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Shalom Bayit - Reclaiming Power in the Face of Abuse

03/14/2022 11:46:18 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

This Shabbat is the sermon campaign for Shalom Bayit.  Shalom Bayit literally means “peace at home”, and it’s the name of the Bay Area’s center for domestic violence prevention within the Jewish community. Each year, Shalom Bayit asks rabbis throughout the Bay Area to address domestic violence, if possible all on a single Shabbat.  It’s not always possible to do it on the date requested –  the truth, is we hesitate when the Shalom Bayit campaign falls on the weekend of a bar- or bat-mitzvah.  

But this year, I looked at whose bat-mitzvah it was, and I thought - this is appropriate. Our bat-mitzvah today is a girl with great inner-strength.  She has power, and has been trained by her parents to develop her power, and - both by her own nature, and by the values expressed at home - she uses her power to support friends who have not yet come into theirs.  

Power.  The ability to control, to make things happen. There’s nothing more glorious than feeling powerful, and using that power to do good. This is the feeling of being created in the image of the divine. 

And there’s nothing more ugly than using your power to cause harm - to bend others to serve your will. 

Most people who work on domestic violence prevention prefer to focus on the abuse of power, rather than on the violence itself. That’s because if the only thing we look for is visible bruises and scars, we might disregard some deeply abusive behaviors.  

I heard a chilling story years ago, when I was living in the Boston area and volunteering for a group there similar to our Shalom Bayit.  A young couple rented a hotel room for their wedding night.  The hotel was a tall building, and their room was on a high floor with a balcony.  After all the excitement of the wedding party, they of course went alone to their hotel room. Soon after they got there, he asked her to come onto the balcony.  I imagine she thought he wanted a quiet, romantic moment together in the night air. But when she stepped outside, he grabbed her, and dangled her upside down off the balcony. He told her that if she ever cheated on him, he would kill her.  Then he pulled her back up to safety.  

The important point of this story is this: he did not cause her physical harm, and he never acted physically violent towards her again. He didn’t have to.  She was so terrified by what he did to her that night, her fear shaped their relationship from then on. She would never dare to cross him, and that put him in control of her.  

The United Nations and the National Domestic Violence Hotline both define domestic violence in the same way: “any pattern of behavior that is used to gain power or control over an intimate partner”. But Shalom Bayit uses a subtly different definition. Their website says: “Domestic violence is an abusive pattern of power and control.”  

Notice, that definition specifies patterns of abusive power, not just any power. I prefer this one, because power in a relationship is not inherently bad. To enter a truly intimate relationship means to give another person power over you. Intimacy is an act of trust. But in a healthy relationship, the power is mutual. You have power over each other, and you can use that power to do wonderful things together.  Sometimes, you might mess up. With the power of intimacy, you might occasionally say or do something deeply hurtful to your partner. But in a healthy relationship of equals, the intention is never to cause pain, and certainly there should never be an intention to control your partner against their own welfare. 

In that sense, Domestic Violence is of a kind with larger scale abuses of power. It’s not power itself that’s the problem, it’s outsized power and the abuse of it.

This Wednesday night, we will be reading the story of Esther. The obvious villain of the story, Haman, is a power-hungry, genocidal maniac. The similarity to Hitler is almost eerie. To some extent he reminds me of Putin as well. 

But did you know that Haman does not appear until chapter 3 of this ten chapter book? 

In our focus on Mordechai and Haman and the would-be genocide, sometimes we lose sight of the bigger power struggle in this book, the one that starts right in chapter one - a struggle about domestic violence. Here, the villain is not Hamah. It’s the king, and in some sense the entire culture. 

In the opening scene, King Achashverosh throws a party for all the men of the kingdom. Queen Vashti throws a separate party for the women. These are drinking parties, and we know that alcohol aggravates any abusive relationship. In a fit of drunkenness, the king calls for the queen to leave her party and come dance in front of all the men.  

לְהַרְא֨וֹת הָֽעַמִּ֤ים וְהַשָּׂרִים֙ אֶת־יׇפְיָ֔הּ

He wants to show all the commoners and the officers her beauty.

It would seem that she is “queen” in name only. She is no partner to this king. In his mind at that moment, she is not even a human being with her own feelings and needs.  She is his possession, and he wants to show her off. 

But Vashti says “no”. And now the king is humiliated, because she dared defy him in front of all the other men. He thought he had control over her, she showed him otherwise. 

