Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben describes why speaking out against domestic violence has been essential to his role as a rabbi and leader, drawing from modern statistics and Talmudic teachings.
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The Talmud teaches, “Be very careful if you make a woman cry, because God counts her tears.” (Bava Metzia 59b)
“It’s not what is learned by heart that counts, but what the heart learns,” wrote Mordecai M. Kaplan in Not So Random Thoughts. There have been many times in my years as a rabbi that congregants have sat with me behind closed doors, told me about their lives, and it broke my heart. So I gave my first sermon on domestic violence in the Jewish community 25 years ago on Yom Kippur 1993. Yet here we are in 2018, and in spite of the attention that #MeToo has garnered, in spite of the multiplicity of domestic-abuse organizations that support victims of domestic abuse, every nine seconds a woman is assaulted in America, and intimate partner violence is still the leading cause of injury to women in America. The National Domestic Abuse hotline received more than 320,000 calls, chats and texts last year, and according to the Center for Disease Control, more than 10 million women experience domestic violence every year.
Of course, domestic violence is not just about physical violence; it is really about power and control. It is the use of emotional, verbal, financial, physical or sexual force to maintain power and control over another human being, in 95 percent of the cases of a man over a woman, although men are certainly victims as well. As long as the myth continues that domestic abuse is something that happens to others—the poor, minorities, other cultures, other religions but not Jews—Jewish victims will continue to suffer in silence and shame.
“I suffered for years,” one of my congregants told me, “as my husband put me down, degraded me, continually made me feel worthless and incompetent, and I kept telling myself it was my fault, and if I could only figure out how to be better, act better, not say things that upset him, everything would be fine and he would stop. Then one day I woke up and realized it wasn’t about me at all and nothing I did would ever change everything—he was simply an abuser and I had to get out.”
Once I became rabbi emeritus of Kehillat Israel, I founded Home Shalom and have been working to raise the consciousness of the Jewish community about the persistence of domestic abuse in our midst. So far, I have brought healthy-relationship workshops as a violence prevention program to nearly 700 teens throughout Los Angeles. I suspect that every act of social justice ultimately is grounded in the famous Talmudic ideal that:
וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא
One who saves one life is counted as if he saved the entire world.
Steven Carr Reuben is Rabbi Emeritus of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, California. He is founder of Home Shalom, a project to address domestic abuse in the Jewish community and author of six books. His latest book, A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion is forthcoming.