Death and Life are in the Power of the Tongue (Proverbs 18:21)
By Rabbi Lee Wax
“The worst for me was the verbal abuse. Because you can be hit, and then that bruise heals. But verbal abuse is a continual leakage”._ _The words of one courageous woman, having finally reached Jewish Women’s Aid after years of her voice being silenced.
The mention of tsaraat, translated as leprosy, in this week’s parasha reminds me of the long-upheld rabbinic tradition that leprosy is the punishment for lashon ha-ra – gossip. This is based on Bemidbar 12 where Miriam is stricken with leprosy as punishment for gossiping with Aaron about Moses’ wife. Leaving aside the question of why she is punished while Aaron isn’t (!), the episode and its traditional interpretations have led to an entrenched Jewish link between leprosy, women and lashon ha-ra. Despite the beautiful line from Proverbs 31, which forms the Eshet Chayil praise of women “piha potcha b’chochma – her mouth is opened with wisdom”, the rabbinic tradition was that women gossip, their words lack weightiness and their voices should not be heard in public.
Women’s voices and words have been if not silenced, then certainly quietened, in mainstream Judaism for millennia. Like in the wider society, it has essentially been a man’s world. Thankfully we’re blessed in modern times, particularly in the last 30 years, with increasing numbers of women scholars, rabbis, teachers and communal leaders, who can be role models for our young women. (I’m proud to have been only the 13th woman rabbi to be ordained in the UK!).
We have also been blessed in modern Judaism with men who are increasingly willing to challenge old prejudices, and share power and leadership. I will never forget the occasion 25 years ago, when the remarkable liberal Rabbi Dr John Rayner z”l gave the ordination address to two new women rabbis in the year above mine, speaking about the midrash of Miriam’s Well, and publicly apologising for how Jewish tradition had done a great disservice to women by silencing their voices. (It brings tears to my eyes to recall this even now.)
There is, however, one persistent and pernicious kind of hangover from this man’s world. In the area of domestic abuse, women’s voices are still largely silenced. “He told me I’d lose my children if I told anyone. I didn’t tell anyone for 10 years,” is something we commonly hear at Jewish Women’s Aid. “He threatened to kill me if anyone found out.” Abuse can take many forms not just physical, and typically women suffer 35 incidents of abuse before they seek help. In our experience, Jewish women live with it for longer. Women have long believed that their stories would not be believed, or that they would be blamed.
Both within the Jewish world and more widely, the landscape is now changing. When the #MeToo campaign launched last year, and women broke through the embarrassment, humiliation and shame in order to tell their stories, a floodgate opened. Survivors had found their voices – and weren’t going to be silenced again. The paradigm shift across society has felt seismic, especially to those of us involved in Women’s Aid work. Suddenly it is OK to talk openly about everything including gender violence, the gender pay gap, victim-blaming, consent and women in leadership.
At JWA we’ve had unprecedented public communal support against gender violence in the Jewish community, including Masorti Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and Chief Executive Matt Plen who both publicly expressed support. The Board of Deputies and JLC have also provided leadership in asking JWA to offer training and support in countering sexual harassment in the Jewish community.
At JWA we are busier than ever before, with over 100 new referrals in the last quarter. Abuse in the Jewish community has not increased, but more women in abusive relationships find the courage to ask for help. The more people who speak out, who advocate, who stand with us, who refuse to accept gender violence as an inevitable part of society, the more we will be able to help women and children rebuild lives free from abuse.
I have two current personal heroes doing just that. They both happen to be Jewish men. Evan Stark is an academic social worker from New York, who has worked in gender violence for many years, and who has made a huge impact by conceptualising “coercive control”, a key part of domestic abuse — and now a crime. The other is the remarkable Jackson Katz, who works publicly and tirelessly against gender violence, and who maintains that it is not a “women’s issue” but mostly a men’s one. He says this:
“We need more men who have the courage and the strength to stand up and start saying some of this stuff. There are so many men who care deeply about these issues. But caring deeply is not enough. We need more men with the guts, with the courage, with the strength, with the moral integrity to break our complicit silence, and challenge each other, and to stand with women – not against them.”
Psalm 34:14 teaches: “Netzor leshoncha mera, u’sefateicha midaber mirmah– Guard your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from things that are twisted.” When as a community we are able to do that, Time will really be Up for violence against women in the Jewish community.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be experiencing domestic abuse, JWA’s confidential helpline is 0808 801 0500
Rabbi Lee Wax is a member of New North London Synagogue and works full time for Jewish Women’s Aid