Domestic Violence in Jewish Law

How Judaism views wifebeating.

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A "bad wife" is one who does not perform the duties required of her by Jewish law, who behaves immodestly, or who curses her parents, husband, or in-laws. Rabbis regularly advised men to restrict their wives to the home and be responsible for educating them (e.g. Tsemach Gaon of. Eretz Yisrael (884-915), Solomon B. Abraham Aderet (11235-1310), Maimonides (1135-1204). Thus the husband is given a great amount of latitude in educating his wife. The rabbis who justify beating see it as part of the overall "duties" of a husband to chastise his wife for educational purposes (e.g. Maimonides, Israel Isserlein (c. 1390-1460), David b. Solomon Ibn Avi Zimra (Cairo, 1479-1573), Solomon Luria (c. 1510-1574).

Medieval Attitudes in the Muslim World

Jewish texts are not monolithic about wifebeating, but some medieval authorities do allow it. Tzemah ben Paltoi, Gaon of Pumbedita (872–890),  permitted a man to flog his wife if she was guilty of assault. Rabbi Yehudai b. Nahman (Yehudai Gaon, 757–761) wrote that: "…when her husband enters the house, she must rise and cannot sit down until he sits, and she should never raise her voice against her husband. Even if he hits her she has to remain silent, because that is how chaste women behave" (Otzar ha-Ge'onim, Ketubbot 169–170). The ninth-century Gaon of Sura, Sar Shalom b. Boaz (d. c. 859 or 864), distinguished between an assault on a woman by her husband and an assault on her by a stranger. The Gaon of Sura's opinion was that the husband's assault on his wife should be judged less severely, since the husband had authority over his wife (Otzar ha-Ge'onim, Bava Kamma, 62:198).

In his Mishneh Torah, Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) recommended beating a bad wife as an acceptable form of discipline: "A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod" (Ishut 21:10). The responsa of R. Solomon b. Abraham Aderet (Rashba, 1235–1310), includes examples of husbands who occasionally or habitually use force; few of these men are brought to court for beating a wife in a moment of anger. However, there are instances in Rashba's responsa of wives who considered the rabbis as allies against violent husbands (Aderet, V 264; VII, 477; VIII, 102; IV, 113). 

An example of a North African rabbi who forbade wifebeating is R. Simon b. Tzemach Duran  (1361-1444), who was the author of the Tashbetz, a collection of his responsa. Like Maimonides he was a physicaian who ended up as a rabbinic judge in Algiers and fathered a rabbinic dynasty in North Africa.. He responds to a question about a long suffering wife, whose husband is a difficult person whom she cannot stand. Duran responds: "You can write that he should divorce her and give her the ketubah….for she was given for life, not for sorrow…and does not have to live in close quarters with a snake…" Later on in this responsa, Druan writes that "the rabbinic judge who forces a woman who rebelled to go back to her [abusive] husband is following the law of the Ishmaelites [i.e. Moslems] and should be excommunicated…"

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Naomi Graetz has been teaching English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev since 1974. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God, The Rabbi's Wife Plays at Murder, S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories, and Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating.