A recent conference call provided anonymous listeners with answers to the delicate question “Does the Mizbeach Cry When an Abusive Marriage Ends?”
The call was co-hosted by the Sholom Bayis Taskforce, Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and the Adai Ad organization.
Yiddishkeit emphasizes the importance of intact families and encourages working on the marriage. Yet, there are some people in terribly abusive marriages for which divorce is the only option, but it is always the last resort after all else has been tried.
None of these people make this decision lightly. Mrs. Devora Krasnianski, organizer and moderator of the call, explained the inspiration behind this call.
“I’ve spoken to several women who lamented that they stayed for years in their intolerable marriage because people told them that the Torah frowns on divorce and the Mizbeach cries. It is time that people truly understand that piece of Gemara and the Torah’s view on divorce, in certain circumstances. Based on the numbers of participants on the call – over 300 – we see that this topic is on the mind of many.”
On this conference call, renowned teacher Rabbi YY Jacobson shed much light on the issue of divorce in Judaism. After the call, many listeners reached out with gratitude for Rabbi Jacobson’s strong words of validation of their plight, clarity into the Torah’s views, and practical advice.
We try to do anything to sustain a marriage. Divorce is not an option that we embrace initially or easily. Judaism is opposed to creating a culture of divorce. Divorce is sad. It is like an amputation. You do not do it unless there is no other option. Sometimes it is necessary to save the life. The same Torah that tells us the value of a marriage also legislates divorce. Is divorce immoral? Absolutely not! Sometimes it is the most moral thing you can do for yourself and your children.
Rabbi Jacobson stressed: It is very unfair and unjust to make a man or woman in an abusive marriage feel guilty that their thoughts about leaving the marriage are against Torah. When living with fear and walking on eggshells all the time, we are a dealing with a serious situation. You can’t tell someone to just endure it. If you don’t know what people are going through, don’t give advice. Just be quiet! Be empathetic. Be understanding.
With real empathy to the plight of these abused women and with disgust for the vindictiveness of the abuser, Rabbi Jacobson cried about the disgrace that so many people in our communities cover up for abusers. When a woman is suffering, it should be the pain of the entire Jewish people. Shame on all people who cover up for perpetrators and abusers. They allow victims to suffer for years. If he is cruel to his wife, people should go over to him in Shul and call him out on it. He shouldn’t be getting aliyahs and other honors.
“It is one thing to disagree with your spouse. It is one think to get into a fight with your husband or wife. But inhumane cruelty? This must never be tolerated,” Jacobson said.
Throughout the talk, Rabbi Jacobson described what abuse really is. Being in an abusive relationship means constant fear, misery, and agony in the relationship. There’s no happiness in the house. Everybody deserves to live a happy life. No one should be living in a marriage where the atmosphere is always tense, blaming, no trust, and agony, filled with malicious and vindictive behavior. If the parties involved are ready to take accountability for their vice and seek help and act on it, that is awesome. Such marriages can become meaningful and wholesome. But when there are denial and blame, no honesty and accountability, and no willingness to work on yourself, it becomes a nightmare.
When there is an addiction, there is no authenticity and there cannot be a real relationship. If there is an addiction, the spouse must not become an enabler. The addict must go into recovery. Empathy is very different from enabling. Don’t enable in the name of empathy.
Mental illness is not the fault of the person suffering. But they must be willing to take accountability and deal with it. The spouse must learn about the illness and know the boundaries of where you can support and where you must create boundaries. Should one stay in a marriage with mental illness? That is something each person must decide. There are those who remain in such a marriage; they are unique and special people, and at times, there is a special beauty and love in such a marriage. These people are from the noblest and dedicated people you will find on the planet. Yet they love each other, and they learn how to deal with the challenge that Hashem has given this person.
Can an abusive marriage be saved? If the one with the problem – mental illness, abusive tendencies, addiction – acknowledges the struggle and sincerely works to correct the situation, then perhaps the marriage can be salvaged. However, if they don’t get the help, it can be a very tough situation.
With that background, Rabbi Jacobson explored the famous Gemara in Gittin, 90b: (Talking about the husband) “With regard to anyone who divorces his first wife, even the altar sheds tears for him,” quoting the prophet Malachi 2:13-14: “And this further you do: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping, and with sighing, insomuch that He does not regard the offering any more, nor does He receive it with goodwill from your hand. Yet you say: What for? Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and the wife of your covenant.” In short: You have betrayed your wife – she is your friend and the wife of your covenant, but you have betrayed her. And that is why the altar cries.
Metzudas Dovid explains this posuk: The women were crying because of their shame, abuse and lack of dignity. And when the women cry, the altar cries.
Rashi explains: The women say to the altar ‘What iniquity has our husband found in us to treat us in such a derogatory fashion?’ and hence the altar cries.
The whole point of this Gemara and verse in Malachi is: There are some women hurt so badly and they cry, and therefore the altar cries.
To the comment that every situation is from Hashem and Hashem only gives what we can handle, Rabbi Jacobson said: We do not always know exactly what Hashem wants in a particular situation. He wants us always to work hard on our marriage and try to make it work. But sometimes G-d’s will is to get out of the situation. How does anyone know that G-d wants me to stay in the marriage? If G-d wanted people to stay in an abusive marriage, why does He include the concept of Gittin in the Torah?
Rabbi Jacobson then spoke directly to those in abusive relationships, some points to the abused and some to the abuser:
– Often, you will get foolish advice from people who are clueless. Learn not to take all advice seriously. It is important to speak to people. But people who are empathetic and knowledgeable.
– You need to speak to top experts in the areas you are dealing with.
– Divorce is difficult. But it is an option to consider in certain situations. Divorce should not be decided impulsively. You need to have get very sound advice and follow also your gut.
– Consider the pros and cons. Objectively, from a place of strength, not weakness. Talk with experts. Know what is available to you – legally, mentally, emotionally, financially. Be informed. Read books on your struggles. Become educated. So you can make decisions from a place of empowerment. Evaluate your future from a place of power. Find out what legal powers you have.
– Don’t get into ego struggles. It is more important for you to be happy than to be right.
– Don’t always think about social pressure. Listen to your own voice, and don’t get affected by what others will say. When we give into social conformity, we abuse ourselves even more. Don’t betray your own emotions.
– Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Do things that nurture your body, mind and soul. You need to give yourself to deal with your challenges. Don’t become a shmatte (rag).
– If getting divorced, do it amicably. The children suffer terribly from the animosity in an ugly divorce. It is such a tragedy when friends and families instead of encouraging amicability, justify heinous behavior.
– Stop torturing your spouse after you are getting a divorce. Let it go! Move on! Let everybody move on.