The King's Gardeners Ministries

Reverend S. L. Gardner

Spokane Valley, Washington U.S.

 

- The Issue of Abuse -

Responsa on Wife Abuse

This section provides historical responsa that explore questions about wife abuse that were brought to the attention of rabbis, and how the issue was dealt with. A responsum is a written answer by an outstanding talmudic scholar to a query of a legal or religious nature put to him in writing. The biblical principles stated here cross all religious boundaries as the Christian faith is rooted in the Hebraic faith.

Because abuse is traditionally a misunderstood issue in the Christian community and has been hooked so tightly with errors in teaching of submission these responsas are presented as evidence that abuse is not an acceptable thing under any circumstances and it is the abusers responsiblity to bring peace to the situation by repentance.
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Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg
One noted authority who has brought down important responsa regarding wife abuse is Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg (Germany) who lived in the thirteenth century. His responsa have been cited in recent studies and articles that address Jewish domestic abuse and are probably the most famous. In fact, it would not be incorrect to assume that many present day rabbis refer those who come to them for assistance in resolving wife abuse cases to the responsa of Rabbi Meir. The following responsa will demonstrate that Rabbi Meir was an expert on Jewish theology (e.g., Talmudic laws), and his carefully selected words carry with them the vested requirement of compliance on the part of the abuser.

Responsum 1
Question: A often beats his wife. She begged him to promise not to beat her anymore, but he refused to make any such promise. Even when she appeared in the synagogue to demand that A pay the debts she had contracted in order to pay for her sustenance that occurred during a period of separation, A stubbornly refused to promise that in the future he would refrain from beating her. How can this situation be resolved?
Rabbi Meir's Answer: "A must pay for his wife's sustenance since by his action he has shown that he had not decided to desist from his shameful practice. One deserves greater punishment for striking his wife than for striking another person, for he is enjoined to respect her. Far be it from a Jew to do such a thing. Had a similar case come before us we should hasten to excommunicate him. Thus, R. Paltoi Gaon [from the Talmud], rules that a husband who constantly quarrels with his wife must remove the causes of such quarrels, if possible, or separate and pay her the ketubah ["marriage contract"]; how much more must a husband be punished, who not only quarrels but actually beats his wife. A must stop beating his wife at once" (#298, pp. 326-327).

Responsum 2
Question: A often strikes his wife. A's aunt, who lives at his home, is usually the cause of their arguments, and adds to the vexation and annoyance of his wife. How can this situation be meliorated?
Rabbi Meir's Answer: "A Jew must honor his wife more than he honors himself. If one strikes one's wife, one should be punished more severely than for striking another person. For one is enjoined to honor one's wife but is not enjoined to honor the other person. Therefore, A must force his aunt to leave his house, and must promise to treat his wife honorably. If he persists in striking her, he should be excommunicated, lashed, and suffer the severest punishments, even to the extent of amputating his arm. If his wife is willing to accept a legal separation, he must separate from her and pay her the ketubah ["marriage contract"]" (#297, p. 326).

Responsum 3
Question: A says that he was on good terms with his wife when she went to her mother's home for her baby to be delivered, and that as now she refuses to return to him, somebody must have persuaded her to rebel against him. He, therefore, demands that his wife resume her marital duties. The trustee of A's wife states that A used to beat his wife, even during her menstruation period, and that he caused her so much pain and humiliation that he became repulsive to her. How can the parties resolve this dispute?
Rabbi Meir's Answer: "A's wife cannot be compelled to live with A, even though she had children with him (we cannot force anyone to live with a snake), nor can A be forced to divorce her. They are to remain apart until either A's wife consents to resume her marital duties, or A consents to divorce her. Meanwhile, A must return to his wife whatever is left of her dowry" (#312, p. 338).
It should be clear that Jewish law and tradition are embedded in Rabbi Meir's words. "Far be it from a Jew to do such a thing" represents the Jewish community's belief that only Gentiles beat their wives. In addition, Rabbi Meir outlines the relevant Jewish theology regarding the relationship between a husband and his wife: "A Jew[ish husband] must honor his wife more than he honors himself." Also, if a husband harms his wife, he is required to pay her for the damages (i.e., provide recompense). Of noteworthy importance is the fact that Rabbi Meir, in responsum 2, calls for the amputation of the defendant's arm if he fails to halt his abusive behavior; this point not only demonstrates the extent to which wife abuse is shunned upon in Jewish theology, but the weight that is carried by the words and recommendations of a rabbi. Of course, whether or not a Jew is able to completely fulfill the ruling of a rabbi depends upon the surrounding society; for example, in America a rabbi cannot order a wife beater's arm to be amputated.

