Monday, September 06, 1993

Sermon on Jewish Domestic Violence

Sermon on Jewish Domestic Violence

Educating Ourselves About Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community (September, 1993)
Rabbi Moshe Re'em

There is a public aspect to synagogue services on the High Holidays that is sometimes overlooked in the process of focusing on the need for individual repentance. We spend a great deal of time concentrating on self-improvement. This, of course, is very important and necessary for the process of Tikkun Olam, correcting that which is in need of improvement in the world. If we want to improve the world, first we must begin with ourselves.

Equally important, however, is the need to reflect on our responsibility as a Jewish community. As the Talmud teaches: "All Israelites are responsible for one another" (which is interpreted to mean that we are bound to prevent wrongdoing). In fact, the list of sins that we recite in the Al Chet prayer (the Long Confessional) on Yom Kippur appears in the plural form. We recite them publicly and as a community. Whether we actually committed the particular offense or not, we recite the long list as a whole. Thus, it is perfectly natural for us to reflect on ways in which we can help one another within the Jewish community as we begin a new year.

In his twelfth century law code, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides outlines three stages of repentance. The first stage involves forsaking the sin from your thoughts, regretting the fact that you committed that sin. This first stage is based on a recognition that the individual has of having had committed a sin. Too often as a community, we fail to even recognize that there is a problem. How often do we, as a community, face up to the fact that domestic abuse occurs in our midst? How often do we try to deny the fact that those ills which plague society in general affect individual Jews as well? Child abuse, partner abuse, and wife beating are sad realities of American society as a whole. It is a sad reality for Jewish families also. Our first obligation in rectifying the situation is facing up to the fact that it happens in Jewish families as well.

An ancient rabbinic homily applies the first Hebrew letters of each word in the verse from Song of Songs (6:3), "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine," to the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. The Jewish mystical tradition interprets the Song of Songs allegorically as a dialogue between G-d and the people of Israel. Thus, the reference to G-d's special relationship with Israel is meant to serve as a source of optimism that all will go well with Israel in the year to come. But what if one concentrates on the peshat, the contextual meaning of the Song of Songs? What if one reads the book as a marvelous collection of love poetry between a man and a woman? What significance, then, does that have for the preparatory message conveyed by the rabbis?
I think the message is quite clear. The month prior to the High Holidays, we are called upon to examine our personal relationships. Are there sins that we commit as individuals in private? Will another year of pain and physical abuse pass without dealing with some very serious issues? As a community, will another year pass without confronting these problems? The first step that we must take is one of recognizing that a problem exists. It is a process of educating ourselves and helping those who are dear to us who need help.

This year, Jewish Social Services [of Madison] has taken the first step in addressing the issue of domestic violence. They will begin by focusing on partner abuse in the Jewish community. Please try to make a mental note that when you read about an important lecture that will be taking place on partner abuse that we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to become educated, to know how to identify abuse, to recognize it's signs, and to know who to contact and how to proceed. We owe that much to those we care about and love.

"All Israelites are responsible to one another," says the Talmud. We have a responsibility to our community. Let us share in that responsibility, and let us hope that in the process, during the coming year, the world in which we live will be at least a fraction more livable for those who currently suffer.
May all of you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy and healthy New Year.
Shanna Tovah!

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