain about some Jewish attitudes it is important to remember that many males were brought up in parts of Eastern Europe and the Orient where in the host society, coming home to beat your wife up was the norm rather
than the exception. When Rambam said that a little physical violence against a woman if it was intended to be educational was not forbidden he also allowed child beating if it would improve Torah study. But that was over a thousand years ago!

Just this week in Britain we have seen the conviction of a serial wife beater and subsequently a wife murderer. I have heard of women retaliating against abusive husbands and lovers but never yet of a female serial murderess (unless you think Queen Athalia, Jezebel's daughter or Lucretia
Borgia fit the bill).

Judith Hauptmann in her book 'Rereading the Rabbis' and their attitudes towards women has pointed out how incredibly ahead of their times were the Rabbis of the Mishna who introduced a whole raft of laws designed to protect the interests and rights of women. If we have regressed over time I guess we can blame the influence of dominant cultures we have lived under particularly the Christian, which saw sex and marriage as a concession to the basest of human instincts, and Islam, which relegated women to the seraglio.

Originally Jewish laws about women were designed to protect them. Sadly over time too many males have taken advantage of them in a distorted way to blackmail and take unfair advantage. In London recently a whole community was asked to help pay up to get the rabbi's daughter a Get. This cannot be right by any ethical criteria and must be and can be rectified.
The Halacha itself allows for it.

I used to think that the problems in Judaism were ones of wealth not gender. Wealthy women in the Talmud like Heleni or Imma Shalom were in control of their lives whereas poor males were not and a generous donation to the right rabbi could do wonders. But then the poor males always had poor females to beat up on.

Of course many, most, women want children and homes and domestic fulfilment and are content with this if they are fortunate enough to achieve it. The problem is how we deal with those whose husbands are egocentric bullies and with those women who want something else. It is
still twice as difficult for women to succeed as for men. We know all about glass ceilings. Things are far better than they were but they are still not good enough. For some women in Judaism to feel that they dare not speak out about domestic, is a scandal. We may have sympathetic rabbis but the grass roots pressures still are weighted heavily in favour of the male. Just as the poor male can be bullied because of his dependency and vulnerability so too can the dependent, poor female.

We have come a long way, but we have far further to go yet before we can say that tears of an unhappy woman have absolutely nothing to do with male attitudes.

The Torah records that Rebecca was able to take things into her own hands against her husband's wishes. He was admittedly old and blind at the time. But there is no record anywhere in the bible of wife beating. It is inconceivable that any of those men who we call our forefathers, despite their disagreements with their wives, would have descended to the level of
resorting to violence.