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Rabbi Simcha ben Samuel of Speyer

Another important rabbi who brought down responsa of precedence is Rabbi Simcha ben Samuel of Speyer (Germany), who lived in the thirteenth century. Like Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Simcha takes a harsh stance against husbands who beat their wives.

Responsum 1
In response to wife beating: "It is an accepted view that we have to treat a man who beats his wife more severely than we treat a man who beats a fellowman, since he is not obligated to honor him, but is obligated to honor his wife more than himself. And a man who does this should be put under a ban and excommunicated and flogged and punished with various forms of torment; one could even cut off his hand if he is accustomed to it [wife beating]. And if he wants to divorce her let him divorce her and give her the ketubah ["marriage contract"] payment.
You should impose peace between them and if the husband does not fulfill his part in maintaining the peace, but rather continues to beat her and denigrate her, let him be excommunicated and let him be forced by Gentile authorities to give her a get . . ." (Bet Yosef, Even HaEzer 154:15).


Responsum 2
In regards to the penalty for wife beating: "Therefore penalize him [the wife beater] severely, whether physically or financially, for what has happened. Great repentance is necessary, and deal severely with him in the future as you see fit" (Or Zarua, Piskei Baba Kama, sec. 161).

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Solomon Luria
As a third example of wife beating responsa, there is the responsum of Solomon Luria (who lived during the sixteenth century, a few hundred years after Rabbis Meir and Simcha). He is a well-known commentator on the Talmud. Luria, like Rabbis Meir and Simcha, claims that wife beating may bring up issues of compelled divorce upon a couple.

Responsum
Question: "Is repugnance sufficient grounds to force a husband to give his wife a get ["bill of divorce"]?"
Luria's Answer: "The husband cannot be compelled to grant her a bill of divorce on the ground of repugnance caused by his drunkenness and visiting Gentile saloons. Were he even to become a convert, he could not be forced to divorce her.

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Again, the rabbis did not treat cases of wife abuse lightly. As responsum 2 of Rabbi Simcha shows, the wife beater should be severely punished for his actions. Rabbi Simcha even accepts the punishment of amputating the hand of the batterer, like Rabbi Meir. Clearly, the reactions of rabbis to cases of wife abuse was to call for immediate halting of the abuse.

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Moreover, historically, many rabbis opposed ruling in favor of imposing a divorce on a husband for wife beating. For example, if the husband did not beat his wife on a regular basis, or just one instance occurred, the dominant opinion among the rabbis was that divorce could not be imposed upon an abusive husband. However, if it could be demonstrated that a husbands actions presented a direct threat to the life of his wife, most rabbis then agreed that imposing a get of separation was the best route.


Despite all of the references to recommending that an abusive husband be separated from his wife, the rabbis and Jews of today predominantly emphasize that staying married is preferable over getting divorced. The Talmud states: "Any man who has no wife is no proper man" (Yevamoth 63a). As an example of this viewpoint, Norman Linzer, a Conservative rabbi, notes that if a couple [or individual] approaches a rabbi with a complex problem [e.g., wife abuse], and he or she does not feel qualified to deal with the problem, he or she should refer that couple [or individual] to a marriage counselor who " . . . stands for marriage and believes that singlehood and personal freedom and doing one's own thing are not preferable to the fulfillment that comes from an intimate marital relationship". Also, Rabbi Linzer comments that the Jews of today are often attracted to modern secular values (e.g., sexuality, singlehood), hence, rabbis need ". . . to find ways to translate Jewish tradition [that is, the importance of marriage] into a language that speaks to them" [See: Linzer, N. (1986). Institution and choice: The rabbi as marriage counselor. Conservative Judaism, 38, 80-86].

Last, it is no secret that marriage lies at the very core of a Jewish individual's identity, sense of fulfillment, and perceived self-worth. This phenomenon appears to be the case to a greater or lesser degree across the full spectrum of Jewish religious affiliations, especially among Orthodox Jews. Hence, it would be expected that rabbis would urge a couple to remain married over getting divorced, and that this expectation would be proportional to their level of traditionalism. [See: Levitz, I. N. (1992). The impact of the marriage imperative on Jewish life. Journal of Psychology and Judaism, 16, 109-121].

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