Rosh Chodesh Av – Talking About Domestic Violence

Over this past year, with families locked down in their homes and tensions high everywhere, calls to domestic violence hotlines surged.  Abuse was already shockingly […]

Over this past year, with families locked down in their homes and tensions high everywhere, calls to domestic violence hotlines surged. 

Abuse was already shockingly prevalent in the US. And numbers from the Jewish community are the same as the rest of the country. 20% to 30% of Jewish families experience domestic violence.  

This past year, some health care professionals referred to it as a pandemic within a pandemic. 

Many of us prefer not to think about it. It’s too painful, and it’s hard to know how to help anyway. 

But closing our eyes will not make the hurt go away.  We need to talk about it.

Since its Shabbat, l am going to talk about it through the lens of our haftorah.  Today it Rosh Chodesh, the beginning a new Hebrew month. The special haftorah for Rosh Chodesh is from Isaiah chapter 66.  Like so much of the Torah, Isaiah challenges us to see God and the world God created not the way the idealist wishes it would be, but as we humans are ourselves.  Often brutal and ugly, definitely imperfect, but also capable of repair, of love, and of tremendous beauty.

The haftarah includes frightening depictions of God as raging and violent (Isaiah 66:15-16):

כִּי־הִנֵּ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ בָּאֵ֣שׁ יָב֔וֹא וְכַסּוּפָ֖ה מַרְכְּבֹתָ֑יו לְהָשִׁ֤יב בְּחֵמָה֙ אַפּ֔וֹ וְגַעֲרָת֖וֹ בְּלַהֲבֵי־אֵֽשׁ׃ 

See, Adonai is coming with fire— His chariots are like a whirlwind— To vent His anger in fury, His rebuke in flaming fire.

כִּ֤י בָאֵשׁ֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה נִשְׁפָּ֔ט וּבְחַרְבּ֖וֹ אֶת־כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֑ר וְרַבּ֖וּ חַֽלְלֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃ 

For with fire will Adonai contend, With His sword, against all flesh; And many shall be the slain of the LORD.

This kind of imagery is familiar from many of the writings of the prophets.  The prophets saw atrocities all around them, and that violence shaped their concept of God, in whose image men are created. And that image of a violent God in turn shapes western concepts of power and masculinity.  The implicit understanding that to be the one on top, you need to be capable of violence. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. The prophets also understood that God is indescribable. Any metaphor captures only one aspect, and we can choose which aspects to emphasize.  In other words, we can choose our metaphors.  We can decide how we want to understand, based on how we want to understand ourselves, created in the image.

Our haftorah also offers an alternative way to be. Adonai, definitely a masculine God in the prophet’s conception- can still be as nurturing as a mother (66:12-13):

כִּי־כֹ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֗ה

 For thus said Adonai —  and the verb is the masculine form, אמר, not the feminine, אמרה,

הִנְנִ֣י נֹטֶֽה־אֵ֠לֶ֠יהָ כְּנָהָ֨ר שָׁל֜וֹם וּכְנַ֧חַל שׁוֹטֵ֛ף כְּב֥וֹד גּוֹיִ֖ם וִֽינַקְתֶּ֑ם עַל־צַד֙ תִּנָּשֵׂ֔אוּ וְעַל־בִּרְכַּ֖יִם תְּשׇׁעֳשָֽׁעוּ׃  

I will extend to her prosperity like a stream, the wealth of nations like a wadi in flood; And you shall drink of it. You shall be carried on shoulders and dandled upon knees.

כְּאִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִמּ֖וֹ תְּנַחֲמֶ֑נּוּ כֵּ֤ן אָֽנֹכִי֙ אֲנַ֣חֶמְכֶ֔ם וּבִירֽוּשָׁלַ֖͏ִם תְּנֻחָֽמוּ׃

 As a mother comforts her son so I will comfort you; you shall find comfort in Jerusalem.

People of all genders can be abusive.  And people of all genders can be the loving support that helps a friend escape. We all have the raging God and the nurturing God within us, and I want the nurturing one to carry the day.

Many of you are aware of Shalom Bayit, the Bay Area’s organization that’s working to end domestic violence. They have many resources to help us recognize and respond to abuse, and also to support healthy relationships. I am particularly struck by their “Mentsch-Up” group – a community of men that meets twice a month to discuss their experiences, and, in the words of the Mentsch-Up leaders: “unpack male conditioning that no longer serves us.” 

