Clergy should speak out on spouse abuse

July 13, 1994|By Blu Greenberg

ON MY first visit to a women's shelter, in 1985, I listened to the stories and looked closely at the arms and legs of Yardena, who had just arrived.

Shock 1: That anyone would beat such a tiny woman, kicking her a dozen times.

Shock 2: That Yardena had gone back to her husband after he knocked out one of her front teeth two years earlier.

Shock 3: That her mother told her, "I survived it; you'll get through it."

Shock 4: That her father said, "There'll be no divorce dishonor in our family."

Shock 5: That she still had enough self-esteem to go see the rabbi about getting a divorce.

Shock 6: That the rabbi said, "He's promised he'll never again lift a hand to you. Go home for the sake of "shalom bayit" -- household harmony.

Shock 7: That her three small, wide-eyed children, at the shelter with her, seemed to know everything.

It also came as a shock to me that a Jewish husband could do this.

Jews have a low incidence of abuse. A law against wife battering has been on our sacred books for more than 1,000 years.

Still, no community is immune to this scourge.

One reason many women do revolving-door stints in shelters -- or never show up at all -- is that the authority figures in their lives do not adequately support them.

In some cases the victim denies the problem, even to her own parents. But in others the parents themselves have a history of domestic violence.

In fact, this is one of the most powerful indicators of future violence: Witnessing abuse in your home while growing up, makes you more likely to repeat it as an adult.

If a battered woman can't go to her parents, what about the clergy, which is overwhelmingly silent on this issue?

Why are there rarely more than passing references to domestic abuse on the agendas of annual clergy conventions or in the indexes of ministry journals?

Some of the resistance is understandable. All religions have a vested interest in the stability of the family -- and resolving such a crisis may mean breaking up a family.

Religious leaders are already on overload, so why not let women's groups handle this one?

Yet if there is anything unique about religion and its messengers, is that they are responsible for the transmission of values across generations. So despite the weariness, despite the unease of the good people in the pews, the clergy has a big job to do in breaking the chain of domestic violence.

Here are some practical tasks:

At least once a year -- preferably during October, which is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month -- every rabbi, imam, minister and priest should devote a sermon to the subject.

It should stress that domestic abuse is a crime against God and humanity; that a man or woman who resorts to violence is guilty and that the abused is innocent of complicity -- undermining those who say or imply, "You must have done something to deserve it."

It should also stress that victims can find a sympathetic ear at their place of worship -- not necessarily counsel, for that is best left to professionals in the field.

The sermon should also include practical information, such as how to recognize signs of abuse and how to encourage a victim to seek help.

Hearing these things from a respected religious leader might encourage family, friends and neighbors to come in from the sidelines.

To perform this role, religious leaders will have to become more knowledgeable. Perhaps the best way is to visit women in shelters, with the same regularity and dedication as they visit any other shut-in or imperiled group.

L Clergy members could also help battered wives in other ways.

Many women who stay with or return to abusive husbands do so not because they want to but because they feel they have no choice. They are jobless, dependent and worried about the welfare of their children.

Finally, and perhaps most important in breaking the abusive cycle in families, is educating the young. Religious leaders often carry great influence not only in parochial schools but also through community school boards.

Children vitally need explicit instruction to know what is tolerable and what is not; what to do if they should witness physical violence at home, and what not to do or expect when they become adults.

No one group in society can solve a problem that is as old as the biblical curse expelling Adam and Eve from Eden: "and he shall rule over you . . ."

But religious leaders pulling together with social activists, legislatures and law-enforcement groups could surely give a better chance to women who are at risk of abuse.

Perhaps the first step is for Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to recognize that the safety of women in their own homes is as important an issue as whether women should serve as priests, recite blessings over the Torah or wear the chador.

Blu Greenberg is author of "On Women and Judaism."

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