Tackling a “Shondeh”
By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
This is an article posted on the official site of OU is almost ten years old. Unfortunately it is as relevant today and at the time of writing.
It seems to me that at least part of my destiny has been to champion unpopular subjects. A number of years ago, I began to awaken the Jewish community to the fact that “shikker is a goy” is a myth, and that the problems of alcoholism and drug abuse have infiltrated the most respectable families. Now it has become my task to debunk the myth that Jewish husbands are, without exception, kind, devoted, and considerate, and that there is no such thing as domestic violence in the Jewish community.
Even the most serious and life-threatening problems can go unnoticed when there is resistance to acknowledging them. It is a fact that many women neglect to examine themselves properly for breast cancer because of the fear of what it might mean if they discover a mass. Obviously, it is this very neglect that can lead to the grave consequences that could have been avoided by early detection.
The idea of “shondeh” (disgrace) functions in the same manner as fear. To recognize that there is spouse abuse is to admit that there is a “shondeh.” As a result, women who are abused continue to suffer because they are unwilling to admit that they are being abused. Unfortunately, they also expose their children to the deleterious effects of growing up in a home where there is abuse. Rabbis often refuse to believe that these problems exist. The resultant hesitance of women to confide in a rabbi because they will be suspected of lying or even of being “meshugah” may have valid grounds. Parents whose daughters complain of being abused may encourage them to return to their husbands and overlook the abuse, saying, “The children need a father, and he is a good provider.” Countless excuses are given for maintaining the status quo, which is not really a status quo at all, because abuse is usually progressive.
Communities as a whole are caught up in the denial of this grave problem. Jewish family services are often underfunded, and therefore cannot operate a hotline, provide adequate staff, or maintain a safe-house for abused spouses.
The most evident form of abuse is physical, although abusive husbands are usually clever enough to strike only at the parts of the body that are not exposed. But verbal and emotional abuse may be every bit as damaging to everyone in the family. Quibbling and arguments, while undesirable, do not necessarily constitute abuse, but insulting or demeaning a spouse is definitely abuse. Isolating a woman from family and friends, restricting her ability to function by controlling her access to money, or undermining her authority as a mother is abuse.
Abuse occurs in a community that tolerates it. While the aggressor is the immediate perpetrator, the community cannot shirk its culpability if it allows abuse to occur and continue. We tend to look for causes of things, and indeed a match may be the cause of a fire. But fires cannot burn in the absence of oxygen, and if the supply of oxygen is cut off, as when we douse a fire with water, the flame is extinguished. While a community is not the cause of abuse, it may be likened to the “oxygen” when it allows the abuse to continue. If attitudes in the community undergo an appreciable change, and this change pervades every facet of the community, spouse abuse may be extinguished.
I recently lectured on spouse abuse in a major Jewish community, and 600 people attended the lecture. However, many of the posters announcing the lecture were torn down by people who felt it was a “shondeh” to bring this issue before the public. How sad! The real “shondeh” is when a woman is traumatized physically or emotionally and when her life (and perhaps that of the children) is ruined because she has no one to turn to, no one she feels can help her.
There may be some light at the end of the tunnel. The Shalom Task Force, a volunteer group in New York, is trying to organize a nationwide network of service providers. Last year, 175 rabbis gathered in New York to discuss this issue at a session sponsored by the Shalom Task Force and endorsed by the respected Talmudist, Rabbi Abraham Pam. The Nefesh organization, comprised of several hundred Orthodox psychotherapists, has held special sessions on spouse abuse. In many communities, Jewish agencies are providing trained staffs to deal with these cases. But much more needs to be done, and soon. None of us should have on our conscience that a person has been damaged or destroyed because the community was derelict in providing the necessary resources for help.
This is not a job for “the other guy.” Abuse cuts across all economic, cultural and religious levels in our community. There is no immunity. We should all become involved, even if only for self-serving reasons. Everyone should contact the agency in their community to find out what they can do to help. Too often, people fail to get involved until the problem strikes too close to home.