The Mentsch Up group also explores ways to be “true allies.”  This may sound trivial, but it’s not. As well intended as most of us are, often we do not recognize the abuse that is right before our eyes.  

I want to tell you about a woman in the broader Jewish community who is embroiled in a lawsuit with an abusive ex-husband. Let me be clear – he never beat her. Abuse does not have to be physical. There are many ways of diminishing another person so they live in fear. Abuse is any pattern of controlling another person to their own detriment.  It feels like tiptoeing around on eggshells in your home, like you are helpless and isolated, with the other person at the center.  In this case, he belittled with words, constantly putting her down while they were married. He also hid his financial resources from her. And after they separated, he turned their grown children against her with lies. He left her destitute, while he himself held enough money to pay his lawyer $800 an hour to continue to victimize her – now in the courts.

She approached a rabbi looking for emotional support.  I know this rabbi, and he is a mentch. He is generous and well intended.  He told her not to fight back. Try instead to work with a mediator. 

This is exactly the type of response that inspired the name of the organization, “Shalom Bayit.” It means peace in the home – a great Jewish value. And we Jews have a long history of expecting one member of the family to maintain the illusion of peace no matter what the costs to themselves. 

This rabbi didn’t get it that this husband’s behavior was simply abusive.  Abusers are not interested in mediation. They want domination. The rabbi’s response deepend the woman’s feelings of abandonment.  

In reflecting back on that interaction, here’s what the woman wrote to me: 

When people who are in the position to help turn a blind eye to someone’s suffering so as to ‘not rock the boat’, it does not make the abuse go away. Such responses intensify feelings of loss of trust and doubt. Friends’ and acquaintances’ love and caring can restore the wounded back to balance.

Yet responses like this rabbi’s are common, even from people who are usually loving and caring. Why?

For one thing, when a person is living under abuse, or just emerging from it, they are emotionally wounded.  They may not know how to ask for help in an effective way.  I’m not saying it was true of this particular woman, but often victims will seem hysterical, or unreasonable. Sometimes, the things they are claiming just seem unbelievable – who could think a person would do such horrible things? 

The abuser, in the meantime, is often in full control of their emotions. Remember, abuse is all about control. Often, when police are called in for a domestic violence case, the victim will seem out of control, while the aggressor is calm and collected – and the police will arrest the wrong person.  I’d read about this phenomenon for years, and then it actually happened to another family I am involved with. 

Even in cases of severe violence, when there can be no ambiguity about victim and aggressor, still well intended people can fail to be good allies. Stories of abuse are painful to hear, and the temptation is to pressure the victim to get themselves out -NOW.  We do that because we don’t want to see the person suffering anymore.  And, maybe also, we don’t want to SEE the person suffering anymore. It’s hard to hold their pain. Easier to pressure them.  But when we apply that pressure, we are just adding to their stress and isolation.  

The truth is, ending an abusive relationship is dangerous. The abuser wants control, and they will not let their victim go easily.  Whatever pressures the aggressor has been applying, it will only increase when their partner makes plans to leave. 

So a good ally will listen, and hold the person’s pain.  They will believe in them, and trust them to know for themselves when they are ready to leave.  And they will assure them that when they are ready to leave – we will be there for them.  They will not be alone.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av – the first day of the month of Av.  Av is the Jewish month of destruction and loss.  In the beginning, it was the month the Israelites ceded their power. God had promised them – they would be able to conquer the promised land. But when 10 of 12 scouts returned with reports of giants in the land, the people succumbed to self-doubt and were punished to wander 40 years in the desert. That story reverberates through history.  Av is the month that the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple. It is the month the Roman’s destroyed the second Temple. Each brutalized our people – killing, enslaving, and sending the remnant off to wander.

But Av is the lead-in to Elul, the month of repairing ourselves and returning to God, and then to Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. 

It is not possible to fully experience the renewal and celebration of Tishrei, without making it through Av. Prying off the shackles of abuse is hard. It takes courage and resilience.  It takes support from true allies. 

Av must come before Elul and Tishrei. Things have to get worse before they can get better. But if there is one message from the prophets that resonates for all time, it’s the promise that no matter how bad it gets, things will get better.  The call of the prophets is to have faith, to believe that when the time is right, it is worth enduring the hardship, it is worth reaching deep inside to find the strength and push through, so as to emerge on the other side, finally free.  

Shabbat Shalom.