A Journey Towards Freedom: A Haggadah for Women Who have Experienced Domestic Violence

Rabbi Lisa Gelber

Publisher: FaithTrust Institute

Journey Towards Freedom transforms the traditional Passover Seder into a special service that addresses the oppression and liberation of women journeying from abuse to safety. An ideal resource for congregations, community groups and domestic violence organizations, and as a supplement to any Passover Haggadah.

From the Author:

Shhh! Don’t say that. Domestic abuse doesn’t happen in respectable Jewish homes. There must be some misunderstanding. Don’t read into things. If he didn’t hit her, how is that abuse? Jewish women know better than to get trapped in that kind of situation. Jewish men — knowledgeable, professional Jewish men — don’t abuse their wives.

Does this sound familiar? Has anyone ever said anything like this to you? Maybe you’ve even used similar words to explain away an uncomfortable or disturbing encounter to someone else, or even yourself. Perhaps you really believe that domestic violence just isn’t a Jewish phenomenon. Unfortunately, as Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski writes in The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community, “Abuse is non-discriminating, and may occur where it is least expected.”

The myth that Jewish families are, by nature, stable, loving, and immune to abuse, stems, in part, from the traditional Jewish understanding of marriage. The Jewish marriage ceremony is called kiddushin, sanctification. At the time of this union, the bride and groom stand beneath the huppah, a flimsy roof whose walls are noticeably absent, an important allusion to the doorways the couple will establish together to invite people into their lives. Under the huppah, they enter into a relationship that is to be holy, sacred, set apart before God. Through shared cups of wine, and the acknowledgement of their place in the larger story of our people, the couple embraces the framework of a relationship marked by mutual respect. This expectation of holiness reflects the opening chapters of the book of Bereshit, in which the Torah reminds us that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.

Such a ceremony — at so significant a time in the lives of two individuals, their families, friends, and community — offers a vision of hope for the future, not the sense of isolation and fear known to so many victims of domestic violence. When God creates Eve as a “help-meet” for Adam, she is designated as an ezer k’negdo, someone who will challenge him, a partner equivalent in mind, body, and spirit. These messages from our tradition make it difficult for some to accept the existence of spousal abuse among ostensibly well-respected, well-mannered Jewish men and strong, independent women. Yet, just because we teach and practice certain values and norms does not mean that these lessons are uniformly integrated into people’s lives.

Abusers range in educational, social and economic background. Typically, an abuser needs control of others since it is others, he maintains, who want control of his life. Most have difficulty resolving conflict and are quick to blame others for life’s disappointments. Clearly, the lines of abuse cannot be drawn along religious affiliation.

The focus of our classical Jewish sources on the challenges, and sometimes inappropriate behavior and relationships, between husband and wife suggests the existence of spousal abuse as an articulated issue within the Jewish community, and indicates the pressing need for the rabbis to address and condemn this illness in their society. The Talmud teaches, “R. Helbo said, ‘Be careful about the honor of your wife because blessing enters the house only because of your wife’” (Baba Metzia 59a). Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (13th century, Germany) maintains, “A Jew must honor his wife more than he honors himself. If one strikes his wife, one should be punished more severely than for striking another person, for one is enjoined to honor one’s wife, but one is not enjoined to honor another” (Responsa, Even HaEzer 297).

Despite the instruction of our textual tradition, statistics, newspaper articles, obituaries, and the nightly news all remind us that there is much work to be done to increase awareness about domestic violence in the Jewish community. Some cities have initiated studies or needs assessment projects, but research is not enough.

We must change our attitude towards victims of domestic violence. Too many times, women have come to me quietly, embarrassed, to share stories of family, friends, and even clergy who instructed them to endure intolerable circumstances for the sake of shalom bayit, peace within the home. Such advice is inexcusable. True peace requires respect, not humiliation; support, not degradation; wholeness, not fragmentation.

We must acknowledge spousal abuse not only as physical violence but as verbal assault as well. Like physical violence, constant, unprovoked verbal oppression, comments like “How could anyone like you?” “What are you, stupid?” “I know you blame me; you were only pretending to be supportive,” are offenses against the Jewish tradition. The Torah cites ona’at devarim, oppression by means of words, as a negative, biblical commandment. The Talmud attests that verbal abuse is more serious an offense than financial deception. Financial misappropriation may be returned; verbal mistreatment can never be taken back.

We must educate our community. Rabbis, professional educators, youth workers, and lay leaders must become knowledgeable themselves and reach out to all arms of the community. Every Jewish teen and adult must have the opportunity to participate in an age-appropriate education and worship experience designed to raise awareness and illuminate the problem of domestic violence. We must pledge to begin our work with statements of validation and not remarks of belittlement like “Shhh. Don’t say that.”

We must dedicate ourselves to the development of solutions to the problems of fear and abuse in the Jewish community. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we learn, “When deeds exceed wisdom, wisdom endures; when wisdom exceeds deeds, it does not endure” (3:12). The Conservative Movement, among other denominations in Judaism, has passed resolutions regarding active involvement in the fight against domestic violence. These decisions must not remain on paper. Knowledge must lead to action. As Jews, we must take responsibility for all members of our community, helping those in abusive homes to find shelter, both physical safety and spiritual comfort.

Communities across the country have found creative ways of offering support and healing to victims and survivors of domestic violence, and to reintroducing the gifts available within our Jewish community and tradition. Healing services, mikvah ceremonies, monthly gatherings to mark the renewal of the moon, all take place within the context of safety, community, and kedushah. As Ruz Gulko, a co-facilitator of a Rosh Hodesh group in Seattle, comments, “There is something very special about holding the ceremonies in a synagogue, as many of the women have purposely distanced themselves from Jewish religious institutions….The power of witnessing for each other (in this context) is enormous.”

Another appropriate venue for healing within the framework of our Jewish calendar and experience is the Passover seder. More and more each year, battered women gather to tell the story of their exodus from Egypt and journey into the future. As a narrative experience, the seder provides an important opportunity to help survivors find their voice, to validate the authenticity of their experiences, to provide connections that lessen the isolation caused by domestic violence, and to demonstrate the empathetic and compassionate nature and presence of Jewish community.

As The Journey Towards Freedom: A Haggadah for Women Who Have Experienced Domestic Violence (Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, summer 2003) proclaims, “In the telling of both our personal and communal journey from oppression towards freedom, we create a community that affirms the participation of us all in the movement towards the Promised Land. In this celebration of spiritual strength, hope, and community, healing becomes possible.”

Our Jewish tradition is filled with the language, text, and ritual tools to acknowledge pain and provide healing. It is our responsibility to find the time and the space to make these available to those whose burden of life’s experience and circumstance has unfairly placed them on the margins of our community. By broadening the scope of our Jewish community to embrace those who have suffered abuse, by encouraging women to accept comfort from our tradition and find their voice within our people, and by illuminating the connections between our story as a Jewish people and the experiences of those who have suffered abuse, we raise the level of kedushah in the world, mending broken hearts and healing wounded souls.

Rabbi Lisa Gelber is an Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the co-creator of A Journey Towards Freedom: A Haggadah for Women Who have Experienced Domestic Violence (Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence).

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