First off, a disclaimer: IT IS NOT OKAY TO BEAT YOUR WIFE. The sources supporting spousal abuse cited below do not reflect the halakha (Jewish law) as it is interpreted today. Now, on to the post.
Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, writing on BeliefNet's blog VirtualTalmud, clumsily raises an intriguing question – what should be done with rabbinic sources, mostly medieval, that condone wife-beating and spousal abuse? He writes:
…[JSafe is] a great organization whose goals are worthy of praise. But to be honest, I would like to see it tackle the elephant sitting in the room. Namely, for every halakhic (according to Jewish law) source the organization cites outlawing wife and child beating and abuse, I can bring one that says the exact opposite. Perhaps the organization has spoken out against Maimonides, the Geonim, Tosaphot and other rabbis who allowed for such sentiments to be halakhically permitted, but I would like to hear it more often and louder. (Perhaps I have not read its literature closely enough and one of our readers can show me where the organization has denounced these sages’ opinions.) The bottom line is halakhic Jews are no more susceptible to this type of behavior than non-Orthodox Jews. But it’s a shanda (shame) when halakhic Jews fail to come to terms with their own traditions and instead “fight” the battle in the most socially disingenuous way blaming it merely on those who are crazy or those who “misread” halakhic sources. In doing so, their complacency or fear of what the observant community might say ends up preventing them from ultimately doing their jobs as communal protectors.…
He links to an article by Naomi Graetz, who writes:
…In Mishnaic and Talmudic literature there is no reference to battered women as a class, and the Talmud does not discuss wifebeating as a distinct category of corporeal damage.…
The list of women deemed worthy of being divorced without receiving their ketubah, ("divorce compensation"), includes the following case: "Abba Saul said: Also that of a wife who curses her husband's parents in his presence [and in his children's presence]. R. Tarfon said: also one who screams." (B. Ketubbot 72a). Although beating is not allowed or even suggested in the case of the screamer, the woman who curses will in later rabbinic texts be repeatedly used as an example of where beating is a justified means to an end.…
In his Mishneh Torah, Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) recommended beating a bad wife as an acceptable form of discipline: "A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod" (Ishut 21:10). …
And these a just a sampling of the texts she lists. Graetz notes that attitudes in Ashkenaz were different, because women had greater freedom and property rights due to the influence of Christian society. She also notes early Ashkenazi responsa, including one from the Maharam mi Rotenburg, recommended forcing a violent husband to grant his wife a get – and, indeed, that was the practice in those times.
Enter the Achronim. Graetz writes:
…Sixteenth century responsa seem to acknowledge that wife-beating is wrong, yet they avoid releasing the woman from a bad marriage. These evasive positions vis-à-vis relief for a beaten wife are part of halakhah and rest on the husband's dominant position in marriage. This is the major halakhic stance today. Domestic abuse is not automatic grounds for Jewish divorce. An abused woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce is considered an agunah, a chained or anchored woman.
Thus, although in modern times there are almost no rabbinic authorities who justify wifebeating for the purpose of education, there are many who still do not allow a forced divorce to free the victim of wifebeating.…
In other words, rabbinic paralysis. Earlier, Graetz noted a creative solution to a recalcitrant abusive husband. Rabbaynu Peretz wrote:
"[O]ne who beats his wife is in the same category as one who beats a stranger [in other words, fully culpable for his actions];" he decreed that "any Jew may be compelled on application [i.e., the request] of his wife or one of her near relatives to undertake by a herem not to beat his wife in anger or cruelty so as to disgrace her, for that is against Jewish practice." If the husband refused to obey, the court could assign her maintenance according to her station and according to the custom of the place where she dwells.
In other words, to quote Blu Greenberg, where there is a rabbinic will there is a rabbinic way. That there are today many agunot (women unable to marry or have a sexual relationship with a male) because abusive, violent or simply evil husbands refuse to grant a get says far more about the quality of today's rabbis than it does about anything else.
We are worse than a leaderless generation – what we are is a generation with truly evil, truly incompetent, truly uncaring rabbis, men who care far more about their own position and honor (and that of their rabbinic cronies) than they do about the real suffering of women and children.
I could argue this is not God's Judaism. I could also argue it is, that God enabled this system and these rabbis, and that God is ultimately responsible for their cruelty. I'm not sure which scenario is correct, and I'm open to your suggestions for which one is.
So, what should we do with a Rambam that permits and even encourages wife-beating? Do we denounce it? Should rabbis issue proclamations stating that the halakha does not follow the Rambam and the others who permitted and often encouraged wife-beating?
I think rabbis should do this. In this time of rampant rabbinic man-on-boy sex abuse and other such crimes, we need a clearly stated zero tolerance policy for abuse of all kinds. It is a worthy project for Agudath Israel of America and the RCA both, along with other rabbinic groupings. Perhaps you should suggest this to your rabbi the next time you see him.