The Shame Borne in Silence

Spouse abuse in the Jewish Community

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twelski, MD 

Urim Publications, 2015, 136 pages


While many Jews and non-Jews are convinced that Jewish husbands do not mistreat their wives and are ideal husbands with non-Jewish mothers suggesting to their daughters to marry a Jewish man, this is not entirely true. As Rabbi Dr. Twerski, a psychiatrist, highlights, there is spouse abuse among Jewish husbands, even by men who are very observant of their religion and by men from and in respectable families. Twerski describes the many spouse abuses he encountered and offers his reason for the abuse and the ever-revolving three-part “cyclic theory of violence,” tension, battering, and honeymoon phases. He explains why “You will not change a frog into a prince, nor will you change an abuser into a non-abuser,” the warning behavioral signs of a person who will become an abuser, why wives do not leave their abusive husbands, what the Torah says about this problem, what happens when alcohol is involved, the agunah issue, counseling, therapy, and much more.

The case histories he describes are tragic, but it is interesting to read how men and women react in these terrible situations. Most but not all abuses are committed by husbands, but there are also abuses done by wives. “One of the goals of this book,” Twerski writes, “ is to increase awareness of domestic abuse, so that more professional counselors and rabbis will take seriously the complaints of a woman whose husband is respected and esteemed, and not dismiss it as fantasy.”

My first thought as I began to read this book was that the author would reveal that men abuse women generally and wives in particular because since time immemorial men have considered women as inferior beings, or as one philosopher put it: creatures between animals and men. This attitude, even when held unconsciously, leads to a feeling of superiority, disrespect, and ultimately to a feeling that women should accept and honor the man’s idea – or else. Twerski recognizes this in statements such as: Physical and emotional abuse “occurs in a society that condones it, where male dominance is the norm, and that subsumes male superiority.” “If women will be properly esteemed, then there will be no wife abuse.” “There is no question that in a social system that is male dominated and in which women are disenfranchised in one way or another, the dignity of women may be seriously compromised.”

Yet, despite recognizing that women must be respected, Twerski writes that the “Torah does not posit absolute sameness (between a man and a woman) nor does nature.” The male is expected by the Torah to be the “titular head of the family (but this) was not intended to be a position of power.” A woman’s role is in the home. “If she indeed fulfills her primary role, she is on an equal par with her husband.” Why was the man given the leadership role? “The Torah states that it was a consequence of Eve’s being the first to transgress the Divine word.” It is impossible for a family to share the role of leadership for “management by two coequals is inept and inefficient” in business affairs and at home. “While Halachah assigns different obligations and rules to men and women, nowhere is there anything that justifies tyrannizing women.”

It should be noted that while Twerski repeatedly states that what he is saying is in the Torah, there is no explicit statement in the Torah saying what Twerski claims it says. Also, his statement that women today are punished for Eve’s misdeed, the idea of “original sin” is not Jewish. It was invented by the Christian Saint Augustus of Hippo (354-430), and did not exist before his time. It should also be noted that there seems to be a striking disconnect between Twerski’s recognition that “There is no question that in a social system that is male dominated and in which women are disenfranchised in one way or another, the dignity of women may be seriously compromised” and lead to abuse, and his claim that Judaism is not a culture where there is male dominance.

Among Orthodox Jews, there is the notion that women are not included in all of the biblical commandments; they must be placed in synagogues behind a mechitza, a separation wall, where they are frequently unable to see the service or hear what is transpiring; and the idea that the role of women is in the home to care for her husband and educate her children, although she is disallowed by many Orthodox Jews to have a full Jewish education herself, or even if educated unable to serve as a rabbi or judge, because this is the “assistance role” God gave to half of humanity and this is her “glory.” Despite his words to the contrary, is it possible that Twerski is hinting that this treatment of women contributed inextricably to disrespect and physical abuse of women?