Domestic Violence in Jewish Law

How Judaism views wifebeating.

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Medieval Attitudes in Ashkenaz

The responsa from twelfth and thirteenth France and Germanyreflect a Jewish society in which women held high social and economic status and therefore most reject wife beating without any qualifications. This attitude is reflected in a proposed takkanah (regulation supplementing the Talmudic halakhah) of R. Peretz b. Elijah who believed that "one who beats his wife is in the same category as one who beats a stranger;"  he decreed that "any Jew may be compelled on application of his wife or one of her near relatives to undertake by a herem not to beat his wife in anger or cruelty so as to disgrace her, for that is against Jewish practice." If the husband refused to obey, the court could assign her maintenance according to her station and according to the custom of the place where she dwells. It is not clear whether this takkanah ever received serious consideration.

Some Ashkenazi rabbis considered battering as grounds for forcing a man to give a get. Rabbi Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg (Maharam, c.1215–1293) and R. Simhah b. Samuel of Speyer (d. 1225–1230) wrote that a man has to honor his wife more than himself and that is why his wife and not his fellow man should be his greater concern. R. Simhah argued that like Eve, "the mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20), a wife is given to a man for living, not for suffering. She trusts him and thus it is worse if he hits her than if he hits a stranger. R. Simhah lists all the possible sanctions. If these are of no avail, he not only recommends a compelled divorce, but allows one that is forced on the husband by gentile authorities.

This is highly unusual since rabbis (even today) rarely endorse forcing a man to divorce his wife and it is even rarer to suggest that the non-Jewish community adjudicate internal Jewish affairs. Although many Ashkenazi rabbis quoted his opinions with approval, they were overturned by most authorities in later generations, starting with R. Israel b. Petahiah Isserlein (1390–1460) and R. David b. Solomon Ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz, 1479–1573). In his responsum, Radbaz wrote that R. Simhah "exaggerated on the measures to be taken when writing that [the wifebeater] should be forced by non-Jews (akum) to divorce his wife ... because [if she remarries] this could result in the offspring [of the illegal marriage, according to Radbaz] being declared illegitimate (mamzer)" (part 4, 157).

Pre-modern and Modern

Sixteenth century responsa seem to acknowledge that wife-beating is wrong, yet they avoid releasing the woman from a bad marriage. These evasive positions vis-à-vis relief for a beaten wife are part of halakhah and rest on the husband's dominant position in marriage. This is the major halakhic stance today. Domestic abuse is not automatic grounds for Jewish divorce. An abused woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce is considered an agunah, a chained or anchored woman.

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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.