Silence is Deadly

February 1, 2008
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Naomi Graetz

After much soul-searching and polling among my friends, I came up with a title for my book on wife beating: Silence is Deadly. The victim has no place to turn if the topic is not discussed. A woman is truly victimized if she thinks she is the only one in the world who is being beaten by her husband.

Every now and then there are headlines, a period of time or event dedicated to eradicating violence against women. But what is not mentioned is how dangerous the message is, that women’s voices should not be heard, and that women can be silenced with violence.

The evidence that Jewish wife beating exists is strong. The estimated minimum figure is 100,000 battered women in Israel (with 40,000 hospitalized); the maximum number is 200,000 (which includes the Arab population). There are between 150 to thousands of agunot — it depends on whom you ask, the rabbinical court or the activists.

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?

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.

The Quebec Court recently upheld the right of an agunah to attain a get. The judge wrote that the husband’s refusal “represented an unjustified…impairment on [her] ability to live her life in accordance with this country’s values and her Jewish beliefs.” A judgment like this can serve as a countermodel to society’s apathy. The Israeli judicial system could learn from their Canadian counterparts.

Recently, there have been some changes in Israel — safe houses and shelters for Orthodox and Haredi women in Jerusalem, and some rabbis who don’t automatically side with the husband. I hope this change is a result of a new weltanschauung, new coalitions against the rampant abuse by the Israeli rabbinate, and less acceptance of the silence of those who sweep abuse under the carpet. What ethical questions are raised by this silence?

We still have much to do: demand prenuptial agreements; learn our rights; ask hard questions; and demand legislation to dismantle the rabbinate’s monopoly on divorce. Outside Israel, the Jewish community should support human rights organizations that are part of the international coalition for agunot and trafficked women. This might change the face of Israeli society and return to us our voices.

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Naomi Graetz has been teaching English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev since 1974. She is the author most recently of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God.

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