My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column in the Jewish Standard for April 2016:
The Four Questions of Domestic Abuse
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I am 11 years old. I have a younger brother and a sister. My parents fight with each other all the time. My father gets angry. He yells at my mother. When they start to fight, my brother and sister and me go into our room and close the door. We still can hear them fighting. I can tell that sometimes my father hits my mother. I am afraid. I don’t know what to do. Please tell me.
Scared in Bergen County
If this happens again, and you see or think that your father is hitting your mother, go to the phone and dial the police at 911. Tell the police your name, age, and address. Tell them your father is hitting your mother. If your parents have a gun in the house, tell the police. Answer their questions and do what they say you should do. They probably will say that you should go back to your room, close the door, and wait for the police to come to your house.
When the police arrive, they will ask you questions about what happened and why you called them. Tell them everything you remember and tell them how you feel. They will talk to your mother and your father. After they do that, if they feel that your father has calmed down and it is safe for you and your mom, they will leave.
If they think it is not safe, they may arrest your father and take him to the police station. You may feel bad about this. Try not to feel bad. It is for the best for your dad to learn that if he hits your mom, that means that he broke the law. And when a person does that, he can be put in jail.
If that does happen, when your father comes back, he may have learned his lesson and will behave better. Sometimes a person does not learn his lesson. It may be that he will come back even more angry than he was before. If that happens, you may have to call the police again. And you should call. And it may be that you, your brother, your sister, and your mom will have to move out of your house to stay with relatives or someplace else that is safe.
The most important thing is that by acting the right way, by calling the police, you protected yourself, your mom, and your brother and sister from possibly being hurt.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I am married to a man who holds a distinguished position in our community. We have young children. I love and respect my husband very much. He is a learned and witty man. I want to be with him. But he often loses his temper over trivial things and he becomes enraged. At times he becomes so furious that he hits me. I don’t want to leave him. But I can’t let this continue. I don’t know what to do.
Trapped in New Jersey
Listen to me closely. It is never okay for a husband to show anger or hostility towards his wife. Never. It is never okay for a husband to hit his wife. Never. You must realize that many women, if confronted even one time by such behavior, will walk out the door and never look back. Yes, it can be that simple.
But you don’t want to do that. You love this angry and abusive man. You want to be married to him. Your emotions are so strong that they appear to cloud your logic.
If the abuse continues (and that is likely) you need to have a plan with options. If your husband hits you again, know well that is a crime. Plan A may be that you call the police. When a squad car comes up to your front door and neighbors see this, when your husband is interrogated and perhaps arrested, that may shock him into changing his behavior.
Or it may not. If he is unrepentant, you need to have Plan B, an exit strategy, a place to go that is practical and safe. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline ((800) 799-7233; thehotline.org). They will help you devise an escape plan. A local hotline for Jewish women is also available through Project Sarah.
You may be tempted to come up with Plan C, trying to wait out the storm, or praying that your husband will change and be the kind and gentle man that you know he can be. And so you will decide to stay and endure the abuse.
Be vigilant. Be aware that if you follow this last course, you put yourself and your children in danger. You may be attacked again. Your children may suffer psychological damage that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Do you want to take those risks?
Bottom line, my advice is that you resist the temptation to follow Plan C. Try as hard as you can to put aside your turbulent emotions and let logic guide your decisions.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I am 40, married, and have kids. To my family and friends, it looks like I have an ideal marriage. But my wife and I fight all the time. She does so many things that irritate me.
When I was growing up, my parents fought and argued constantly. And I remember at times seeing my grandparents arguing and bickering over trivial little things.
I really lost my cool recently over something that my wife did. I hit her during our argument. It’s not the first time I did this. Later when I calmed down, I felt terrible, as usually is the case. I bought her flowers and candy, and told her how sorry I was and how much I loved her.
I feel like I am on an emotional rollercoaster ride. But I also have thought, this is how marriage is. I recently began to feel like enough already, I must break out of my bad ways of acting. How do I move forward?
Always angry in Town Withheld
As you can see from what I wrote above in response to related questions, your actions are totally outside of the range of acceptable behavior in any community. It may be in fact that in New Jersey, when you strike your wife, you commit a crime for which by law you must be arrested and can be incarcerated. It may be that even through anger and threats (without physical striking) you commit a domestic abuse crime for which you can be punished severely.
Living in a state of anger, rage, and conflict is not a sanctioned way of life for anyone in any community. It also is not healthy for you or for those around you. Medical studies have shown that living with continual rage leads to diseases and raises your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other deleterious illnesses.
By raging at your wife, you create a toxic environment for her and for your children, which also can be injurious to their physical health, and which surely has terrible impacts on their psychological wellbeing.
It is never the case that bickering, fighting, or physical abuse are acceptable expressions of love or tolerable actions between married people. That way of thinking is plainly and simply wrong.
If you are able to realize how badly you have acted, it still won’t be easy for you to change, and you may not succeed. You should seek out help from a therapist or a social worker. Expect to spend multiple sessions working through your primary issues, gaining insights into your worst personality defects, and devising strategies to cope with your most urgent problems.
Whether or not you salvage your marriage and keep your family intact, it is worth the effort for you to pursue this course of action. You need to try to fix what is broken. You need to learn to act in socially acceptable ways and have healthy relationships for your own sake, and for the sake of all those whom you love.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I am a police officer in a local town. I am not Jewish. It happens on occasion that I get called to answer a domestic violence complaint in the home of a Jewish family. I have been trained in all the police protocols for responding to such a call. And thankfully I have been able to intervene most times to cool down the situation and restore the peace in the family and to the community. Now I would like to know if there is something I can say from within your traditions to practicing Jews that will help bring their perspectives back in line and help me more quickly and permanently resolve family quarrels.
Peace Officer in your vicinity
Yes, I am sure there are things you might cite from Jewish traditions to help restore perspectives of squabbling families and keep anger and strife from recurring. You could refer to many teachings from the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud or the midrash, the ethical musar literature, and much more.
These sources concur on the basic principle that the ways of graciousness and the paths of peace are the correct courses of living for all Jews and are at the core of the values of Judaism.
Our traditions teach that a husband must treat his wife with dignity and respect. They also underscore that a Jew must follow the laws of his locale in all ways, including those statutes that prohibit violence and abuse within a marriage or anywhere at large.
But having said that, I don’t recommend that you cite our Judaic teachings or our principles when you are intervening as a police officer in an episode of rage or violence. Your appearance during an incident of a domestic dispute should be guided solely by your professional law enforcement protocols and criteria.
Keep doing what you have been trained to do to defuse the immediate dangers of such entanglements.
And as you no doubt know, a more lasting solution to domestic strife depends on more than a single external intervention, no matter how deftly that is handled. Once you pacify the immediate situation, It’s urgent that close friends, family members, and Jewish community religious or social service professionals follow up. It’s not your responsibility to pursue the follow-up to incidents of domestic abuse.
In the end, a good outcome will depend a great deal on the offending party’s will to change. That’s never easy. It’s surely something you’d like to see, and we all would like to see. But that too is not your job.
Stay focused on the roles of your profession and allow others to do what they can to try to fix, in whatever ways they know, these unfortunate persistent underlying issues in our community.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.