The text is not subtle here. One of the king’s advisors says to him right there:

“Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king. She has wronged all the officers and all the people in the kingdom. Because when word gets out of what she did, all of the women will disdain their husbands.”

It does not go well for Vashti. She is removed from her position - it’s a little unclear whether she was executed or just disgraced and banished. And the chapter ends with an official decree going out to all the kingdom, לִהְי֤וֹת כׇּל־אִישׁ֙ שֹׂרֵ֣ר בְּבֵית֔וֹ that “every man should rule his own house.”

King Achashverosh may have been a drunken fool, but he was clearly a powerful and dangerous one. Surely Vashti knew the score.  Where did she find the courage to stand up to him? The midrash suggests that Vashti was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, the great Babylonian Emperor.  In other words, she wasn’t just a pretty face with a nice body. She was royalty, and she knew she had internal worth. Perhaps, also, she was emboldened by the presence of all the other women, sitting with her at her party. 

Vashti’s story holds some important truths for us about domestic violence.  One  - standing up to an abuser requires both tremendous inner strength and moral support from others. Unfortunately, many abusers know this, and may work both to degrade their partner’s confidence and to isolate them from friends and family.

Two - trying to escape a violent relationship is dangerous. When the survivor decides to leave, the abuse will usually get worse before anything can get better. This is something that allies - friends supporting friends in abusive relationships - really need to internalize. It can be frustrating to watch your friend submit to the abuse. But the best way to support your friend is to give them confidence and courage. And that starts with showing trust that THEY - and only they - will know when it's time to leave.

And three - culture matters. In places where men are valued above women, or it is believed to be a man’s right to control his wife, the levels of violence against women are horrifying.  In places where sexual minorities are considered deviants, the violence against LGBT people is unspeakable. Cultures are formed by the people who live them, and that means everyone of us has the power to shift the balance of our culture towards non-violence.

In chapter two of the megillah, the king chooses his new queen. Esther is the opposite of Vashti, emperor’s daughter. Esher is at the bottom of the social ladder, an orphan and a Jew. She is obedient. And in that patriarchal culture, she finds favor in everyone’s eyes - a pretty face, young, a gentle demeanor. 

Interesting fact - How many times does God’s name appear in the megillah? Zero.  And how many times does Moses’s name appear in the  traditional Passover haggadah.  Also zero.

This week, I had an enlightening conversation with Ken Leventhal. We were comparing Putin to Pharaoh, and sharing an awful feeling of powerlessness about what is happening in Ukraine. Ken said in deep frustration: “Moses and Aaron had God fighting for them. We don’t have anyone like that today! No human being can overthrow a Pharaoh.” 

About Pharaoh, Ken is right. That’s explicitly why Moses’s name is not in the traditional Haggadah - to remind us that it was God, not the Jews, who brought down the violence on Egypt.  But I pointed out to Ken that the story also includes quieter acts of courage. There are two midwives, a mother, a sister, and Pharaoh's own daughter who all took great risks when the opportunity presented itself. They could not bring down Pharaoh, but they did save the Jewish people.  

Esther, on the other hand, DID take down Haman. And when Haman’s thugs came after the Jews anyway, she empowered a civilian army to defend themselves. The violence at the end of the megillah reminds me of the Ukrainian men, husbands and fathers – normal people – who are taking up arms because they have no choice.

If God helped Esther in all of this, His hand was invisible. At the critical stages, there wasn’t much any other person could do to help her, either. Yet she knew how important it was that she not feel alone. When Mordecai told her about the edict to kill the Jews, and he tasked her to do something about it, she tasked him right back. Go tell all the Jews to pray and fast for me, she said. There may be nothing practical they can do to help, but their moral support made all the difference.

That moral support empowered Esther, not just to save her people, but also to shift the balance of power in her marriage. The same king who in chapter one declared that all men should rule their households, by the end of the story is ready to do anything Esther asks of him. She figured out how to make it happen. She did it entirely in her own way, on her own time frame. There is, actually, no other way to do it.

Powerlessness is a terrible feeling. But our tradition offers us many models for reclaiming power in the face of abuse.  When it’s your own fight, you have to do it your own way.  When it’s someone else’s fight, remember that they have to do it their own way, but that they cannot do it alone. 

If you are in an abusive relationship, know that you are not alone. I am here for you.  Whether you are a member of CBJ or not, come talk to me. The other CBJ clergy are here for you, too, and so is the staff of Shalom Bayit. Every human being is created in the image of God.  Every human being deserves dignity and inner power.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783